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The Starting Gate

About 400 people waded through mud and two hours of tack and tool sales Saturday before taking in the region's first livestock auction since the venerable Rogue Valley Livestock Auction shut down in 2004.

Three weeks of rain turned the fields surrounding Murphy Auctioneers barn and animal pens five miles east of Cave Junction into muddy mess that even challenged pickups with a four-wheel drive.

"We've gone from having nice parking to soup in three or four weeks," said auctioneer Shaun Murphy. "But we're going to have auctions whether the weather is good or bad, rain or snow."

The buyers and sellers were perhaps outnumbered by onlookers, admittedly scouting the scene for future reference.

"We know there are a lot of people here today, just to check us out," Murphy said.

While visitors were checking out the pens, spotting potential acquisitions, one 700-pound Hereford broke from its chain, scattering bystanders as it bolted down the U-shaped aisles before being restrained.

Many were hopeful that the new auction on the block can spur both agricultural trade and reduce transportation costs at a time skyrocketing fuel prices are making trips to Eugene, Klamath Falls or Cottonwood, Calif., a little too spendy.

"If I go to Klamath Falls that's 150 miles over and 150 miles back," said Paul Coots, who runs 15 feeder steer near the Murphy's property on Holland Loop Road. "If I take a load of cows over there, that's $300. This will be good for people here, because if you are only selling two or three head, 200 or 300 miles takes all the profit out of one animal."

Eagle Point resident Ralph Meeker runs a cow and calf operation and sells about 10 head annually.

"We're looking to a viable option to driving three hours to Cottonwood," Meeker said. "We're looking for something with close to the same price as Cottonwood without the transportation issues."

The auction began with a handful of hens and roosters going up for a few dollars before horse bits, blankets and saddles, along with rakes, post-hole diggers and assorted tools were sold.

A goat led the animal parade, fetching $92.50 followed by a five-year-old gelding named Dawson.

"We didn't get what we were hoping for," said Sandi Fiese, "But that's O.K., it was a good auction."

There were buyers with specific animals in mind and others hoping to add to their small herds.

West Medford resident Steve Strauss, best known for his "Beef for Sale" sign on West Main Street, spotted a steer he thought might launch his annual herd.

For nearly 20 years, Strauss has bought six to eight cattle to mow the grass around his home.

"They're grass fed and grass finished locker beef," he said.

Beef prices have been high and Strauss anticipated a large turnout coupled with a short supply of cattle would spur prices. He was right.

"The one I was interested went for $1.47 a pound, that's a high price," Strauss said. "I probably would have bought at $1.35, but not at $1.47. The pricing was erratic because the high number of buyers; but is this is their first day."

He said the sheer number of buyers might induce more sellers to bring their cattle to Cave Junction.

"They've got some place to go and they can build a business here," Strauss said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

Goats wait to be sold at a livestock auction near Cave Junction Saturday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch