Trickle-Down Economics

Out on the plains, water is Colorado's most liquid asset.

Today Brush is a town of 5,000 that's learned to adjust with the times -- and the floods. The sanatorium is gone, replaced by one of the state's largest retirement homes. The factory that used to take in all the sugar beets from local growers went under, but now it processes beans. The trains don't stop for water anymore, but they do supply coal for the gigantic Public Service Company Pawnee Power Plant that provides jobs and a good tax base for schools. Two more gas-fired power plants make Brush the electricity-producing center for this region.

Yet the town's managed to retain its ties to agriculture, and the values that go with farming. Brush is a place where folks leave their doors unlocked and their keys in their trucks. You can still get a cup of coffee for a quarter and enjoy it while sitting around shooting the breeze.

Brush may well be the auction capital of the world. It boasts one of the largest dairy-cow auctions in the country, as well as the largest video livestock auction and one of the biggest for farm machinery. And then there's the Livestock Exchange, one of the largest, if not the largest, cattle auctions in the state -- which makes it one of the largest in the country.

Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.
William Taylor
Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.

In a big dirt parking lot on the east end of Brush, ten miles from Fort Morgan, the pickups outnumber passenger cars nine to one. A sign in the lot announces that this is the Livestock Exchange.

With a whoop and heeyah, cowboys guide reluctant steers in groups of three or four from holding pens through a chute in the side of a warehouse-sized building. The cattle emerge in a muddy arena, where two men flick at them with small whips as an auctioneer rattles on for the audience. Most of the people in that audience are men, sporting cowboy hats and boots worn with use, although a few of the younger men favor a more studied Wild West look.

Back in 1967, Bob Walker and his partner, Sam Wyatt, came out from Greeley and started the exchange, which includes Drover's Restaurant --the unofficial meeting place for this part of the country. Wyatt died a couple of years ago, but Walker's still on hand, welcoming people to his place with a firm handshake and a howdy.

Today he's celebrating the 33rd year of operation with an all-you-can-eat buffet in Drover's featuring roast beef, of course, as well as an auction of 6,000 head of cattle. Most of the beef will go by the truckload, which by law is limited to 5,000 pounds of steak on the hoof per truck. Those steers cut to meet the weight limit or because a buyer didn't like their looks have to parade around the arena, as television monitors report their average weight for buyers.

"This is the center of the agricultural world, at least in northeastern Colorado," says Steve Treadway, sitting in his private office in the exchange building that he admits he probably doesn't need, seeing as how he's "semi-retired" and all. "But it keeps me in the thick of things."

Treadway has more than a dozen baseball-style caps stacked in his office promoting a variety of things, including farm equipment, the Brush rodeo and, of course, the center of the agricultural world, the Livestock Exchange. He wears nearly as many imaginary hats in his roles as a Brush town councilman, a leader of several South Platte water groups -- and a closet environmentalist in farm country.

Treadway was born and raised on a farm in central Illinois where the problem was always too much water rather than too little. Farms there were mostly along river bottoms, and farmers like his dad were always working on ways to drain water from the land and get it back into the river. Treadway also thought he'd seen enough water to last him a lifetime as a crewman aboard a U.S. Navy ship during World War II.

So when his older brother got the family farm after their father died, he didn't rue the accident of birth. He had another idea for how to make his fortune. After the war, the cattle feedlot business started moving out of the Midwest -- Chicago and St. Louis, particularly -- and shifting west. He decided to go with the flow and started feedlots in west Texas, then New Mexico, then western Kansas.

Unfortunately, Treadway always seemed a little ahead of his time. The farmers and ranchers in those parts were used to putting their cattle on trains to ship to feedlots in the Midwest, and they didn't take to his concept. In fact, they called him crazy, "and that was the nice word," Treadway remembers. But five years later he'd hear that someone else had come along with the same idea, which now was going gangbusters.

In 1964 Treadway moved to Brush to take over as manager of a feedlot owned by Denver-based Sigman Meat Company. Colorado's feedlot operations were the most advanced in the country. But now he had a different problem: He was back on a river, only this time, he quickly learned, the river didn't have enough water.

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