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Published November 12, 2012, 09:58 AM

Will the auction chant go silent?

Northern Livestock Auction operates on an eight-acre site that Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns and leases to the company. But the railroad has plans of its own for the site, and Northern Livestock Auction must remove its property by March 15.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

MINOT, N.D. — Northern Livestock Auction in Minot, N.D., is holding its weekly sale on this late October day, and auctioneer George Bitz’s rhythmic chanting fills the sales ring. The 50 onlookers, most of them buyers and sellers, study the skittish cattle with experienced eyes.

But the weekly sales — which livestock producers and others in the Minot area say are a huge asset — will end, at least at their current location, on Jan. 29.

Northern Livestock Auction operates on an eight-acre site that Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns and leases to the company. But the railroad has plans of its own for the site, and Northern Livestock Auction must remove its property by March 15.

What happens after that is unclear. Northern Livestock Auction’s owners, Bitz and Roger Sundsbak, say they’d like to reopen the business somewhere else in Minot. They also say that may not be possible.

“We’re looking into building a new facility. We feel we owe it to our customers and the community,” Sundsbak says. “But we know it won’t be easy.”

When Northern Livestock closes, Minot will lose, at least temporarily, its only livestock auction yard. Minot, with about 41,000 residents, is North Dakota’s fourth-largest city and the largest in the northwest part of the state.

Producers in north-central and northwest North Dakota who now patronize Northern Livestock will be affected. They’ll need to transport their animals as many as 100 additional miles to other livestock auction yards.

“There’s so much need. Without this (Northern Livestock), there’d be a lot more time and expense” taking animals to more-distant markets, says Gordon Dahl, a cattleman from nearby Sawyer, N.D.

Dahl has bought and sold cattle at the Minot business. He’s worked there, too. Many of the company’s part-time employees, whose number rises as high as 34 during busy times, are or were customers.

“They’re our friends. We enjoy spending time together,” Sundsbak says of the company’s staff.

Northern Livestock has six full-time, year-round employees whose jobs are at risk.

“It’s upsetting. It’s sad,” says office manager Chasity Sevland, a full-time employee. “I feel bad for the customers because they’ll be hurt.”

From livestock to trains

Northern Livestock Auction operates at 24 27th St., on a hill overlooking the North Dakota State Fairgrounds.

BNSF already operates two sets of track immediately north of Northern Livestock Auction and two more sets immediately north of the business.

The railroad needs more track in the Minot area because of growing activity in western North Dakota’s oil fields, says Amy McBeth, BNSF spokesperson.

The eight-acre site now leased by Northern Livestock will be used to store and prepare empty oil cars, she says.

BNSF already has expanded its Gavin Yard, east of Minot, but more space is needed, McBeth says.

The site occupied by Northern Livestock once was the home of BNSF’s Minot yard, and the railroad deemed the location the best place to increase its capacity to handle empty oil cars, she says.

The railroad hasn’t decided yet how many new sets of track will be built on the eight-acre site. The number could be three or four, or more, McBeth says.

Construction of the new tracks is expected to begin this spring and be finished by fall. The four existing sets of track will continue to operate.

Sundsbak says he understands that BNSF needs more space in Minot. Nor does he contest the railroad’s right to take over the eight acres; Northern Livestock operates on a 30-day lease.

“I realize it’s their land and they can do what they want with it,” he says.

Sundsbak says a BNSF official contacted him in early October to set up a conference call with other company officials the following week.

“I had a pretty good idea of what it (the conference call) would be about,” he says. Still, he was “pretty surprised” when the railroad initially gave Northern Livestock until Jan. 31 to remove its property from the site.

“That just wasn’t much time,” particularly during the busy winter sales season, he says.

So Sundsbak asked North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring to intercede. Goehring agreed and later persuaded the railroad to give Northern Livestock another 90 days, until March 15, to remove its property.

Goehring tells Agweek that the railroad was reasonable and accommodating when he asked it to give the company more time.

Leaving ‘a huge void’

Losing its only livestock auction yard, even temporarily, is “going to be a big, big deal” for Minot and livestock producers in the area, Goehring says. “There will be a huge void.”

He says his department “will step up however we can” to help the business reopen elsewhere.

Sundsbak says he’s had preliminary discussions with Minot Economic Development Corp. about the possibility of a new location.

Jerry Chavez, the development corporation’s president and CEO, says it’s too early to predict what might be done to help Northern Livestock.

But the company is important to Minot and its economy, Chavez says, and he’s optimistic about finding some way to keep it open.

Sundsbak says many customers eat or shop or both while they’re in Minot.

“We bring in money to other businesses, too,” he says. “I hope people realize it (the company’s economic impact) is more than the people we employ.”

Northern Livestock hashandled 58,000 to 62,000 animals — primarily cattle, as well as some horses — annually in recent years.

Some of the animals come from cattle producers with large herds, others from producers with herds of only 30 or 40 cattle.

The smaller producers, in particular, would be hurt if Northern Livestock Auction closes permanently, Sundsbak says.

Minot-area cattle producers who sell dozens of cattle at one time could spread the higher transportation cost over many animals if the livestock were taken to more distant markets.

In contrast, the higher transportation cost to a more distant market would eliminate much, if not all, the profit for operators selling one or two animals, Sundsbak says.

Larger operators sometimes sell one or two cattle at a time, too, and they also benefit from having Northern Livestock relatively close at hand, says Dahl, the Sawyer rancher.

“If we lose this (Northern Livestock), it’s going to hurt a lot of people,” he says.

‘Tough road, tough deal’

The business opened in the late 1940s or early 1950s; Sundsbak isn’t sure of the year.

He and Bitz bought the business about 11 years ago. Bitz was the auctioneer, Sundsbak a part-time employee and former cattle producer

“It’s worked out pretty well,” Sundsbak says. “Though sometimes, in the evening, after a long day, you wonder why you’re doing it.

“But it’s been fun. The people make it fun. You get to know them, and you have good relationships with them,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important to us to keep the business going somewhere else.”

Sundsbak is 65. Bitz — who’s also a part-owner of a livestock auction business in Napoleon, N.D. — is 78.

“I still have the drive,” Sundsbak says. Nonetheless, “At our ages, we can’t be going out and borrowing a lot of money the way someone who’s 30 could.”

He estimates the price tag for a new facility to top $2 million. Given that and their ages, grants would need to be part of financing a new location, he says.

Several people in the Minot area already have volunteered to help with grant applications, he notes.

“At this point, we’re checking into things, seeing what might be possible,” he says. “If you’ve got any ideas or suggestions, give us a call.”

Sundsbak says he knows how big the challenge is.

“It’s going to be a tough road, a tough deal,” he says. “But some of these guys have been so faithful to us, it’s amazing. We don’t want to leave them hanging.”

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