Cattlemen’s Congress makes an impact on cattle industry

During a year of cancellations due to COVID-19, one event was able to bring cattlemen and women together for vital cattle sales and livestock exhibitions, while also ramping up a struggling economy in the red dirt state. The event, Cattlemen’s Congress, was announced in response to the National Western Stock Show’s cancellation in September 2020 and was held Jan. 2 to 17 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

“When Denver came out and said they weren’t going to have their show, it was kind of a shock to all of us,” said Tyler Norvell, president of the Onward Foundation and a member of the board of directors for the Oklahoma Youth Expo and Cattlemen’s Congress. “Immediately my phone started blowing up with people asking if OYE was going to put on a replacement show. I thought no, there’s no way and then Bob Funk, OYE chairman and owner at Express Ranches, along with Jarold Callahan, president of Express Ranches, called and asked if it was possible.”

With support from Funk, the OYE team started hatching a plan to make this event happen. A board of directors was then established, which included Norvell, Jarold Callahan, Bob Funk, Jimmy Harrel, Shane Bedwell, Jaclyn Upperman and Blake Nelson. Location was one of the major hurdles and Norvell did not expect the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds to be available; fortunately the first two weeks of January were open.

“Following the decision to put on a replacement show, a meeting was called for all the breed representatives and within two weeks all their boards voted to make this their national show,” Norvell said.

Although Cattlemen’s Congress was set up as a replacement for the National Western, it was not possible to make accommodations for all the events that normally occur at the Denver show, so the OYE staff focused on cattle for their substitute event, including the livestock show, tradeshow and cattle sales.

However, to make this replacement event a reality during a pandemic and with three months to plan, the board of directors had a number of challenges to overcome. One of the major concerns was the COVID-19 pandemic and taking the necessary precautions to protect exhibitors and attendees, while also providing a show that felt “normal.” Norvell said the staff made sure to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and all exhibitors were required to sign a waiver stating if they tested positive, they would leave immediately and anyone they were exposed to would also leave. Fortunately the OKC Fairgrounds has the benefit of open-air barns, which provide extra air ventilation, but face masks were required in the show ring and areas where individuals could not social distance. Norvell said he was extremely impressed with how well the attendees followed the rules.

Another roadblock for this show was fundraising in a down economy, during a pandemic and with such a short time window. However, Norvell said the Cattlemen’s Congress crew was able to drum up $250,000 in sponsorship. Similar to fundraising, help was also hard to come by, but Norvell was thankful 17 unpaid college interns stepped in to help with the event.


Fortunately, the OYE staff has a little bit of experience with putting on replacement shows as Cattlemen’s Congress is the third they have hosted since the pandemic started. The other replacement shows were the California Youth Ag Expo and the Exhibition for the Youth of Oklahoma, which replaced the Oklahoma State Fair.

“Right when the pandemic started was when we had to cancel OYE, which was the darkest day in OYE history, we said we would commit to any opportunities to put on replacement shows if they presented themselves,” Norvell explained. “Now we’re signed up long-term to do the California show and we could be signed up long-term to do this show.”

The breeds and divisions exhibited at Cattlemen’s Congress included: Angus, Braford, Brahman, Brangus, Braunvieh, Charolais, Chianina, Gelbvieh, Hereford, Limousin, Maine-Anjou, Mini Hereford, Red Angus, Santa Gertrudis, Shorthorn, Simmental, junior market steers and prospect animals. In total, there were 9,627 entries exhibited by 2,793 individuals from 44 states and Canada.

Whitney Walker, of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, an Oklahoma State University student, exhibited Angus, SimSolution, Chianina, Shorthorn, ShorthornPlus and MaineTainer heifers throughout Cattlemen’s Congress and served as an intern for the show. She said 2020 was difficult as show after show was canceled due to the pandemic and she was not able to exhibit her projects that have been so time consuming and financially absorptive.

“It’s been so long since we were able to be in a ring and get back to what we’re used to as an industry,” she said. “I’m just really grateful for the crew that was able to put it on and step up to the challenge to make it a great experience for all the exhibitors and breeders. I am really passionate about showing and being able to get back into the ring was a really great feeling.”

Norvell said that gratitude was a theme throughout Cattlemen’s Congress.

“It’s been awesome how thankful and appreciative people have been,” Norvell said. “It’s exciting, it’s humbling, and it makes me proud for our state and our OYE staff.”

As far as the quality and size of the show, Walker said it was in a class of its own.

“I’ve been to all the major shows across the country, including The American Royal, the North American International Livestock Exposition, The National Western and the Fort Worth Livestock Show, and I believe that the entries at Cattlemen’s Congress were doubled for almost every breed,” Walker said. “I’ve never been in a ring that has had that many entries, but the quality is so deep, making it even more prestigious to win.”

Walker said she believed the reason the show was so large was due to how many shows had been canceled in 2020 and the location of Cattlemen’s Congress.

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“It’s exciting to see that this show has brought so many different areas of the country together because it’s so centrally located,” Walker said. “Most of the time northern and western exhibitors would go to Denver and eastern and southern would go to Fort Worth, but this year they all came together in Oklahoma City.”

Cattle and commerce

Norvell said part of the reason this event only featured cattle was due to space and the number of entries received. Additionally, the cattle show at the National Western is one of the largest exhibitions at the event and the cattle sales that take place drive the genetics and progress of the cattle industry.

“I could make the argument that this is an essential event to keeping the beef food supply vibrant,” Norvell said. “This is where the genetics trade hands, so this show had to happen for the beef industry of the United States and this is vital for these ranches to market their animals. If they didn’t have this, I can’t even fathom what would happen to our industry.”

According to Norvell, 17 sales took place at the fairground and another six associated sales were held at off-site locations in Oklahoma City. OYE officials stated initial sale reports indicated over $10 million in cattle and genetics were transacted during the two weeks of Cattlemen’s Congress.

“For the cattle industry, it’s extremely important to maintain and do business,” said Mark Squires, semen and embryo sales vice president, administration at Express Ranches. “The show is an important part of what we do, but the 23 sales associated with this event also help the operations and they depend upon that income. If we weren’t able to have this replacement show there would be quite a bit of economic downturn for the cattle industry and we wouldn’t be able to get together and evaluate and compare genetics, which moves breeds forward.”

Aside from allowing cattlemen to meet and exchange funds for premium genetics, Cattlemen’s Congress also injected life into Oklahoma City’s economy.

“This has been tremendous for Oklahoma tourism,” Norvell said. “The initial numbers show us using 1,800 hotel rooms a night. Every hotel you drove by was full of duallys and four-door pick-ups. I’d say the hotels and restaurants were as, or more, thankful than the exhibitors that were here and I know Oklahoma City was very excited to have us here.”

The natural question after the success of Cattlemen’s Congress is if it will be on cattlemen’s schedules for years to come? Right now is too early to tell, but Norvell said the discussions are ongoing to make Cattlemen’s Congress a permanent event.

“The feedback has been tremendous so far and people are wanting to come back, but what it’s going to come down to is where these breeds want to have their national shows.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].