NWSS: From humble beginnings to ‘most important single livestock event in the world’

As seen in The Fence Post Here.

From a humble beginning of less than a hundred head of cattle in its starting year, the National Western Stock Show has come a long way. Formally created in 1906 as the brainchild of regional beef industry contributors, the prestigious event now hosts more than 10,000 head and 24 breeds of cattle during its 16-day run.

“If you go way back to the beginning, if you look at the major expositions, they happen to coincide with the stockyards where the cattle were traded,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the oldest cattlemen’s association in the country. “The reason why is you had beef producers sending their cattle to market, selling them, at these events. What they soon realized was it was a great place to come into contact with other producers that offered either genetics or other services. So it really had a history in science and technology, in better breeding and better animal health standards, but also in transactional trades of seedstock in the region.”

The goal of those early large expos or cattle shows was for beef producers to help improve their herds and, as a result, positively impact the industry as a whole. Looking back, it appears the impact was felt from the start.

“When it started out, it was more of a local or regional impact,” said Marshall Ernst, senior director of the NWSS livestock department. “It was Colorado cattlemen that kind of got together and thought it would be a good place to exhibit their livestock and just get them exposed to the rest of the industry.”

“What I see is for us to have more facilities, more seminars, and more educational kinds of programs,”

That exposure was important in advancing the quality of beef throughout the region and, eventually, throughout the country and the world.

“If we were to look back 50 to 75 years ago, without these expositions, you never would have had the opportunity to really bring (all the cattle) into one place and have these competitions, and there is data collected at these, right?” Fankhauser said. “People look at these animals, they collect weights, they collect performance data, and they compare. Without those types of things earlier on in the industry, I don’t think the industry would have advanced as quickly. They knew that they needed a venue like that.”


Since those formative years, the NWSS evolved into one of the most prestigious shows in the world.

“The National Western is the most influential show in the nation by a long, long shot and it may actually be the most important single livestock event in the world,” Ernst said. “It is where, if you want to be known as having quality cattle within the beef industry, you come to Denver and you compete. We have people come from 30 to 40 different countries that are looking to buy genetics here — semen, embryos. Mexico will import live cattle. Canada will, of course, import live cattle. You can hardly look at any of the breed publications and go any more than three or five pages without seeing some reference to how someone or some animal has done at the National Western.”

With goals constantly changing and trends in the industry moving forward at the speed of technology, the NWSS’ near future includes impressive plans to expand the complex and turn it into a year-round tourist destination that will include agricultural education and research.

“What I see is for us to have more facilities, more seminars, and more educational kinds of programs,” Ernst said. “Surveys have said that with a larger facility and better ingress and egress that we could experience a 25 percent increase in our numbers of livestock. That will increase the importance of the NWSS’ value to the industry. I would expect more allied industries that support livestock production would want to participate with more livestock and more space to accommodate displays and conferences. So we expect to have a lot more influence than we have had in the past.”