Denver’s NWSS: Closed for business |

Denver’s NWSS: Closed for business

Cattlemen won't be coming to Denver in January and the significant business done there is likely to go elsewhere.
Photo by Liz Munsterteiger

Producers, competitors and exhibitors in 40 states and 35 countries won’t be coming to Denver for the “best 16 days in January” after officials announced Sept. 14 the National Western Stock Show’s 115th event would be postponed until January 2022.

According to Doug Jones, board chairman of the NWSS, the show brings in 700,000 visitors and carries an economic impact of $120 million in January alone. Though the announcement was made early to allow for exhibitors to plan around financial losses, youth competitors already have their Denver stock being readied and producers who exhibit and display in the Yards have significant investment already made.

For Willie Altenberg, it’s a matter of lost business. Altenberg, a Simmental breeder in northern Colorado, said he’s been doing business in the Yards for 40 years and holds the liberal Denver mayor and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis responsible for the closure of the business done annually at the event. The economic impact to Denver, he said, is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the investment and return for stockmen there to do business.

“The only difference between social distancing on the ski slopes and allowing NWSS to remain open is that the ski resorts have better lobbies,” he said. “There are other surrounding states that value the business of cattle producers and they’re happy to have it. We’re not going to close for business just because the stock show is cancelled. That’s not what cowboys do.”

Despite his disgust at the closing of the NWSS for business in 2021, he is adamant that the staff of the event ought not be blamed for a decision that was out of their hands. For Altenberg, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the urban mayors and Gov. Polis’ office.

Bryan Sidwell, a Hereford breeder from Carr, Colo., has been spending part of January in Denver his entire life and his parents did the same before him. The Sidwell crew displays and shows in the Yards and on the Hill. They took 10 display bulls last year and the timing of the event drives many of his management decisions to ensure the best foot is forward when cattlemen and women from all over the world visit Denver.

Preparation for Denver isn’t for the short-sighted. Sidwell said he’s had his eye on heifers to take since they were calves last summer. Investment in cattle aside, Sidwell said they invest about $10,000 in transportation, meals, and wages for their crew. Though Jones said the city of Denver sees a $120 million economic impact, Sidwell anticipates the value of business done by those in the livestock industry far exceeds that number. The major investment in the cattle by Sidwell has already been made and he said they’re making plans to attend the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo as simply staying home and abandoning hope for revenue isn’t an option.

Sidwell said there have been a number of Junior Nationals shows, including the Hereford Association’s, that have been affected by restrictions and were able to move to different venues and go forward with some guidelines in place. He anticipates the same will happen with the junior livestock and breed shows slated for the NWSS. Sources at the major breed associations all indicated that discussions are taking place now to make alternate plans, including moving shows to other states.


Christy Collins, a cattle sale management expert who is well known in the cattle industry has been hosting the Embryos on Snow sale during the NWSS for 14 years. The 2020 Embryos on Snow sale grossed over $1.8 million to fund the La Prix Scholarship award’s five annual recipients.

Collins said the cancellation is unfortunate but it’s certainly not the first curveball thrown at the livestock industry.

“We may never know another Denver as we know it now,” she said. “The face and the shape of it will change and whatever it’s due to — politics or liberal cities or whatever — it could be a number of things, but the world is changing. As strong a community as we are, the show will go on.”

For Cody Cattle Company in Scandia, Kan., Denver is a major portion of their marketing in advance of their March bull sale. Lindsay Runft handles the purebred Charolais operation’s marketing alongside her husband, Cody.

“I always tell people who are not necessarily in agriculture, or haven’t been to the National Western, that for us, it’s like a trade show where we have our version of a product on display in our pen,” she said. “They can come through and learn more about our ranch, cattle, and our genetics and see them right there in the flesh. It’s a large part of our marketing. Of course, we market for our bull sale year-round, but things really start to heat up when we go to Denver every year.”

The exposure to large crowds from all over the world, who are in the Yards specifically to do business with other cattle producers is second to none. Runft said CCC bulls were sold in their 2020 bull sale into Canada after those buyers viewed the display bulls in Denver, expanding their customer base internationally.

The CCC crew typically brings 10 to 15 bulls to display in the Yards. The crew in Denver is about 15 people though there is a second crew back at the ranch calving and feeding cows. The investment is significant, but she said it is a wise one.

“When I heard Denver was canceled, I called my husband and asked him what we’re going to do and he said, ‘I don’t know but you’ll figure it out’,” she said. “My wheels are spinning on what to do and I think it’ll be interesting to see not just us but across the board.”

The club calf sire display in Denver is, she said, a major event and a who’s who of breeders and bulls. From the commercial guys to the purebred guys to the club calf bull guys, she said this might be the year to do something completely unexpected.

“It’s a big disappointment for sure but everyone in agriculture is used to the curveball and we’ll have to adapt,” she said. “In March Madness, the basketball teams have to survive and advance and that’s a little like what the cattle industry during coronavirus has felt like. You have to survive and advance.”

Dr. Samantha Cunningham guides the Colorado State University Seedstock Team who learn to market purebred cattle, in part, through displaying and showing cattle at the NWSS. Cunningham said when she was asked what her plan would now be in light of the cancellation she responded, “I’ll plan tomorrow. Today I’m mourning.”

Colorado Gov, Polis released a statement calling the NWSS “a proud tradition in our state and one of the ways we can all come together to celebrate agriculture in Colorado and across the west.” He said he enjoyed attending as a kid and now he enjoys “bringing our kids in proud support of ranching in Colorado.” Polis said he respects the decision and looks forward to attending in 2022.

The event was last postponed in 1915 as a result of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in livestock that closed transportation across state lines. The disease’s longest outbreak in the United States in 1914 necessitated the slaughter and incineration of the carcasses of infected animals. According to a technical bulletin released by the USDA in 1924, the outbreak that would have prompted the postponement of the 1915 NWSS stemmed from a plant where serum was produced to treat hog cholera. The viral disease was eradicated from the United States in 1929 and is not related to the disease of the same name common in children. ❖

— Gabel is the assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at or (970) 768-0024.


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