Pratt Livestock Auction was once the biggest cattle market in the state of Kansas. Still big, still in business, still thriving under the capable management of Mike Lewis - at the helm for more than 55 years.
Mike Lewis has seen a lot of cattle through the years. An average of about 3,500 head come through his Pratt Livestock Auction every Thursday, and the 77-year-old has been in the business since he was 19.
"I started out wanting to be a journalist," Lewis said. "But after a year at college I found I just wanted to be at home with the cattle. That's what I enjoy."
Lewis also enjoys talking with people who raise, feed, buy and sell cattle, so at a time when others his age are retired, he still has no problem getting up and going to work every day.
"I like what I do," he said. "It's always been about the people. Cattle producers, cattle buyers, these are some of the finest people in the world that I work with every day. There is a lot of integrity in this business. This is where a handshake still means something and a lot of deals are still made that way. In my opinion, I'd say 99 percent of the people are honest. These people are the best."
Lewis started out working in his father's sale barn in Kinsley, then moved with the business to Pratt when the larger livestock auction was absorbing smaller markets in the area.
"There were probably 140 or so sale barns in the area when I got started," he said. "We had cattle auctions at Kingman, Harper, Hutchinson, Salina, Manhattan, Lincoln and more. It just got to be where the ones with better roads could draw in more buyers, and it made sense to go to those that had ease of access and better selling circumstances."
In 1962 Lewis began building what would become one of the most successful weekly cattle auction business in the state, and in many ways, Pratt Livestock is still at the top of the game.
"There is no big secret that goes into what makes this thing successful," Lewis said. "If you treat people right, they will come back. Like any business, you have to be efficient and the facilities have to be easy to get in and out of, but if you treat like you want to be treated, well that 's just common sense."
Lewis has long made it known he values his buyers and sellers at Pratt Livestock and anyone who ventures into the office hub can see from pictures on the walls, that long-standing friendships have been formed under Lewis' watch. Pictures of cattle buyers and sellers in three framed collections date back more than 30 years of business.
"We put those up as a courtesy to our buyers," he said. "We have lost at least 17 or 18 of them who have passed on. These are special people here."
There have been changes at Pratt Livestock during Lewis' tenure as on-site manager.
"Our biggest job is procurement," Lewis said. "I spend a lot of time on the phone, talking to customers, talking to buyers, talking to friends, but a lot of people now can go to the internet and see what we are selling and when. People want to know what the market is going to do and the internet is a big help with that."
Like many modern cattle auctions, Pratt Livestock uses sale-ring circuit systems, broadcasting live sales so buyers can bid from others locations than just inside the sale ring.
"It brings in 20-plus more additional buyers per year," Lewis said.
Another change that created little more than a ripple in the life of Pratt Auction personnel, was the purchase of the business by Winter Livestock of Dodge City in 2009.
"It's been good for Pratt, it's been good for Dodge, since we joined forces," Lewis said. "They help us with some of the procedures, like advertising. And they said they have learned a lot from us. We bring a lot of cattle to the table."
At the time that Pratt Livestock was purchased by Winter Livestock, Pratt was considered the largest cattle auction in the state. They still hold claim to the ability to bring cattle in from near and far to fetch competitive prices from an array of buyers.
"It's amazing, really," Lewis said. "Per capita, Pratt County doesn't have a lot of cattle on the ground. But we have sellers bringing in cattle every week from the Flint Hills, from the south as fas as Oklahoma and Texas. We are a hub here."
The United States Department of Agriculture sends a reporter out each week to track cattle sales at Pratt Livestock, according to Lewis only three auction sites are part of the USDA's trending reports: Pratt, Salina and Dodge.
"We must be doing something right," he said. "When you do things right, people are going to respect that."
Lewis said his employees are top-notch, making his job easy. On sale day, 30 employees keep busy with the myriad of task that go along with selling cattle.
"They are all trained right," he said. "We know how to take good care of our cattle and our customers."
The largest number of cattle sold in one day was 12,363 in 1988 or '89. The lowest numbers may have been 700 to 800 head. Currently, cattle coming off wheat are just starting to show up, and larger numbers expected in March and April. With an average of 3,500 hundred head of cattle moving through the 120-acre facility located just east of Pratt on Highway 400, doing it right is important. And Lewis will continue to be there, making sure that happens.