In and around Ponoka, Alta., just north of Red Deer, cattle probably outnumber the roughly 7,000 people who live in town. Ranching is the heart of the community, and on this day the local Vold, Jones Vold auction house is buzzing.
Dean Edge is here. He's a celebrity in these parts as the country's top cattle auctioneer, and he ranked fifth in the world two years ago.
And now Edge is headed to the U.S. to compete against the world's best in a bid to be No. 1.
"You're on stage and you've got the crowd in the palm of your hand, and everybody's laughing and cheering and spending money," he said, flashing a smile. "That's the way I do it at the auction."
In his cowboy boots and hat, Edge takes his spot behind the microphone and stares out at the buyers and sellers. As cattle are let in through the steel door to his left, he starts the bidding.
Edge's voice is fast, his words staccato. And when he really gets going it sounds like he's got a motor in his throat. He says it took him more than 20 years to become a successful auctioneer.
"You keep at it every single day before you really get to the point where your tongue works as fast as your head wants it to work," Edge said. "It's just practicing. Up and down the scales of numbers — you count by five to 100 and back. And count by one, one and a quarter, one and a half …."
In the middle of his explanation, Edge's motor is off and running again as the numbers start to fly out of his mouth. He admits he can't help it. And with the 58th annual World Livestock Auctioneer Championship set for June 9 to 11 in Shipshewana, Ind., he's working harder than ever to keep himself sharp.
But Edge explains that he doesn't only work at his craft so he can compete on the world stage – he strives to be the best because the stakes at the cattle auction in Ponoka are high.
Understanding what's at stake
Shirley Hagstrom, 65, is a farmer from nearby New Norway, Alta., and she's come to auction to sell a third of her cattle. Hagstrom's 485 hectare farm has been in the family since the 1890s, and its continued survival depends on the price she gets.
"We're nervous to see what we get. It's important," said Hagstrom, who sits beside her husband in the stands.
"We try to get as much money as we can for the cattle that we raise so we can continue to farm. It means a lot to my husband. It means a lot to my children."
Hagstrom said she had no idea who would be her auctioneer when she arrived at the auction house in the morning. When she found out it was Edge behind the microphone, she was ecstatic.
And she said she was rewarded, too.
"We did really well. We're happy with what we got for them," she said, smiling and giving a thumbs up. "Dean's the best. He can sell your cattle and tease you at the same time."
One of the reasons people here say Edge is such a good auctioneer, beyond the clarity of his voice and his charm, is that he's a rancher too. He understands what's at stake.
"My friends and neighbours, they work their butts off raising livestock and raising cattle," Edge said.
"When it's 40 below, they're out feeding them and bedding them and making sure they're taken care of. When it didn't rain all last summer, they were scrounging feed from all across North America to get enough to feed them through the winter.
"They work so hard for years. I can work hard for them for five minutes in the ring and try to make the most out of it for them."
WATCH | Dean Edge, one of the top auctioneers in Canada, starts the bidding process at a cattle auction at the Vold, Jones Vold auction house in Ponoka, Alta.:
What gives him an edge
The bidding continues and Edge's voice fills the auction house. More and more cattle are let in and out of the pen. He makes it look easy — which makes sense when you consider Edge went to his first cattle auction soon after he could walk.
"I remember going with my dad to bull sales when I was really little," Edge said. "That's what we did all the time – great memories, too. We'd go to auctions and go to rodeos. I just loved going to rodeos with him."
Now 42, for Edge auctions and rodeos are two sides of the same coin.
He rodeoed on his family's ranch growing up and started to compete at school. Edge got better and better, and in his 20s he turned pro and traveled all across Western Canada and into the U.S. for competitions. He made the Canadian Finals 11 times and rodeoed at the Calgary Stampede.
WATCH | Dean Edge shows his rodeo skills at the 2008 Calgary Stampede in the Calf Tie Down event:
At the same time, Edge attended auctioneering school in Billings, Mont.
He says his competitive past gives him an advantage heading into the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship.
"So now I go to these auction contests and I see some of these other guys are kind of a ball of nerves because they've never competed before," Edge said. "I've been at a professional level of competition, and that helps with the nerves and just helps me be confident and be positive when I'm on the auction stand."
But there's another reason Edge is one of the favourites to win it all. The 2004 world auctioneer champion – Dan Skeels – is his neighbour and mentor.
When Skeels steps out of his truck to visit Edge at his ranch and help with some last-minute preparation, it's hard to miss his giant gold-and-silver belt buckle.
The words "World Champion" are emblazoned across it.
"It's a treasure," said Skeels, as his face lit up. "It's a family heirloom.
"Winning the World Auctioneer Championships is no different than winning the Stanley Cup," he said. "We're Canadians, we live for hockey. The Auctioneer Championships are the same thing. If you can win the Worlds, you won the Stanley Cup."
Supporting the cattle industry
Skeels joins Edge on his porch to discuss the upcoming competition. Skeels says he believes Edge is more than ready, but still he offers some advice.
"Always work on clarity and the voice control, the timing," he said. "Probably pick up the pace a bit. You're going to want to sell out a little quicker."
Thirty-one auctioneers qualified for the World Championship by competing in a series of regional events. Edge won his in South Dakota in 2020, but that year the championship was cancelled because of COVID-19. Then in 2021 Edge couldn't attend because of travel restrictions related to the pandemic.
The World Championship takes place over several days and includes an extensive interview about the current trends and issues in the cattle industry — and of course a live auction component.
Skeels says that when you win the Worlds you become the spokesperson for the cattle industry for a year, and people listen to what you have to say. Back in 2004 he raised awareness about the struggles Alberta ranchers were going through with drought and mad cow disease.
"We had lots of producers that were going bankrupt," he remembered. "We lost a lot of producers and they didn't come back, because it's an aging population and the younger generation they went off and they found different jobs."
Skeels hopes that if Edge wins the championship, it might get more people interested in agriculture in Alberta again.
And he believes his friend is ready for the challenge.
"I think Dean's chances are really, really good. And I'm going to make a bold prediction that Dean will be the next Canadian to win the Worlds," Skeels said. "He's an all-star. There's no doubt in my mind."
Back at the cattle auction in Ponoka, the day's sales are winding down. Trigger Pugh – who along with his father and niece sold 78 heifers — is heading back to the nearby ranch that has been in their family for generations.
Asked what he thinks of Edge's chances to bring home the coveted belt buckle, Pugh nods.
"He's one of the best auctioneers we have up here. So against the world, I'm sure he'll be right amongst the best of all," Pugh said.
"He'll get them guys to get their hands out of their pockets and get them bidding, that's for sure!"
Still, as much as Pugh is rooting for Edge to win the championship, auctions aren't sport to him — they are about his family's livelihood.
"This is how we make our living. So it's a big deal. We want our cattle to bring as much as they possibly can."
And that might be Edge's biggest advantage of all. He's motivated to be the best for ranchers like Pugh. He says that getting the most money he can for people at auction is the main reason he wants to win.
"It would be the pinnacle of success to win the Worlds," Edge said.
"But if I can be crowned the world champ, it just means that maybe I can do things a little bit better to get those people a little bit more money for the one or two paycheques they get a year. And that'd be the all-important thing for me."
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