Click for Cattle: Ranchers find home, home on the Web

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— When Albert Culverwell began ranching in rural Moffat County back in 1912, his main goals were survival and building up the herd.

By the 1940s, his son had enough livestock to drive to the railroad yard in Craig. There, the rancher would load up his cattle or sheep, hop on the train and take an entire day's ride to Denver. Only then would he be able to sell his animals at a livestock auction, taking what he could get.

Nearly 90 years later, Culverwell's great-grandson is loading and downloading his cattle with a Nikon digital camera and a laptop computer.

And 34-year-old Rodney Culverwell doesn't even have to leave the ranch.

If Culverwell and ranch boss Margaret Whittaker had their way, ranchers would never have to set foot in another auction barn. Instead, they would all be buying and selling cattle at their Web site, digitalcattle.com.

"When the rancher sells them on the Web site, he doesn't have to pay the freight to get them to the auction barn and he doesn't pay the yardage or other fees," said Culverwell.

"We were just trying to find a better marketing tool for ranchers to use, and not have to pay quite so much commission."

Culverwell and Whittaker are based out of the Rio Ro Mo Ranchwest of Craig. Rio Ro Mo stands for Rio Blanco, Routt and Moffat Counties, where the Culverwells have been running sheep and cattle since the early 1900s.

Whittaker isthe brains behind the Web site and she actually owns the cattle at the Rio Ro Mo Ranch where she leases 25,000 acres in Craig and Routt County from the Culverwells. Rodney is her foreman, and boyfriend.

She got the idea of a cattle Web site after a man stopped by in November of 1998 and wanted to take digital pictures of her cattle so he could sendthem via e-mail to a largecattle buyer in Oklahoma.

"He didn't know much about digital cameras and I ended up helping him and got the idea from there," Whittaker said.

By last June, Whittaker had her Web site up and running with the help of a local Web master. Culverwell and other representatives were sent out to take pictures of cattle whose owners wanted to sell them on the Internet.

Legal, but not alone

According to the Department of Agriculture, digitalcattle.com was the first "legal" Internet cattle marketing Web page in the state of Colorado and the fourth in the United States.

"There are numerous sites that are listed but they're not listed legally according to the packers and stockyard regulations," Whittaker said. "I'm licensed, bonded and registered withthe state of Colorado and the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Unfortunately for Whittaker, big national livestock auction operations got the idea about the same time, and used their well-known reputations to boost their own Web sites.

Superior Livestock Auction is the Fort Worth-based company that pioneered the live video auctions that allowed ranchers to view cattle from their offices or homes through satellite television. Superior has representatives that serve as the go-betweens to make sure that sales contract obligations are met on both sides.

"We've taken that same concept where the reps still work directly with the buyer and seller and consign them to the Internet," said Rhonda Henderson, Superior Livestock Auction's Internet market coordinator.

Routt ranchers sign on

Routt County rancher Dean Rossi, whose family has been running cattle for three generations near Oak Creek, decided to listhis cattle on Superior's Web site last year. "We sold quite a few cattle on the Internet last year. It went quite well," Rossi said. "I was a little apprehensive to start with, but it worked out," said the old-timer who remembers when only horses, and not 4-wheelersor planes, were used to round up cattle.

"It cost me at least half of what it would have cost me to take my cattle to town," Rossi said.

Ranchers like Rossi often load up their cattle and take the livestock to the nearest auction barn. In this part of northwest Colorado ranchers have to go as far as Greeley, Brush or Fort Collins. Once there, the cattle can be exposed to illnesses from other cows and ranchers also must pay fees to hold and feed the cattle.

"The advantage with the Internet is you don't have to take them to auction and you have the right to say no," Rossi said. "And your cattle are still at home."

Whittaker said that's the beauty of selling cattle onthe Internet. The buyer doesn't have to accept any bid, and in the case of her Web site, ranchers can listtheir cattle free of charge. A commission is collected only after a sale is made and the cattle loaded up.

"Some Web sites charge ranchers to list their cattle and some Internet sites have an exclusive right to your cattle," Whittaker said. No such restrictions apply on digitalcattle.com.

Getting old-timers like Rossi to use the Internet is something Superior and other auctions houses were counting on. Superior has sold 25,000 head of cattle since its Web site opened up in June. "We're seeing buyers and sellers we haven't seen before," Henderson said.

They're the kind of numbers that might make Culverwell andWhittaker envious since they just reached about 500 cattle sold on their Web site. Although they have listed 7,500 cattle and have had more than a 100,000 hits.

Hayden area rancher Lawrence Murphy listed with digitalcattle.com last year, but pulled his cattle off the Web site after looking at the bids. He said he regretted it.

"We went ahead and took them to Brush (auctionbarn) and sold them, but we didn't get as much as we would have on the Internet," said the 69-year-old Murphy, who runs 600 mother cows on 6,000 acres. Culverwell will be happy to hear that Murphy said he might try digitalcattle.com again this summerbefore hisfeeder calves are ready to ship.

They haven't done much advertising, but neither Whittaker nor Culverwell say they are daunted by the competition. While Culverwell hasn't dealt with Superior's Web site, he has dealt with another major livestock auction house when he and Whittaker were first trying to gether cattle listed ona Web site.

"No one ever contacted us," Culverwell said. "Customer service will be our top thing and we know it will take a while to get a reputation."

As for great-grandpa Culverwell, what would he think of all this?

"It's a modern ranch," his great-grandson said with a smile. "You have to change with the times."

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