Ranchers from across the West converged on the Valley View Ranch near Polson on Saturday, March 24. Inside its long, dirt-floored central building, ranch owner Buddy Westphal treated his guests to a free barbecue lunch, music from Missoula-based singer Shane Clouse and champagne.
But for both Westphal and the attendees, this event was business. Valley View Ranch is a world-renowned producer of Charolais bulls, a European-derived breed of cattle. Its annual bull sale is the chance for prospective buyers to assess and purchase them.
“It’s their one paycheck a year,” said Joey Hennes with Northwest Farm Credit Services, the ranch’s lender. “When they sell today, these proceeds, that’s what runs the ranch for the entire year, so it’s a pretty important day.” Westphal, 72, had reason for confidence. Saturday’s event marked his 50th time selling Charolais bulls. He’s been breeding these animals since the early 1960s, and earned a reputation for quality and service.
“I really moved here because I loved the cattle here,” he recalled. As a recent college graduate, Westphal came to Montana from Colorado intending to enter the cattle business. “As soon as I got here and saw what Western Montana had to offer, I had no interest in going back to Colorado for anything,” he said.
He started his herd in 1962, and has been improving it through careful breeding ever since. He uses the local landscape to his advantage; each year, a cohort of about 200 one-to-two-year-old bulls is turned out onto Valley View’s 40-acre pasture, where, for the spring and summer, “they have to climb hills, walk through rocks and drink out of streams or the Flathead River,” according to the sale’s catalog.
A year of this roaming keeps the cows level-headed. “We sell two-year-old bulls that are mature,” Westphal said. “A young bull is still growing himself...and his capacity for handling a tough breeding assignment is just limited.” By the time they hit the auction block, “my bulls are ready to go and do a good job.”
Prospective buyers have been coming to Valley View’s bull sales and judging its offerings for themselves since 1969. For the first four years, Westphal sold his cows in Kalispell and Missoula, before moving the event on-site in 1973.
When this year’s sale began, several dozen bidders took their seats in three sets of bleachers arranged around a trapezoid-shaped corral. Behind it, a dais had been set up for auctioneer Rick Machado.
“What a great individual, he typifies what the program is all about,” he gushed as the first bull ambled in. “I’ve not seen a bull in a long time that carries that much thickness, that much mass and moves around like a cougar.”
The bidding started at $1,000. Three auctioneers, one for each block of seats, took bids and relayed them to Machado through hand gestures and high-pitched shrieks.
He spoke in a percussive chant, from which a viewer unversed in livestock could tell one thing: these buyers liked what they saw. The prices kept climbing higher, from two thousand, to six thousand, to ten thousand. Machado egged them on higher, well into the quintuple digits.
“There’s a bull that’s got herd bull credentials all over him now,” he promised. “You’ll hear more about this bull as time goes on.”
Barely a minute after the bidding started, the bull sold for $15,000. It left through a gate, and the next one was let in; the ranch had 186 sales to get through.
The proceedings didn’t end last weekend. Westphal estimates that, following each sale, he and his wife Lin drive 20,000 miles delivering the bulls – a service he introduced to make things easier for his far-flung customers. “You buy a bull here, you get it delivered to the ranch.”
Making these trips keeps Westphal in touch with buyers throughout the West. And for many ranching families, the spring trip to Polson has become a tradition.
“There’s several that are coming this week that are third-generation, and I’m so proud of that, that we’ve been able to keep people happy for 50 years.”
Roscoe Lake has been coming since 1998. “We’ve found these bulls to be some of the best bulls that we can find to run with our cows” on Lake Family Ranches in Idaho, where he serves as manager.
Speaking with the Daily Inter Lake before the sale, Lake said he hoped to buy eight bulls this year, on top of the 50 to 60 he’s bought in the past. He attends a few other bull sales, but said that “this one has an advantage because they sell only two-year-old bulls, so the bulls are more mature and they hold up better.”
The Westphal family is prepared to preserve this quality. Buddy’s son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, Amy, now handle much of Valley View’s marketing and computer work. Their sons, 11-year-old Jaden and 8-year-old Jace, are already showing their ranching acumen. “I hope my grandsons are the ones having the 100th sale,” he said.
But for now, the patriarch still has the reins of Valley View Charolais Ranch. As he said while preparing for his latest round of buyers last week, “I guess that I’m never going to retire from raising bulls.”
Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.