Baxter Black: Faces of the cattle business

The cattle business today has evolved into several distinct segments. Each draws certain people whose personality, skill and savvy make them best suited to that segment. 

We’ll start with the purebred breeders, the architects who design prototypes for the industry. They are academic minded. They steep themselves in statistics, fiddle with and refine genetics in an effort to objectively define subjective traits. Not unlike ancient mariners drawing and redrawing the constellations in the night sky.

The next segment is the commercial cow/calf operator. They are the bedrock of the industry, the worker on the assembly line. They produce our product, beef, from scratch just as a welder builds a bumper guard, a cook bakes an apple pie and an artist paints a picture. They think in terms of generations (both human and bovine), take the good with the bad and have a loyalty to the land. You rarely hear them say, “I’m just ranchin’ to make enough money to buy the car dealership downtown!”

The grower, Segment 3, takes calves once they’ve been weaned and keeps them until they are big enough to go to the feedlot. These grower calves come from a wide variety of sources — farms, ranches, sale barns, dairies, dog pounds, gypos, traders and team ropers! It is a hands-on, intensive, frustrating and demanding job. It’s equivalent to teaching kindergarten through third grade, lots of babysitting. Economically, it’s like buying used cars and trying to make them resellable. 

Segment 4 is the feedlot. This is where we take a new car off the show room floor and turn it into a NASCAR Sprint contender. Today, average daily gain, conversion, genetics, fixed expenses, health problems, purchase price, feed price and sale date are predictable within reason. However, predicting the market, the sale price 120 days later, is like rolling the dice. Those who call themselves cattle feeders easily could be wild-catters in the oil business, prospectors, explorers, crap shooters, test pilots, magicians’ assistants, circus acrobats, punt returners or Wall Street speculators. They thrive on risk. If you guaranteed them a 20 percent profit on a truckload of steers, they’d hold out for 25 percent!

 And the final segment in our cattle business is the packinghouse where live cattle are turned into beef. Very little is known about this curious group of men. They sequester themselves in ritualistic confines, not unlike the Dalai Lama or Idi Amin, where they chant and mutter phrases like “yellow sheet,” “on the rail,” “triple grande no foam latte.” To all of us who have provided every animal that enters into their castle-like facility, they are as mysterious as the Vatican. We only are aware of their presence when we see a white puff of smoke and the phone rings …offering less!

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