With National Western Stock Show on hold, Oklahoma City hosts national breed shows

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Exhibitors lead their heifers from the stalling barns to the arena at the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds for the junior Brahman show, one of the final events held in conjunction with the first-ever Cattlemen’s Congress in Oklahoma City. Exhibitors from 44 states showed cattle representing 33 different breeds. Organizers say the 12,000 head of entries exceeded the numbers at last year’s National Western Stock Show, which was postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Though there were no iconic mountains in the background this year, multiple beef cattle breeds were able to come together and pull off a national show after the National Western Stock Show took a pause due to the viral pandemic.

Making it happen was exceedingly valuable to exhibitors like 20-year-old Nicholas Imhoff, who started preparations for the show three years ago with the purchase of a straw of semen on his first visit to the National Western.

The resulting bull, named “Locked In,” is now a coming 2-year-old and one of best in the Red Angus breed.

“It was very impressive to me that the breeders and the associations cared enough to make sure we had a show,” said Nicholas, who works as an industrial contractor in addition to ranching with his family near Stroud, Oklahoma.

“That’s just cattle-minded people in general,” added his dad, David Imhoff, a director with the Oklahoma Red Angus Association. “We’ll hook up, and we’ll pull the plow.”

When the National Western made the dramatic announcement last fall that the January event would be postponed for a year due to restrictions on large gatherings, several breeds, including the Red Angus registry, were left without a venue for holding their national shows.

Bulls and heifers have a limited period of show eligibility, David Imhoff emphasized, and national sales and networking are worth many millions of dollars.

Nicholas’ bull won reserve champion in his division and was later sold to another breeder who will continue to exhibit him during his final year of eligibility, a positive outcome that wouldn’t have happened without a national show.

Jarold Callahan, longtime president of Express Ranches of Yukon, Oklahoma, was one of the first people to recognize both a problem and an opportunity following Denver’s cancellation. He knew Oklahoma City had the facilities, infrastructure, industry leadership and event staff to pull off a world-class show, even if they would have to scramble with only a few short months to organize it.

The first-ever Cattlemen’s Congress, held Jan. 2-17, appears to have exceeded all expectations, drawing praise from many exhibitors including Jirl Buck, who has been showing cattle since he was 16 and hasn’t missed a Denver show in 39 years.

“It was the most exhibitor-friendly show I’ve ever been to,” said the owner of Buck Cattle Co., of Madill, Oklahoma. “That’s not just my opinion, I think you’d find a lot of people feel that way. To me, it’s a great compliment to the state of Oklahoma.”

He was impressed by the smooth flow of the move-in-move-out process, ample space inside the barns and out of the weather, the convenience of getting to and around the city, and the friendliness and hospitality of show staff, organizers and local officials.

Buck also enjoyed a unique highlight, the Supreme Drive, during which multiple breed champions were invited to return to the ring for one final showdown. He was there with the champion horned Hereford bull and the champion Maine-Anjou heifer, in addition to cheering on one of the junior exhibitors.

The finale was modeled on a similar event at the annual Oklahoma Youth Expo, a parade of champions that honors the “best of the best” among the livestock on display.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Buck said of the extra chance to compete. “It’s very prestigious for whoever wins it.”

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt was in the arena that evening to help hand out awards.

“When other states said 'no,' they’re shut down, in Oklahoma, we said, 'Let’s go, let’s make it happen,'” he said in remarks to participants and spectators. “In Oklahoma, we’re always going to fight for the ag community and this way of life.”

“It’s pretty refreshing to see a venue, a city and state — and a political climate — that values agriculture and sees that it’s the core root of what makes this world go around and makes us great,” observed Shane Bedwell, chief operating officer and director of breed improvement for the American Hereford Association.

The Herefords were among multiple breeds that had higher show entries than the previous year and steady-to-higher sales in conjunction with the Congress.

“It was pretty neat to see all of the people who came together to give us that opportunity,” he said.

Cattlemen's Congress could become permanent

The pageantry, nostalgia and tradition of being “on the hill and in the yards” in Denver is something that can’t be duplicated anywhere else, but Oklahoma City put its best foot forward in providing an alternative.

The location has historical significance of its own, situated at what many consider the commercial crossroads of the modern cattle industry. Not far from the well-equipped fairgrounds, with 900,000 square feet of barn space, are the historic Oklahoma National Stockyards, billed as the largest facility of its kind in the world. An estimated 2.3 million cows are raised on surrounding ranches.

Organizers say the feedback has been so positive they are now considering making the Congress an annual event.

Is there room for another major exhibition on the show season calendar?

“Is it needed? Is it wanted? I think the answer is probably yes,” Callahan said.

Organizers plan to make that call sometime in March, after surveying breed association members.

Blake Nelson, executive vice president of the American Maine-Anjou Association, said the upheaval of 2020 forced the industry to improvise and explore new options and could end up having a lasting impact.

Oklahoma City’s enthusiasm for hosting the show was evident, he said.

“I’m excited to see what the economic footprint will be,” he added. “Early predictions are it will be $30 million, but I’d be willing to bet it will far surpass that.”

“I think there’s room for another show on the circuit if the timing can play out so they can all fit,” he mused. “The last time there was a change to a major stock show was when the International Livestock Expo in Chicago moved to Louisville. That’s been awhile back, but it seemed to work out pretty well.”

As some of the larger urban cities become more “land-locked” and politically scrutinized, it’s more difficult for show organizers to provide the best possible experience for cattle producers regardless of their intentions, he added.

“This could open the door to looking at some more agriculture-friendly venues,” he said. “I think this past year has forced us to realize change isn’t always bad. It might be uncomfortable in the beginning, but we can open our mind and look at alternatives.”

“As agriculturalists, it’s not in us to give up on anything,” he concluded.