Among the 33 best auctioneers in the world gathered in Oklahoma City, Okla., this past June for the World Livestock Championship was Andrew McDowell, son of Mulberry Grove auctioneer, Alva R. McDowell, and his wife, Linda.
Described as “the toughest, most prestigious contest of its kind in the world,” this was not Andrew’s first world championship.
Andrew learned the auctioneer’s chant at his father’s knee, so to speak. While still a teenager, he attended Missouri Auction School, considered “the Harvard of auctioneering” by Newsweek magazine.
Taken from the Latin augere, which means "to increase" or "augment," the practice of auctioneering can be traced back to 500 B.C.
One early practice in 17th century England to sell goods and leaseholds was to light a candle, after which bids were offered in ascending order until the candle sputtered. The high bid at the time the candle extinguished itself won the auction.
In early probate records of Fayette County, where goods were sold following a death, the auctioneer had the title of "crier." Three men were appointed to set the price of tangible goods from the estate, and many times this included a local merchant.
Notice of the upcoming auction was posted in a newspaper and at local gathering places, which, in the 1850s, could include a local tavern or trading post.
On the day of the auction, the "crier" and "clerk" conducted the auction, and their word held.
Before Andrew McDowell could join the ranks of the world’s best auctioneers, he had to compete at one of four regional qualifying contests across the United States.
The top eight from those four quarterfinals – plus the champion from the International Auctioneer Championship held at the Calgary Stampede in Quebec – completed the roster for the Oklahoma competition.
The competition was broken down into two parts, and included an interview before a live audience of 300. Each contestant answered three industry-related questions, which counted as 25 percent of the score.
On the second day of the competition, each contestant was called on to sell eight drafts of cattle. They were judged on their ability to sell the cattle and work the audience with a chant that was clear and articulate.
Judges represented different sectors of the industry, and included market owners and auctioneers from around the country. Each contestant was judged on his knowledge of the cattle and livestock industry, and his ability to get the crowd involved and excited. One further question the judge asked himself was, "Would I hire this auctioneer?"
The winner and reserve champion (first runner-up) were then chosen from the top 10 in a final competition.
On the heels of the world championship, Andrew participated in the Calgary Stampede’s 22nd annual International Livestock Auctioneer Championship, where he took the prize as reserve champion.
“Of all the competitions I enter, I look forward to this one the most. It’s always right after the world championship, and the Stampede is almost my vacation from that one,” he said. “At the world championship, it’s really strenuous, and it puts a lot of pressure on you. They sequester you before you sell, and you have to stand up on a stage before 300 people and do an interview.
“This contest is nothing like that. It’s fun, it’s relaxed and it’s doing what we love. They have a lot of great cattle, the markets run smoothly and they couldn’t treat us any better.”
To learn more about the art of auctioneering, I questioned Andrew on what he did. How did he ascertain the values of the cattle and other livestock that appeared before him in the ring?
Andrew told me that the market set the value of the cattle, and explained to me some of the terminology regarding cattle. He then invited me to attend the upcoming livestock auction at Greenville, where he is the market auctioneer. These auctions are conducted on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Attending a livestock auction was an interesting experience. The arena is in a semi-circle, with an auctioneer’s platform. In addition to the auctioneer, a clerk tapped information into a computer. A third man herded the cattle in and out of the ring, and helped the auctioneer catch bidders, who with a nod or other subtle gesture, made their bid.
The weight of the cow, along with the auction number, were posted on electronic tally boards positioned on both sides of the auctioneer’s platform. The market average at this time is around 85 cents per pound.
For a person raised around white-face cattle, the variety of breeds passing through the sale ring surprised me. Black Angus I recognize, Limousin, too, but some of the breeds, with their liver color and humps, were all new to me.
Andrew ends many of his auctions with a familiar saying, "The Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll see you here again." And that is how I will end this column.