New ownership, same business: Fieldman, yard manager, and auctioneer buy Stockmen’s Livestock
On any given Thursday morning, there’s warm camaraderie, familiar consignors, committed cow buyers and a few hearty jokes to be found at Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, North Dakota.
The livestock auction has been working for southwest North Dakota’s producers since 1937. It began as the Dickinson Livestock Sales Company, then renamed Schnell’s Dickinson Livestock Company in the 1950’s. As that name suggests, the livestock barn has not undergone many owner changes in its time, but the turn of the year is also ringing in a new era for the sale barn.
Larry and Judi Schnell, and James and Renee Erickson, sold Stockmen’s in December to new owners John Fischer, Austin Henderson, and Daniel O’Donnell.
The three new owners are certainly not new faces in the yards, though. They have all been an integral part of Stockmen’s and don’t plan on making many changes to the day-to-day operations for their sellers and buyers.
As a third-generation owner in Stockmen’s Livestock, up until a few years ago Larry Schnell had no intention of selling his business. His grandfather, Ray Schnell, founded the auction in 1937, and passed it on to Willard and Robert Schnell. Delmer Erickson bought into the business in 1977, and Larry Schnell and James Erickson took over from there. Stockmen’s Livestock purchased Western Livestock in 2001, creating two locations in Dickinson.
Operating both Stockmen’s East and Stockmen’s West is more than a full-time job, and Larry Schnell now has 6 grandchildren. His decision to sell was family-based, he explained. He wants to watch his grandkids grow up, which he would have missed out on if he had remained owner.
Schnell and Erickson were on the same page when it came to deciding who they would sell to.
“First of all, when James and I started talking about selling out we wanted to be sure that we found somebody who would take care of our customers. Both of our families have a legacy here and it’s the way we do business. We want to make sure the customers were taken care of and we really believe that these three young men will. They have all been working for us and that was an important part of it. They already know much of what happens here and how to do it. That helps a lot and gets them on the ground running right away. We’re already seeing that the customers who have been loyal for many, many years are well taken care of. We know they (the new owners) are free-thinkers and forward-looking, and I think as time goes on they’ll do some things different than we did and hopefully in a better way. We just want to see this thing do better and better as time goes on,” Schnell said. While there were other individuals interested in the sale, the owner said they were preferential to those that were already working at Stockmen’s.
James Erickson’s dad, Delmer, bought into Stockmen’s in 1977 while working at Western Livestock. James bought his shares and has been involved ever since, and will continue to be involved in the daily operations.
“My partner (Larry) wanted out and I’ve been here for 35 years. It’s just time to get these young guys started with the same opportunity I had,” he said. “I don’t mind working for these young guys.” Erickson will continue auctioneering and doing on-farm appraisals as a field rep.
“We’re pretty excited with the way things turned out,” Schnell said, noting that he will be consulting for as long as the new owners need him.
The end of December marked 22 years at Stockmen’s Livestock for John Fischer. In those 22 years, he’s moved a ways up the ladder.
Fischer was raised on a ranch south of Halliday, North Dakota by his parents, Joe and Jane Fischer. When John made the move to Dickinson, he found his ‘getaway’ at Stockmen’s Livestock.
He began working in the pens when he was 16 and continued on through high school and college. After he graduated from DSU with an Associate’s degree in Ag Business and Bachelor’s in University Studies, Fischer became a fieldman for Stockmen’s and has continued to be an asset there, even taking on managerial responsibilities.
When asked about why he chose to be part-owner, Fischer had a direct and simple answer. “I’ve been here for so long, I don’t want to do anything else. If it was going to sell, I wanted to be an owner of it.”
Fischer runs a 300 head commercial herd with his wife, Darcy, in-laws Alvin and Anita Steffan and brother-in-law Barry Steffan. John and Darcy have one son, Lachlan.
The tried-and-true producer knows the highs and lows of the western North Dakota market well.
“The strength is the competitive bidding. We get several buyers in here bidding on customers’ cattle,” Fischer said. While the competition at Stockmen’s is strong, Fischer is concerned about how rising costs are impacting the younger generations in agriculture.
“These interest rates and inflation are making it hard for a young person to get started in the business. Land prices are high, and that’s one of the big challenges right now. Most of the ranchers are getting older, so somebody has to take over or you lose it to the big guys, and they’re just getting bigger.”
The three partners will be dividing up the managerial duties, with each taking a role that best suits his passion and abilities.
One could say Austin Henderson was fated to be an auctioneer. He grew up in Solen, North Dakota where his grandparents homesteaded in 1918. He remembers sitting in the front row at sales and writing down the tag numbers on each head that went through the ring. As Henderson grew older he was responsible for doing chores at home instead of riding along to the sale (much to his dismay), so in 2017 he decided to chase an auctioneering career. He attended the Missouri Auction School and began selling at farm sales with Ross Glass at G&G Auctioneers.
