My father was the Michael Jordon of cattle buyers.
He was a city kid who grew up on the West Side of St. Paul. Which is on the west side of the Mississippi, but actually is south of Downtown. East of that is South St. Paul and to the south is West St. Paul. True. He got his training in the huge South St. Paul Stockyards, starting out as a drover, moving cattle around the yard on foot and on horseback, at sixteen. At one time he had a side business with Mike Farrel’s dad, speculating on buying and selling cattle in the yards. They called it the Emaciated Cattle Company.
When I was about five, he was offered a job buying cattle for Liebman Packing Company, which was in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Hence the Packers. The job was in the West Fargo Stockyards, just over the border in North Dakota. He worked for them until the early sixties when Siouxland decided to build their big plant. They realized that they couldn’t buy enough cattle to keep the place busy unless they hired my dad. Even with the advantage of no trucking costs, they couldn’t compete.
Here’s how it worked. The feeders brought their market ready cattle to the Stockyards and consigned them to a commission company. The commission company would act as bargaining agents for them. The buyers would go out into the yards and bid on the cattle hoping to cut an advantageous deal. The trick was to be able to look at the cattle and determine the ratio (yield) of their “on the hoof” weight to their dressed weight, hanging in the meat cooler. Then if you knew the going price of dressed beef and the profit margin you needed then you could calculate what a fair price per pound would be. Remember there were no calculators then; he had a series of laminated cheat cards, but I also think he did a lot of the math in his head. He was not a high school graduate. Dad could walk into a pen of 25 cattle, spend five minutes and estimate their yield percentage. If he missed by more than a half of one percent, he figured he’d blown it. So when Dad offered a price, you knew it was fair, so it was kind of a no haggle proposition. And if he gave you a price and you turned him down and you found out you couldn’t do better…well you’d better not come looking for him to give the original price. When he worked for Siouxland, he was the head cattle buyer and had five or six or some number of buyers working for him. He bought more cattle than all of them combined and bought them cheaper.
Mostly the job consisted of sitting around in the shacks out in the yards, playing cards, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes until some cattle would come in. Then out they’d go take a look, cut a deal and get back to the card game. There was some bullshitting done in the bargaining process. Once he took me aside and said, “You go over there and sit on the fence and when they bring the cattle in say, ‘Kinda skaggy aren’t they?’” I could say the men were rolling in the alley, but that would be really nasty.
So the owner of Siouxland came to town and personally offered Dad double his salary and he couldn’t refuse. He died when I was twenty. The business was going to auction selling and he had trouble hearing so he figured he would be obsolete before long. The West Fargo Stockyards is a ghost town now.
That’s him in the middle with the groovy glasses.

14 thoughts on “

  1. Thank you for that. It’s a glimpse into a world I know precisely nothing about, and a glimpse I appreciate getting.

    Also, your father’s specs are excellent. The ones I’m wearing right now look much like his.

  2. I read that as The Michael Jackson of cattle buyers and had to start over. And I’m seriously sorry I thought that.

  3. Hahah… the “kinda skaggy” shill.  What a great gig, playing cards and shooting the shit.  Your father sounds like he was a sharp dude. 

    Chicago stockyards were also a ghost town by the time I was old enough to get around.  There were a lot of rock concerts held in the old cattle showing building (International Amphitheatre) so we’d party in the yards beforehand.  A very post-apocalyptic kind of place… big half-wrecked brick buildings and empty streets with the wind whistling through.

    All that midwestern cow business wound up in Kansas City, if I recall correctly.

  4. i’ve been loving these stories, make no mistake.  but of all the details i’m still not sure i believe are true, nothing has thrown me more than the possibility that that’s why they’re called the Packers. 

  5. They pack a lot of stuff in Green Bay including fruit from Dor County so Liebman was not the only “Packer” but they were one of the original investors.

  6. So did he smell like cattle when he came home from work every day?  I worked at the end of the line in the cattle industry, so when I came home, I smelled like beef.

  7. …and as HP would announce to heike upon his return, “beef! it’s what’s for dinner!”

    and dude, i’m seriously thinking that the NFL would be as gung-ho about the idea of the “green bay fruit packers” as they’d be about the idea of the “green bay fudge packers”.  mmm, beef.

  8. This isn’t going to make any sense to you at all.  But, I need you to go to Entropanic’s xanga and leave a comment mentioning that you’re on my kickball team.  I know, I know, insane, but we all have needs

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