The bull is ornery and recalcitrant. It cannot be budged from the enclosure back of the sales ring. When a man prods the animal toward the narrow exit, it backs off furiously, whomping its huge backside against the restraining timbers. Finally, three human heavies brandishing the stockyard equivalent of sawed-off shotguns—
hockey sticks with the blades missing-leap into the pen and pound the animal on the head, forequarters and rump. Reluctantly the 1,356-pound bull yields, moves through the gate and into the ring—and is promptly sold into an immediate future as bologna.
But this is life still some distance from the dinner plate. This is life at the weekly livestock auction of the Sussex and Studholm Agricultural Society in southern New Brunswick. All day long, animals—squealing pigs, awkward
calves, stoic cows and bulls—have been funnelled into this small sawdustfloored ring and auctioned. Eighty per cent of them are destined for the abattoir, and slaughter, but that heavy fact doesn’t weigh much on the spectators assembled in crowded wooden bleachers on two sides of the ring. A few bid on
animals by nodding their heads or flicking their hands toward the auctioneer; most merely look on with bemused interest. In a sense, this small, claustrophobia-inducing arena becomes a suspended moment, a halfway station between the bucolic calm of the farm and the violence of the slaughterhouse.
Livestock auctions like this are held all over Canada. They are designed for
quick and competitive trading in animals and, from the farmers’ standpoint, are a big improvement over the old days, when people called “drovers” travelled from farm to farm buying animals for as little as they could. “They used to run around the country and beat you down to nothing if they could,” recalls one New Brunswick cattleman. “But here there’s competition. This auction has put a lot of money in farmers’ pockets.” Indeed it has. Named after two adjacent New Brunswick parishes about 45 miles from Saint John, the Sussex and Studhold Agricultural Society (a farmers’ co-operative founded in 1841) has been running this auction for 23 years. Last year it did $4 million worth of business—small change compared to Toronto, Montreal or Calgary, for example, where livestock auctions are daily events, but nothing to be sneezed at in Sussex, a little town of 5,000 sitting among the lush hills and big farms that make it the dairy centre of the
Maritimes. Sussex is on the threshold of another economic boost: large deposits of potash have been discovered in the area, and the mines will mean new jobs and more money. It was once feared the mines might make serious incursions into the rich farmland. But because the mining will be based in wooded areas, and most of the work done underground anyway, that threat now seems unlikely. So the weekly livestock auctions will still be where people come to sell the fatted calf or a litter of pigs—or just to pass the time of day.
“ We have 18, who'll make it 19? Do we
have 19? Yes! Who'll make it 20? . . .” The words tumble effortlessly from auctioneer Ora Buchanan as three weanling (usually four to eight weeks old) pigs scamper below his perch above the sales ring. A veteran auctioneer and full-time employee of the Agricultural Society, Buchanan shares the selling with his cousin Eldon Buchanan, a dairy farmer from nearby Rockville. When not auctioning livestock, the pair is often in the countryside beyond Sussex running auctions of everything from farm properties to the lifetime accumulations of entire households.
They like the job and do it with skill. Ora, for example, seems able to take in the whole assemblage at the livestock auction with a single, discerning glance. “You get to know who’s buying certain animals,” he explains, “but you let your eyes roam the crowd to see who else is interested.”
Frequently the buyers are representatives of packing plants, who come from Fredericton, Moncton, Charlottetown, even Maine. “It’s a good exchange of cattle,” one admits. “If there’s something you need, most of the time you find it.” Elsewhere in the crowd of men in mackinaws, plus a few women and children, there maybe farmers who have simply come in to find out what a certain animal is selling for. “They may have a similar animal at home and want to get an idea of price,” says Ora Buchanan. To which Eldon adds wryly: “And some come just for the social part of it.”
Some come, too, because the spirit of the horse trader still courses through their veins. “I used to jig school to buy and sell here,” recalls Coleman Anderson, 26, who, on this day, has just sold an Arabian saddle horse he bought on Grand Manan Island. As usual, though, Anderson will be going home with more than cash: earlier in the day he bought another horse which he plans to sell in Prince Edward Island. “I don’t play sports,” he says, “so this is sport to me.” Another man, Lloyd Lewis, has driven 25 miles from Salisbury with some calves to sell. The price—66 cents a pound—is lower than he hoped for, but Lewis, shop foreman at a garage and a part-time farmer, still finds fattening calves for auction worth his time. “I’ve got a big family, seven kids, and it’s like having money in the bank. It’s there when you want it.”
For men like these who work with— and presumably like—animals, there’s still no escaping the fact that, finally, the animals are primarily a disposable commodity. There’s little room for sentiment, as scenes around the livestock barn attest: piglets are hoisted by their ears, frightened calves are pulled and prodded; in winter, fur buyers set up shop outside in the parking lot and, buying from trappers, accumulate muskrat, fox and beaver pelts as well as mounds of whole rabbits frozen in grotesque shapes.
The aura tends toward the anachronistic. At the very least, it is distinctly old-fashioned. But, even in the age of fur protests and growing vegetarianism, the livestock auction is in no imminent danger of disappearing. Like Ora Buchanan’s nearly changeless part of the selling litany, it rolls on and on. “Next, we 've got a Holstein cow due to freshen in three weeks. She weighs 1,308 pounds. Now how much am I bid?"
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.