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Much has changed in cattle marketing

Jim Woster

Jim Woster

Associate Editor

Jim is associate editor of Tri-State Neighbor and also works with the SDSU Alumni Foundation.

Over the past few years, I have done my best to follow the ongoing discussion – some might say battle – regarding how best to improve our current system of marketing fed cattle. One thing I know for certain, and this “discussion” has reinforced it, is how quickly a person loses both knowledge and perspective on a topic such as marketing when no longer in the business each and every day.

Certainly, because it was my life for nearly half century, I do my best to tune in WNAX at 12:30 or 1:30 p.m. for a complete review of that day’s price structure and what is occurring to make it change. Still, it’s not even close to being personally involved.

One thing for certain, much like everything else in the world of agriculture, the entire industry has changed immensely from what we seniors refer to as “the good old days.” Whether those changes are good or bad is pretty much in the eyes of each individual or business who actually make a living in that world. Most of my friends currently in the business tell me, “It’s not good.”

Although, it has been nearly 60 years since I made 15 or 20 farm visits each week for Farmers Union Commission Co., change has been the operative word. I doubt that currently there are many families in the business who feed 100 cattle per year. Much like there are few who farm a quarter or half section. That having been said, neither are there many towns in a rural area, population 850, with a hardware store, grocery store, three churches and a school.

Competitive marketing through a “terminal” market such as Sioux Falls, Sioux City or Omaha, was the norm and it was important because of the customer, whom we represented. Very simply, that customer base was comprised almost entirely of families, who, along with a few hogs, chickens and a milk cow, also fed out 50, 75 or 150 cattle. Those cattle were marketed but a few times each year and the advice, facilities and prompt pay offered by a competitive market was vital.

Conversely, the operation feeding 2,000, 5,000 and many more each year, seldom accessed those services, nor did they need to.

When I arrived at the Sioux Falls Stockyards the only marketing system employed was private treaty, and for the vast majority of family farmers and for the times it worked well.

There was also an abundance of “small” packers in the area – packers such as Greelee Packing Co., for whom I bought cattle for about seven years. When we were running two shifts at full capacity, we processed around 1,200 cattle each day.

Other than the cattle we bought in the country for Monday starters, most of our purchases were at the Stockyards, where we operated Monday through Thursday. As an example of how many packers and order buyers were there each day, attempting to supply their respective plants with inventory, it was not unusual to have seven or eight different buyers competing every day in each of the 12 cattle alleys.

It was about that same time that one or two of those began to step up their country purchases. In fact, after the Greenlee-Spencer Foods merger in 1968, the powers that be assigned about 30 buyers to various regions in the Midwest and full-time country buying became the norm.

Certainly, the Stockyards continued to market decent numbers of fed cattle but the decline in receipts noticeably increased and you know the rest of that story. Again, I won’t comment on whether or not this was good or bad but rather another sign of the times.

About that same time, John Morrell announced that it would no longer purchase hogs from the Stockyards. We were shocked and angry until several of us met with the leadership and learned that our system of marketing did not work for their quality control program. I suspect that compensation to the feeder for quality may also have more than a little to do with changes in how fed cattle are marketed.

There were several other reasons for the decline and eventual closure of the Central Public Markets. Reasons such as environmental concerns also played a role in the closure of a wonderful market, but in looking back we were part of a changing industry. Agriculture was in an amazing transformative period and with that invariably came a few casualties.

I should not put my marketing thoughts on paper without reminding this region’s cattle producer that our state is blessed with many wonderful livestock auction markets – markets, which deserve your support in any way that you can. Those markets provide modern facilities and professional people who will write a check that is good.

Well, the old stockyards guy has rambled on about marketing of yesterday and today but noticeably has not touched on the future. Probably because he has nothing of value to offer other than the importance of working together as an industry to make the marketing system all that it can and should be. “Working together” may sound a bit corny and old fashioned but I truly believe it will apply to most discussions with positive results.

Let’s continue to ask for a bit of moisture as we go about our daily labors. Be safe and thanks for what you do.

Jim is associate editor of Tri-State Neighbor and also works with the SDSU Alumni Foundation.

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Associate Editor

Jim is associate editor of Tri-State Neighbor and also works with the SDSU Alumni Foundation.

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