denver nwss cattle

Reserve Champion carload feeder calves at the 1962 National Western, selling to Lewter Feedlots in Lubbock, TX, at an auction high of 51 cents. Photo by WLJ.

In terms of the Western beef industry, one of the pivotal events of the year has always been the National Western Stock Show (NWSS) held each January in Denver. It has been the forum to exhibit the best of a breed, as well as the vehicle to gain market share and spur on new ideas and new technology.

In terms of the Western commercial cow-calf market, Hereford had ruled the range for much of the 20th century. This started with the severe winter of 1886-87 when the “Big Die Up” occurred. Up until then, dual-purpose Shorthorns had owned much of the market, but that winter the Herefords tended to live while the dual-purpose Shorthorns tended to die, which cemented Hereford’s place in the market.

When the National Western started in 1906, it was largely a showcase for the Hereford breed, and would be for decades to come. Ron “Jim” Geddes, a herdsman with an Angus show string, remembers Hereford’s dominance. Show cattle used to be transported via rail, and the show season generally started at the Arizona National in Phoenix, which kicked off on the first of the year. Leaving Phoenix for the four-day rail ride to Denver, the herdsman recalled there were 27 railcars of Herefords and only two other railcars—one Angus and one Shorthorn.

However, when Chicago’s International Livestock Exposition was called off from 1942-1945 during the war, Angus saw it as an opportunity to take the resources from the cancelled International, and redirect them to the National Western in an effort to make inroads into Hereford’s market share. Since the International was by far the American Angus Association’s biggest promotional and marketing event of the season, the resources available were significant.

First thing they needed to do was to increase premium money to attract the high-profile Midwest breeders to make the trip to Denver, so they allocated $8,350 in premium money for the open, pen, junior and steer shows, which adjusted for inflation would be equivalent to $124,918 in 2020. This is compared to the $13,800 in premiums American Angus Association budgeted for the 2020 combined Angus shows. The monies would in fact bring in the major herds including Sunbeam, Woodlawn, Tolan and Penny. The two sales they held were considered a feature of the 1943 Angus events.

The Western Aberdeen-Angus Association had held sales at the National Western in the past with mediocre results. The consensus of opinion was they had lacked the critical mass of quality animals, and the sales had not been adequately promoted. Having the National Association partner with the Western Association allowed the breed executive W.H. Tomhave to take over management of the sales, which he was highly experienced at, having annually managed the Angus sales at the International. The Association could also bring the full weight of their national marketing and advertising skills to bear on promoting the sale. The last most important thing was breeders had brought quality bulls in quantity from the Midwest and West Coast where the breed was strongest.

The results of the sales far exceeded expectations. They had a pen show—which consisted of five bulls per pen—with 30 entries. When the 150 bulls from the pen show were then sold at auction, they averaged $300, which is equivalent to $4,561 in today’s dollars. In the individual sale, 42 bulls averaged $354 and 17 heifers $326, which in today’s dollars is $5,382 and $4,956, respectively. This put a quantity of high-quality bulls into commercial herds throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska.

It would take persistence, but eventually Angus would supplant Hereford. At first, Angus bulls were used on first-calf heifers for calving ease. Over time the commercial herds would start to build a quantity of Baldy cows—long known for their efficiency and productivity. Coming full circle, towards the end of the century, straightbred Angus became one of the most popular cows on the range.

Another little-known fact was two of the most interested observers during those initial wartime Angus shows were Waldo Emerson Forbes and his wife Sally. By all accounts, Waldo was a brilliant man who had a degree from Harvard, as well as did postgraduate work at MIT. His family had owned the famous Beckton Stock Farm on the Eastern slope of the Big Horn mountains just outside Sheridan, WY, since the 1890s. In the mid-1930s, Waldo had moved West to take over the management of the ranch.

Before taking over the ranch, Waldo had traveled extensively to places like Yemen, Ethiopia, South America and had been appalled by the many people hungry and even starving. He thought there had to be a better way to select cattle than what he saw as over-fitted (fed) cattle of the showring and what he saw as the incredible waste of feed to get the cattle showring ready. He saw no need for new breeds, but just new selection methods. Through intensive visits with Colorado State University’s Dr. H.H. Stonaker, he latched onto the embryonic concepts of performance testing.

Waldo and Sally had also made the acquaintance of secretary Tomhave of the Angus Association at the National Western who helped them get leads on where they could acquire quality Red Angus calves, which were considered as having a genetic defect because of their red hide. Thus in 1945, the Forbes started putting together the foundation herd of the Red Angus breed. The goal was to compare animals amongst their contemporaries in commercial conditions based on objective measures.

Unfortunately, Waldo would pass away in early 1956, but Sally would go on to see his legacy fulfilled, and in the past decade, Red Angus now command the highest price as commercial replacement heifers. Although they did not show cattle, Sally would remain an ardent supporter of the National Western, serving on the board for decades.

Thus, during the wartime National Western Stock Shows of the 1940s: Hereford as the king of the range would continue to be showcased; Angus would begin its inroads into Hereford’s market share; and a new breed that was based on performance, Red Angus, would be born. With its approximate current $1 billion makeover, it will assure that history will continue to be made at the National Western for years to come. — Dr. Bob Hough, WLJ correspondent

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