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Gila Countys’ Burch Cattle Sale: A Family Affair

The Burch Cattle Auction featuring beef raised in Gila County is held once a year and constitutes both serious business and social affair. Put on by the Gila County Cattle Growers Association, the auction ran over 2000 cattle through the sale this year. Anda according to Therese Griffin-Hicks, a fourth-generation rancher, this sale commands on average 10% higher prices than the market.

It is a result of reputation she believes and explains that the cattle growers here cull the sick or old cattle before running them through the auction and buyers know they can expect a good product and honest dealings in this auction and it brings them back every year.

Cattle Growers Auction
The Gila County Burch Cattle Sale is a family run auction which relies on everyone- of all ages -putting in work to pull it off. Photo by LCGross

What makes it more social than any other auction of its kind, and one which local ranchers look forward to attending, is the make-up of the participants. Almost everyone here is family- or friends-of-family of long-standing note. The auction itself is cooperatively run and manned by some 40-50 volunteers. In fact, the only guy that gets paid for this gig is the auctioneer. Family members and seasoned ranch hands from eight to eighty-five work this sale which began a week earlier as truckloads of cattle are brought in and sorted by weight, sex, and color to accommodate the needs of the buyers. Some buyers are looking for feeder cattle; others for heifers to add to their cow/calf operations.

“What makes this sale special is that it is like family,” says Susan Cooper. Her father, Joe Lavine, is the manager for the J Bar B Cattle Company, whose Rafter Cross brand is well known in the state. Cooper, her brother-in-law and sister are all helping to work the pens that day. The Rafter Cross runs a large operation in the State and have the advantage over smaller operations in that they own pastures to the north and south, making it easier to manage the needs of the herd and move cattle according to weather conditions.

Cattle Growers Auction
Pushing cattle up from the pens. Photo by LCGross

It was, after all, the drought conditions, beginning in 1995-96 which wreaked such havoc in the livestock industry and caused the Forest Service to curtail grazing permits on the Tonto beginning in 2002. According to records, “…the drought of 1995-1996 was almost a perfect storm of circumstances and the resulting fall-out was substantial. A number of ranchers went out of business as a result of the drought; especially small family enterprises with less than 50 head of cattle. The overall decline in all cattle operations in Arizona was 15%.”

The drought forced a de-stocking trend which began in ‘96 and culminated in the complete removal of all cattle from the Tonto in 2002. “In the past,” Therese explained,”They (Forest Service) would allow us to keep a core heard on the land during drought times and feed hay. This time they didn’t do that. They ordered all the cows off…It was the first time that we (the Griffin Ranch) had ZERO cows on the land,” she said. “It hurt us.”

Gila County cowboys bringing up another pen of cattle for auction. Photo by LCGross
Gila County cowboys bringing up another pen of cattle for auction. Photo by LCGross

Ranchers are just now beginning to rebuild herds, but the estimate is it will take ten years or more…to do that. And some will not ever rebuild. And so it is that the Burch Sale of 2008, with its 2000 head of cattle is a celebration of sorts. Ranching is coming back. Cattle are grazing. Prices are live-able. And a lifestyle which is tied as closely to raising families as it is raising cattle is holding its own again.

Talking to Jill Wilson who stood beside me at the corral fence with her son Cooper, she explained that she had “graduated” this year from gate keeper- those guys who open and close the pen gates when the boss yells- to front office where she was helping to track the tickets and sales that day. Her husband Joe, was on horseback helping to sort and bring pens of cattle to the auction ring. Her father was watching the kids. Her mother, Therese, was in the stands buying cattle.

Gila County cowboys bringing up another pen of cattle for auction. Photo by LCGross
Burch Auction. Photo by LCGross

Colton Bingham, age eight, was one of the many ranch kids that day working with the dozens of adults to bring in cattle from the outer perimeter. Here was a kid who wasn’t parked in front of a TV or entertained at the mall. He was happy to eat dust and follow instructions.  I caught him on the fence, during a lull in the action and he told me he’s been riding since he was four…and he can drive a truck and back it by himself.

Those are pretty good qualities for a kid who’s not yet nine. Hanging out on the fence rail that day watching the Burch Cattle Auction, it seemed to me that ranching is not just about the cattle. It’s about the kids. And both were in full view that day.

About Linda Gross

Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.

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