Annually, C.K. “Sonny” Booth auctioneers cattle sales at the Black Hills Stock Show.
Annually, C.K. “Sonny” Booth auctioneers cattle sales at the Black Hills Stock Show.

By Kiera Leddy

Wintery skies and potential blizzard warnings pose no threat in stopping more than 300,000 people traveling hundreds of miles to the biggest 10-day event in Dakota cattle country: the Black Hills Stock Show. One such traveler is C.K. “Sonny” Booth, a man in a black cowboy hat from northeast Oklahoma.

Sonny Booth grew up on a farm near Miami, Oklahoma. He says he was exposed to cattle auctions at a young age by his dad, Clyde Booth, who was a cattle order buyer. 

Upon graduation from Oklahoma State University in 1964, where he was a member of the livestock judging team, Sonny Booth took a job with Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, he says. This experience allowed him to become acquainted with registered cattle breeders, but he recognized auctioneering was his passion, he says.

“Auctioneering is a great occupation but hard business to be established in,” Booth says. “You have to start at the bottom, work your way up, and be surrounded by good people.”

To help establish himself Booth attended and graduated from the National Auction Institute in Bryan, Texas, in 1967, he says. He then started forging relationships with purebred cattle producers across the country. Many of those relationships took him to South Dakota where he auctioned at Limousin, Simmental, and Chi-influence cattle sales, he says.

One of those relationships led him to Yackley Ranch in central South Dakota. Owners and operators at the time, Bob and Elaine Yackley, raised Limousin cattle. Bob Yackley says he first met Sonny Booth in the early 1970s at the Red Carpet Sale for Limousin cattle in Huron, South Dakota. A friendship was formed, and a few years later Sonny Booth auctioned for Yackley Ranch’s first registered bull sale in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota. 

“Our second sale the following year did not go too well,” Yackley says. “Bulls were selling less than $1,000 a piece. The average was not good, and it was a bit of a jolt to me at the time. But Sonny picked me up by my bootstraps encouraged me not to lose hope and keep producing good bulls.”

The early 1970s were a terrible time for the cattle market, Booth says. A good cow would bring $300 to $400, he says. Times were tough for everyone, he added.

“I was sure he [Yackley] wanted to quit the business,” Sonny Booth says. “But he is not a quitter. We had a long talk. It was a tough day.”

Yackley says he hired Sonny Booth to auction all of his bull sales in South Dakota, including the Yackley-CMC dispersal sale of registered Limousin cattle, which set many records at the time. 

Booth says his time in South Dakota also allowed him to maintain a friendship he began with a young boy. Chisum Peterson, broker and auctioneer for Peterson Land and Auction, says he met Booth when he was 6 -years-old at his family’s Limousin production sale. 

“Being a little kid at the time, I was completely mesmerized by his chant and the auction process itself,” Peterson says. “Right then and there, I knew what I was going to be when I grew up.”

After the sale, Booth presented Peterson with a token that would impact his life forever, Peterson says. 

“Sonny gave me his gavel, and I have held onto it ever since,” Peterson says. “Having someone you idolize as a little boy give you something, like the gavel, leaves you awestruck. It was a simple gesture on his part, but yet something which had a huge, lasting impact on my life.”

Today, Booth and Peterson reconnect every year in January at the Black Hills Stock Show. Peterson serves as the Limousin breed representative, and Sonny Booth auctioneers during the Limousin breeder’s consignment sale. Booth has attended the Black Hills Stock Show for more than 35 years.

Each year, cattle breeders across South Dakota meet to vote on an auctioneer for their breed’s consignment sale at the Black Hills Stock Show, says Amanda Kammerer, Black Hills Stock Show livestock coordinator. This gives cattle breeders the opportunity to choose a new auctioneer or continue with the one they have, she adds. 

To date, Booth has served as auctioneer for the Black Hills Stock Show Limousin sale for 36 consecutive years, the Chi-influence sale for 30 consecutive years and the Simmental sale for 27 consecutive years. 

“He does his homework before the sale,” Yackley says. “He comes with knowledge about the breeder and bloodline of the cattle.”

“A lot of people come to the stock show to buy and bid on great genetics,” Peterson adds. “A big part of the experience has to do with who is conducting the auctions. Booth wants people to succeed with what they have consigned.”

When he is not traveling to sales 150 days out of the year, Booth says he spends time at his family’s cattle operation, researching cattle pedigrees and expected progeny differences for his upcoming auctions. He adds he likes to gather all of the information so he is prepared to answer any questions.

“Auction day is an important day because it is a large part of a family’s income for those involved in production agriculture,” Booth says. “Other people may have money coming in weekly or monthly. For livestock families, sometimes it is all in one day, so it is important to be prepared to help them succeed.”

Booth was inducted into the Livestock Marketeers Hall of Fame in 2009 and the North American Limousin Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015. He adds his success was not accomplished by on his own.

“I would like to point out good ringmen are very important,” Sonny Booth says. “I have been blessed to work with some of the best while selling several different breeds of registered cattle.”

In the early 1990s, Sonny Booth says he took a chance on an individual who had a sharp eye for cattle evaluation. 

“I had seen Mary at a lot of cattle auctions and livestock shows because she was the South Dakota State University livestock judging team coach,” Sonny Booth says. “We were good friends. She had an infectious smile and personality.”

Mary (Nesvold) Booth started coaching the SDSU livestock judging team in 1986. The pair had known each other professionally for a long time from attending cattle sales and the Black Hills Stock Show, at which she judged the Limousin show one year, she says. A few years into their friendship, they realized their feelings had grown toward each other, she adds.

“Andy Rest, a mutual friend of ours says to me, ‘You realize Sonny likes you,’” Mary Booth says. “And I said, ‘Yeah, whatever, haha.’”

A few weeks later he called her and in 1995 they were married, she says. 

Mary Booth says when they were first married she traveled with him to sales, which meant about 200 days of the year back then. They have now been married 23 years and have a 21-year-old daughter, Rachel. 

“I have a great partner in life to raise our daughter with,” Sonny Booth says. “We have been blessed and are so lucky to have her.” 

If you attend the Black Hills Stock Show this year, stop by the auctioneering ring to listen to Sonny Booth’s auctioneering chant. He is described by Bob Yackley as “a truly gifted person as a man and an auctioneer” and Peterson believes he possesses “one of, if not the most, highly recognized auctioneer chants in all purebred livestock auction history and present day.” 

The Black Hills Stock Show takes place Jan. 25 to Feb. 3 at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota.