Ged Willis’s expectations may have been a little high when he first got into the bison auction business in the mid-1990s. Back then, bison were worth big money — anywhere between $30,000 and $80,000, and Willis saw one sell for $100,000. “When you’re working on straight commission, that appealed to me,” he says.
Prices aren’t quite so lofty these days, but bison remain part of the business for Willowview Auctions, which Willis and his wife Barb operate near here.
Willis established Willowview Auctions in 1997. He has worked in the oilpatch, but Willis says he’s always considered himself a farm boy with a penchant for cattle. He attended auctioneering schools in Lacombe and in Billings, Montana, and figured he’d had enough under his belt to commit to the industry in a big way.
“At that time, people had to haul elk and buffalo to Drayton Valley to sell,” says Willis. The auction barns just weren’t set up with the type of heavy-duty equipment needed to handle big exotic livestock. He saw a need for a service, and decided to fill it.
He started in the bison business himself with 10 bred heifers and a bull in 1996 and eventually built up the herd to 400 in an attempt, as he says wryly, “to bring the average down. That didn’t work out so well.”
Today, he runs about 20 bison cows and a bull along with 30 elk cows and a bull. When the bottom fell out of the bison industry thanks to BSE, Willis figured it was time to get bigger or shut down.
Willowview Auctions has expanded facilities and built more corrals, and the auction barn has a capacity of 510 head. The main barn is 14,000 square feet and includes the sales ring, a concession and also features a licensed lounge, a facility not usually seen in auction markets. There’s more than 100,000 square feet of corralling plus holding pens that all sit on concrete. Some 500 calves can be kept under cover here in the winter.
An average of 500 cattle will go through here on regular sale days, but sometimes that number is as high as 1,500. Stock comes from a radius of 350 kilometres, from as far north as Manning, northwest to Fort St. John and east to Valleyview. Weekly cattle sales, monthly horse sales and bison sales every second Saturday throughout the winter make up the bulk of activity.
To keep the auction market competitive, Willowview has been installing innovative facilities such as a new drive-through stock-unloading system. The brainchild of Ged Willis, this system of corrals allows a patron to drive directly into the off-loading area, unload and drive straight out again. The drive-through will mitigate traffic bottlenecks on sale days, and improve safety for both livestock and employees.
Willowview has two livestock transport trucks and also buys animals for packing plants and feedlots. Salesmen are located in Spirit River, Hines Creek and Fairview. Fourteen employees work on sale days, and six of them have been with Willowview for at least 10 years.
Willis says providing good service is important to retain business, and it doesn’t hurt that given his history, he’s able to see both sides of the buying-and-selling picture. “Once people deal with us, they come back. I’m pretty easy to deal with.”