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Sale barns face uncertain future

Donivan Lambley, of Burke Livestock Auction, leads a tour of the facility. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 4
Donivan Lambley stands behind the front desk of the Burke Livestock Auction. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 4
Herris Lambley, owner of Burke Livestock Auction, at left, talks with his son, Donivan Lambley, behind the front desk of the sale barn. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)3 / 4
Donivan Lambley, of Burke Livestock Auction, looks out at the sale barn's yard. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)4 / 4

BURKE -- In a pair of black-and-white photos, a young Donivan Lambley watches from behind the auction block as cattle are guided by men on horseback through the ring at Burke Livestock Auction.

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"It was a lot different then," said Lambley, 52, in an interview recently with The Daily Republic.

Lambley's father, Herris, bought the Burke Livestock Auction in 1967, continuing a long tradition for the family, which had already been involved in the livestock auction business for generations.

"It took a while to become part of the community," said Lambley, who had barely started school when the family moved to South Dakota after his father bought the sale barn.

"He (Herris) was an outsider for several years."

Lambley and his two sons, Chisum, 29, and Dillon, 25, now run the Burke Livestock Auction, which sits on the outskirts of the town of about 600 people. Herris, at 75 years old, still owns the business, works in the front office and even occasionally rides in the auction ring. Other family members are involved in the business in other ways, either in the front office or in the cafe.

"It's in the blood, I'll put it that way," Lambley said.

At one time, the Lambleys' sale barn hosted a hog sale every Tuesday, but as the industry changed in favor of larger farming and ranching operations, that sale was eliminated.

"The bigger conglomerates have sucked up the hogs and the dairy cows," Lambley said.

In about the last half-century, there was a steep decline in the number of farms in South Dakota. In 1959, there were 55,727 farms in the state, according to a USDA report. By 2012, that number had fallen nearly 43 percent to 31,989.

"To stay in business we've had to increase our beef sales," Lambley said. "It was a difficult change to make."

Many small sale barns across South Dakota have faced similar challenges in recent years. In Tripp, a town of about 630, a long-established sale barn recently closed.

Gregory Livestock Auction, which has been in existence since the 1930s, still sold cattle in the 1990s and early 2000s, but now only offers a once-a-month horse sale, said Jack Clark, 78, who has owned the facility since 1986.

"Buyers aren't going to come where there are just a few cattle," he said. "They're getting bigger and bigger and they like to go to places where there are a lot more cattle for sale."

With the emergence of video and online auctions, Clark said, sale barns -- especially in small towns -- will continue to be challenged to stay competitive. Of the 40 sale barns listed on the South Dakota Department of Agriculture's website, 12 are located in towns with fewer than 1,000 people.

"It's just a matter of time for most of the small sale barns," Clark said.

Cattle are sold nearly every Saturday at the sale barn in Burke, with between 1,700 and 4,200 head of cattle sold at a typical feeder sale, depending on the time of year, Lambley said. A recent sale was attended by at least 300 people, with buyers from 11 different states and more than 65 people working at the sale barn.

Lambley said he isn't afraid of losing buyers to larger sale barns in larger cities.

"We've got as good or better of a market as they do," he said.

Chisum Lambley doesn't share his father's optimism for the future of sale barns in small towns, and said he believes many smaller sale barns will start shutting down. Still, he hopes that his family's business will carry on.

Lingering effects of the recent drought have shrunk the size of the cattle herd in South Dakota and the United States, leading to a slow but steady rise in cattle prices.

"We sold a lot more cattle last summer," Lambley said. "Now people are looking to restock."

The number of cattle in South Dakota totaled 3.65 million as of Jan. 1, down 5 percent from Jan. 1, 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. That follows a national trend as the number of cattle in the U.S., the world's largest beef producer, fell 2 percent in that same time, down to 87.7 million. That's the smallest total since 1951, when the nation's herd totaled 82.1 million.

A blizzard that hammered western South Dakota in early October and killed an estimated 43,000 head of livestock has forced more buyers from that area to look for cattle at sale barns farther east than is typical, Donivan Lambley said.

Buyers will always come to markets that have the best cattle, Lambley said, no matter the size of the community.

"They know the quality of cattle that we have," he said. "If they want to buy cattle, they come to the area that has the good cattle."

As video and online auctions and online auctions grow in popularity, Chisum Lambley worries that trend could continue to hurt small sale barns. The loss of a sale barn, typically one of the largest businesses in small towns, would be devastating, he said.

"If people stay behind it, the barns will keep going," he said. "It's still a more competitive market."