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It’s tough to make a buck with rodeo stock

Rob Sabo

Rising fuel and feed prices are eroding profits for the stock contractors who supply bucking bulls and broncos to events such as the Reno Rodeo.

At the same time, mounting debt is erasing years of hard-earned equity, leaving cattlemen to wonder how long they and the rodeo business can survive.

Cotton Rosser, president and operations manager of Flying U Rodeo and the general stock contractor for the Reno Rodeo, says high costs for fuel and feed have led to six-figure losses the past few years at his ranch near Marysville, Calif.

Rosser, who will bring more than 800 animals to the Reno Rodeo during the next 10 days, has begun to wonder about continuing in the business despite his 56 years of experience.

The Reno Rodeo, which begins Thursday with the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Xtreme Bulls event, is a showcase for stock contractors as well as professional rodeo cowboys.

Don Kish, who raises bulls for Growney Brothers Rodeo and Kish’s Bucking Best of Red Bluff, Calif., also has concerns about how long he can continue in the stock contracting business.

He bred and raised several of the most notable bulls in professional rodeo history, including PRCA Hall of Famer Copenhagen Cash; Wolfman, the only bull in rodeo history to score a 100-point ride; and the famed Red Rock, sire of dozens of top bucking bulls.

Kish, who will bring several dozen animals to the Reno Rodeo, figures that in the early to mid 1990s he had more rodeo stock than any other contractor in the U.S. or Canada. But over the past three years he’s been forced to sell off much of his herd to counter escalating operating costs.

“I used to have 650 bulls, now I have 300, and I used to have 250 cows and now I have 100,” Kish says from his 340-acre spread just outside of Red Bluff. “The last three years, I had to sell a little more and a little more to catch up. The rates we are getting at rodeos aren’t close to what we are spending.”

The last year he earned a profit, Kish says, was 2008 right before gas broke the $4 a gallon barrier and inched closer to $5 in many parts of California.

Fuel and feed are the biggest profit-killers for stock contractors, says Rosser. Four years ago the octogenarian filled the 12,000-gallon truck he uses to gas up his fleet of haul trucks for about $13,000. In 2008, that cost skyrocketed to $35,000. His last bulk load of fuel cost $28,000.

Contractors’ stock literally is eating the rest of the profit margin the price of hay and fertilizer have spiked 300 percent in recent years, Rosser says. Kish says that in 2008 he bought hay for $85 to $125 a ton, and corn tonnage cost between $80 to $100. Since then, corn has topped $300 a ton, and high-quality alfalfa in 2011 cost him between $180 to $260 a ton.

Kish used to grow his own hay, but he has to irrigate his property with water drawn from the Sacramento River using diesel-powered pumps. With diesel at $4 a gallon, he simply can’t afford to farm anymore.

“It is a double-edged sword that just keeps hitting you,” Kish says. “You can’t get away from it.

“It is disheartening, and I am not sure if there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he adds. “I don’t think the rodeo will be around in 10 more years.”

Ancillary costs have risen as well: The vet bill for testing each animal brought into Nevada for the Reno Rodeo is about $11,000, Rosser says.

Transportation costs also have burgeoned.

Don Hutsell, owner of the Flying Five and Big Bend rodeo companies located at a rural area near Spokane, Wash., will bring 70 bucking horses and 30 bulls to the Reno Rodeo a distance of about 900 miles.

Hutsell subcontracted three semi trucks for the journey at a cost of $4 a mile, or $3,600 per truck each direction. Hutsell also employs a crew of four, and so he must pay for meals, lodging and other travel expenses.

Hutsell’s been traveling to more rodeos and trying to increase his fees as a means to counter higher operating costs, and he regularly stocks events throughout Central and Southern California. The rodeo business will get bigger and better, he contends, because it’s a fun family draw.

Sherry Compton, spokeswoman for the PRCA, agrees, saying attendance at rodeos typically trends up during tough economic times because rodeo is a relatively inexpensive way for families to recreate. Also, Compton notes, stock contractors in the Midwest could be faring better than those in other parts of the country because of lower fuel prices.

The higher cost of doing business has led to cutbacks in the number of events and the distances to which some Western stock contractors will haul animals. Rosser used to supply about 90 rodeos each year, but that number has been cut in half. Kish says he won’t travel more than 10 to 12 hours by truck because of the toll such journeys take on the animals.

Rosser says the Reno Rodeo Committee has helped offset escalating costs through incremental raises each year, and he almost broke even in 2011 after several years of six-figure losses that burned huge amounts of savings and equity.

“We love what we do, and we have been in business 56 years this year, but in a way I think we would like to get out,” Rosser said last week fielding a phone call during a rodeo in Santa Maria, Calif. “We love what we do, but it’s like fighting World War III with World War I equipment.”

Rosser says he doesn’t know what will happen to the business when he finally does step aside. Most of his family works for the Flying U Rodeo. Rosser’s sons, Lee and Reno he was born during the Reno Rodeo mostly likely will take the reins.

“We are just kind of rolling the dice,” Rosser says. “They say I am the best at what I do, but it is really tough. I haven’t bought a new car or truck since 2000. I am just using my assets and equity to stay in business. I have put four of my kids through college, and I am the luckiest guy in the world, but as far as making any money it is kind of a joke.”?


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