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Published January 04, 2010, 07:33 AM

Livestock sale barn reopens in Napoleon

Paul Bitz briefly interrupted his quick cadence of numbers and nonsense to question whether a woman in the stands at Napoleon Livestock Auction was bidding on the animals in the ring. The dark-haired woman laughed and shook her head.

By: By Jenny Michael, The Bismarck Tribune, The Jamestown Sun

NAPOLEON, N.D. — Paul Bitz briefly interrupted his quick cadence of numbers and nonsense to question whether a woman in the stands at Napoleon Livestock Auction was bidding on the animals in the ring. The dark-haired woman laughed and shook her head.

A few groups of calves later, he hadn’t let up on the inadvertent bidder, telling a seller his calves’ high price was thanks to the woman.

“That lady up there bid on them and helped you out,” Bitz joked.

If the auctioneer and part owner of Napoleon Livestock Auction momentarily thought he was in front of a comedy club microphone rather than one at an auction yard, it can be forgiven. The crowd at the Dec. 10 feeder calf sale looked far too comfortable in the livestock auction’s new barn to be sitting at an auction yard. Recently reopened after construction of a new facility, Napoleon Livestock Auction is getting rave reviews from cattle buyers and sellers for its comfort and amenities.

Bitz co-owns the barn with his father, George Bitz, brother, Jim Bitz, and Ray Erbele. George Bitz was a long-time auctioneer who used to do six auctions a week, and Erbele was a cattle buyer, purchasing cattle for feedlots through sale barns, for more than 20 years. Paul and Jim Bitz grew up going to sale barns. So the group took “the best things out of a lot of barns” in planning theirs, Paul Bitz said.

The building process was done primarily by local businesses — carpentry, cement, painting and other jobs were done by Napoleon-area companies, Paul Bitz said. The barn, which employs about 30 people in the busiest times, started out as a half-million-dollar project but ended up closer to three-quarters of a million, he said.

When someone walks up the stairs in the barn and opens the door to the sales ring and seating area, they enter what Paul Bitz calls the “landing area.” While at many barns, spectators have to descend into the crowd, often blocking views of the cattle in the sale ring, the “landing area” is lined with bar stools and plenty of standing room for anyone who wants to watch a sale without disturbing others. The landing area also gives people a place to walk around and stretch out without missing the sale, as well as tables and chairs for easier dining.

“People really like to sit up here and watch,” George Bitz said.

Below the landing area, wide blue seats look like something spectators in a small movie theater or students in a posh college auditorium would get to enjoy rather than cattlemen at an auction. To the general public, the chairs, with soft padding and arm rests, are the biggest improvement in the barn, Paul Bitz said.

Richard Hager, who raises cattle and grain in Rugby, sold 90 calves at the Dec. 10 sale. Sitting in the landing area, he reminisced about the old barn at Napoleon, where the audience would sit on hard benches or a few couches. The biggest difference he noticed was the temperature change.

“It was always cold in here,” Hager said.

Indeed, the radiant heat coming from the ceiling area kept the barn almost too warm that day. Drafts that can come in with groups of cattle were barely felt from higher up in audience.

Along with the heating, the barn has a ventilation system that pushes the barnyard odors outside.

“It’s supposed to be like a surgical room,” Paul Bitz said.

Hydraulic doors control cattle entry in and out of the sale ring. Paul Bitz said the additions keep sales moving at a faster pace. Outside, hydraulic controls manage each gate leading up to the barn. George Bitz explained the hydraulics, along with nearly all-metal fences, make the yard safer for employees and animals.

Pointing out an easily spooked, large, white cow, he said the animals today are stronger and wilder than in the past. The stronger construction keeps them from breaking down corrals, while the hydraulic gates keep people out of the pens.

Behind the landing area, a room currently features a flat-panel television and a row of chairs. The room is there for anyone who wants a break from the sale, whether it be buyers and sellers or their families, Paul Bitz said.

The day ranchers sell cattle is often the family’s pay day for the year, and children should get to be a part of that, he said. Many of the barn’s features were designed to make the auction yard more family friendly, including the TV room where youngsters can take a break from cattle in favor of cartoons and a family bathroom where either mom or dad can escort children. By making kids comfortable at the auction, the owners hope they will remain interested in agriculture as they grow up.

“We want the kids to come to a sale,” Paul Bitz said.

Off the room with the television, several local businesses have set up shop on sale days. Wishek Chiropractor, Wentz Equipment, Farm Credit Services, Missouri Valley Ag and Farmer’s Union Insurance have put offices in the sale barn. Paul Bitz said businesses approached the owners to be a part of the new construction.

“It’s kind of become a central business place,” Logan County Extension Agent Sheldon Gerhardt said.

To cattle buyer Allan Glatt, of Linton, the amenities of the new barn are welcome changes. Glatt estimates he spends 75 hours a week in sale barns around the area. The cushy, roomy seats make the time he spends in Napoleon every Thursday easier, as do the improved heating and ventilation systems.

“We used to sit on hard benches,” he said. “Everything is a vast improvement.”

He thinks the businesses in the barn also will allow the sale barn regulars to visit with the local ranchers, who may choose to make chiropractor appointments or other meetings for Thursdays so they can stop by the sale.

Doyle Harms, who owns a 4,000-head feedlot in Redfield, S.D., agrees the barn is a big improvement over the old one, particularly in the seats, the hydraulic gates, the absence of smell, the offices and expanded cafe area. His only complaint, as a self-proclaimed “acoustic critic,” is that the metal ceiling does not lend itself to easy listening. The echoes from the surround sound could have been cut down by acoustic tiles, he said.

Some things aren’t quite finished at the barn. Paul Bitz said the biggest thing yet to be done is putting a big-screen, flat-panel television above the sale ring. Half of the screen will feature rolling advertisements, while the other half will have information about the animals in the ring. At feeder calf sales, the shots the animals have been given might be on the screen, while at bull sales, statistics and notes about the bull’s abilities might be shown.

The big screen, along with the surround sound in the barn, will allow for the facility to be used for more than just livestock sales. Paul Bitz said the Napoleon High School football team may watch film there, and the county extension office already has set up seminars for the building.

Gerhardt said the auction yard has done a good job of staying progressive, including an Internet marketing component, complete with Web cam and online bidding of sales.

“It’s good to see a sale barn getting involved in it so it stays local,” he said.

Paul Bitz said people watch the sales from across the country, especially during noon meal breaks.

“I think that’s probably why the soap operas are failing,” he said jokingly.

While a new barn won’t affect the unpredictable cattle markets, Glatt said the auction’s owners have shown their commitment to the community by making such a large investment. It shows people that the barn will be there for them in the future, he said.

Jory Hansen, an adult farm management instructor with an office in Napoleon, agrees the new sale barn won’t create a better cattle market — that will ebb and flow as always. But the new facility may keep spirits up in the agricultural community.

“Hopefully it creates some excitement as far as the local market goes,” he said. “If the buyers enjoy being here, that should help out.”