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Photo Essay

The Cattle Call

The dinge and din leave no doubt about who has the starring role in the high-stakes drama at the Seguin Cattle Company

I had driven by cattle auctions hundreds of times. I’d see large trucks with trailers pulling in and out, full of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs—in small towns like Seguin, Gonzales, Coleman and Hamilton. I don’t know exactly what intrigued me, but I always slowed a bit to look and wonder. What goes on in there?

I always champed at the bit, as a photographer, at the prospect of getting a backstage pass to an auction. I finally got my chance when, in October, brothers Benno and Otto Luensmann made me more than welcome at the Seguin Cattle Company, which they have owned and operated since 1978. It’s one of 136 livestock auction sites in Texas.

About 1,000 head a week move through Seguin, says Benno Luensmann. Business is down maybe 25 percent because of the drought. But Seguin also auctions sheep and goats—about 700 a week—and it’s one of the only auctions for hogs in Central Texas, he says.

Even before sunrise, diesel trucks rumble in with bouncing, banging, creaking livestock trailers fully loaded. After an hour of unloading, a posturing alpha bull, huffing and snorting, rams smaller bulls into pen walls. The squeaky bearings of pulleys attached to ropes open gates from 50 feet away, and clanking metal latches open and close thousands of times to form a steel percussion cadence—the songs of money for the buyers and sellers.

Decades of spider webs hang from eaves built durably of oilfield pipe and topped with sheet-metal roofing. The chant-like moaning of hundreds of confused cattle provides a chorus of constant concern. The pounding of hooves on soft dirt and dung, not loud but audible and distinct, kicks determined dust into the air. It finds its way into my eyes and boots and onto my lens, which requires continual cleaning.

All the while, the unfailing background ramblings of the auctioneer provide a play-by-play as the cattle get marched before prospective buyers. The breeders and ranchers at auctions take their investments seriously. Their fates are at stake. In the end, so are those of the cattle.

Woody Welch is an Austin-based photographer.