A staple of the Minot ranching scene for over a half-century will be closing its doors early next year, although the possibility remains it could reopen at a different location.
Roger Sundsbak and George Bitz, who have owned Northern Livestock Auction for close to 11 years, have been informed by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway the auction house has to move off the property by March 15 next year so three new sets of tracks can be built. BNSF owns the land and leases it to Northern Livestock.
Sundsbak said they were informed of the plans via conference call with several BNSF officials Oct. 10.
Several large pieces of heavy equipment line up in the parking lot of Northern Livestock Auction Monday morning while workers mill around the scene. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the property, is building three new sets of tracks through the middle of the auction yard and has informed Northern Livestock it must move out next spring.
"We had a conference call with two people out of Minneapolis and one out of Fort Worth, (Texas)," Sundsbak said. "And they just said that the way the rail business has been going - and we lease the land from the railroad - that they were going to be building three new tracks right through the yard."
At that time BNSF said all Northern Livestock property, including buildings, pens and equipment, would have to be removed from the land by Jan. 31.
Not believing that was enough time to move everything, Sundsbak said they met with North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring this past week to see if he could get them some kind of extension due to the relatively short notice and cold winter weather they would have to work in to take everything down. Goehring successfully negotiated with BNSF to extend the deadline 45 days to March 15.
"I appreciate the railroad giving us that extension, and thanks to Doug Goehring, of course, for helping us work on that and getting an extra 45 days to get things in order," Sundsbak said.
With the way oil development has been booming and all the increased rail traffic he has been seeing lately, Sundsbak said the news from BNSF was definitely a surprise, but not really all that shocking.
"It's big business, and with the oil field and all the equipment being hauled by rail and tanker cars and everything, it's crazy," Sundsbak said. "You see that out here all the time, people waiting for trains."
Sundsbak understands BNSF's position, and doesn't harbor any animosity toward the rail carrier for making the best use of its own land. The only disappointment he feels is for his loyal customers, many of whom have been attending sales since Sundsbak and Bitz took over.
"We're not upset at anyone. We're kind of disappointed for the customers, because we've had people who came to us the first day and they're still here every sale," Sundsbak said. "Every time they sell something they always come here. We feel bad for those people."
"It's no one's fault," he added. "It's just the nature of the beast, I guess."
Sundsbak plans to have the last sale at Northern Livestock Jan. 29. That would also be the last day the adjoining cafe, The Chuckwagon, would probably be open because immediately afterward the moving would begin.
For now, it's business as usual at Northern Livestock, with the same schedule everyone is used to.
"We're going to go on like we always have been," Sundsbak said. "We've got a sale every Tuesday; it's going to be on the same schedule through the 29th of January."
Sundsbak estimates there have probably been cattle sales in Minot since the early 1950s, a long run that looks likely to end after Jan. 29.
As for the pens, buildings and all the equipment, Sundsbak said they are looking at having some kind of sale. One possibility is to have a sale ahead of Jan. 29, with no one being able to collect the equipment until after the final cattle auction. He said removal might begin Feb. 1, with everything needing to be gone by March 15.
"We haven't set a date for any of that; we're still talking about it," Sundsbak said. "We don't have a date or how we're going to do it, or if we're going to do it on bids or have a regular auction."
People who might be interested in any of the pens, buildings or equipment can call Northern Livestock at 839-7595 for more information.
Sundsbak said there have been some preliminary discussions about possibly building a new facility at a new site in the Minot area, but there's a long way to go and it's no certain thing.
"No guarantees, though. The way the land is and the cost of everything right now, we don't know if it would be efficient to even get into it," Sundsbak said. "We haven't really started working on that, yet."
The high start-up cost would also include new equipment and buildings. Sundsbak said it would be impractical to keep the old assets because there is no place to store them all, and building a new facility would also be a lengthy and complicated undertaking in terms of land acquisition, construction and paperwork.
"It's going to be quite a process to get land permits, I would assume, with the environmental rules and regulations now you'll have to go through. First of all, where do you start looking for land?" Sundsbak said. "Then it's the cost. It's just the cost of everything."
There is no timeline for figuring out if they want to build a new facility. For the time being, Sundsbak said they are concentrating on holding the cattle sales their customers still depend on.
"There's a lot of work to do on that, and right now we're just trying to have cattle sales and take care of our customers," Sundsbak said. "We'll try and do our cattle sales now, and in our spare time and free time maybe be able to get a chance to look at some of that stuff."
Whether Northern Livestock rebuilds or a new business with new owners sets up shop, Sundsbak said Minot and the surrounding area need an auction house. He said the nearest auction houses to Minot are 90 to 100 miles away, and would be prohibitively expensive to travel to for ranchers wanting to sell just a few head of cattle.
"With the cost of transportation and everything, it just makes it very tough," Sundsbak said.
Cattle ranchers won't be the only ones impacted by the impending closure, either. Local merchants benefit greatly from the regular Tuesday sales because ranchers often take the opportunity to get some shopping done when they're in town.
"People bring a couple cows in, they'll go grocery shopping, they'll go out to the mall and go shopping, they'll get parts. They'll unhook their trailers here and away they go uptown to do their thing," Sundsbak said. "And a lot of times they just do that when they bring cattle into town. There's things that they need, so they stop and get them."
Northern Livestock's employees will obviously be affected, as well. Sundsbak said they have six full-time employees during the week, but the staff balloons to around 40 on sale days.
"It's just the farmer and the rancher, the guy that comes in and does some work and helps us. And we've had such excellent help around here," Sundsbak said. "It's a tough deal, and we have people who count on this, too. There's jobs out there, of course, and better-paying jobs. But this is what these people like to do."
Whether Sundsbak and Bitz start a new auction house somewhere down the road or not, Sundsbak has greatly enjoyed the last decade at Northern Livestock, thanks in no small part to the people on both sides of the pen he's had the opportunity to work with.
"We'd just like to thank all our customers, our buyers and our friends for their support and everything," Sundsbak said.
"I've enjoyed it," he added. "I'll miss it, I really will."