His family sold cattle in Herreid, South Dakota, where Joe Vetter was the manager at the time. Vetter called Austin in March of 2018 and asked if he would like to work a sale, and the rest is history. Austin started auctioneering there every week, and quickly became a field representative as well. During that time he was also selling at Napoleon Livestock, and in the fall of 2020 began venturing out to Dickinson to sell at Stockmen’s. On top of that, he was selling at Rugby Livestock. In his comparatively short time as an auctioneer, Austin has gained a slew of experience.
The process of buying Stockmen’s began in January of 2022, so Austin was hired full-time and moved to Dickinson in June.
“Sale barns don’t come up for sale very often. When I became aware of the opportunity to become one of the owners, I put all of my focus into Stockmen’s. I thought, well, if I’m going to pursue ownership, I better be here and get to know the ins and outs pretty quickly. So, that’s what I did,” Austin explained. The trio has been working together well from the beginning, and they have no doubts about their partnership success. They don’t make a decision without consulting the others.
“John and I hit it off right away when I started auctioneering here. He’s really easy to get along with and he knows this place from top to bottom. We just struck up a friendship right away. John, Daniel and I all have similar personalities and we have the common goal of working for the consignor and doing a good job. Daniel’s area of responsibility will be employee management and sorting. He works well with the employees, and he’s great about getting enough help here, getting them here on time and keeping the sale flowing,” the auctioneer said.
Henderson’s main goal as co-owner and auctioneer will be working with the buyers since he’s ‘behind the microphone’.
“I kind of get put on the spot a lot, so I have to make sure that the cattle are represented in the right way. I have to make sure I’m doing a fair job for the buyers sitting in the seats. Obviously, we want to continue to do business with those buyers, and to do that we have to be fair to them. Another one of my roles is working with the feeders in Nebraska and Iowa and Minnesota. I’m keeping good relationships with them and pointing them in the right direction to the kind of cattle that they want to feed,” Austin said.
“The biggest thing is, we’re here to work for the seller and do a fair job for the buyer. That sums up what we want to be known for here,” he concluded.
Austin and his wife, Karmen, have a 10-year-old son, Lane. Their youngest son, Walker, passed away at 2 years old this past year.
Raised on a small ranch north of Wibaux, Montana, Daniel O’Donnell is no stranger to the region or industry. He attended Montana State University for a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science, then worked for a few grazing associations between 2004 and 2006. He and another rider would take cattle from 6 different ranches and look after them for the summer. His first summer he was responsible for 2400 mother cows, the second 1200 cows.
O’Donnell went back to working on the family place with his parents, Tim and Sandy O’Donnell. He helped grow their cattle herd, before leasing land of his own to buy his first set of cows. He now continues to ranch with his parents and with his girlfriend, Katelyn Chaffee, and kids Tacoma, Wacey, Kimber, and Witt.
O’Donnell’s history with Stockmen’s began in the fall of 2017 as a sorter. O’Donnell, still working the pens to run like a well-oiled machine, looks after the crew and ensures the sales run smoothly. His main goal is to make sure there is enough help during sale days, ensuring everyone is on time, and minimizing hiccups. He said when the auction came up for sale, the three of them were all interested.
“I’d been approached by the previous owner, and he said he thought I’d be a good part-owner. I went with it and we decided it was a good deal. Our main challenge will be making sure we maintain the current clientele the past two owners built up. We want to treat the customers like they did,” O’Donnell said.
“I like helping people and being around cattle and horses. Stockmen’s is the best of everything rolled into one deal. When I began working there I really enjoyed it, and that’s why I’ve been there for as long as I have. Being part-owner is a great way to be part of the business. I wanted the ability to take care of the employees, and carry on Jim and Larry’s work to get Stockmen’s where it’s at,” O’Donnell said. “I like to make sure that my crew is taken care of throughout the day, over me. And, I don’t expect my guys to do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Changes and challenges
While the trio hasn’t decided who, if any of them, would ‘make a good politician’, they are committed to working for producers in the area. Henderson said we can expect to see them active in ag groups in the future, but for now, they’ve settled on maintaining a respectable reputation for their sellers, buyers, and employees.
“I think the biggest challenge we’re going to have is- I don’t want to say earning people’s trust because this place has been here a long time. We’re new owners, but we just want to keep doing as good a job for everybody as Jim and Larry has. We’ll keep that reputation up and continue forward. I know there are more direct sales going on nowadays and we need to keep these places going to create competition. I always refer back to buying new pickups, if there was only one company that built new pickups, there wouldn’t be much competition and you wouldn’t have any choices. You’d have to buy from them and they could charge whatever they want. I think the cattle industry is the same way. If we start having more direct trade and no competition, it’s going to definitely be in favor of the buyer and not the seller. So, our job is to keep that competition honest,” Henderson explained.
Schnell believes Stockmen’s is in good hands with the new owners, and his customers and employees will be well taken-care of.
“We have always and continue to appreciate all of our employees. They are farmers and ranchers themselves and they take time out of what they’re doing to come and help. And boy, I tell you. We just can’t say enough about them. We really, really appreciate them doing that for us and for our customers. That is a very important part of what we do,” Schnell said.
The only potential changes the owners are considering at this time include adding online bidding to the stock cow sales, and possibly moving sale dates to accommodate more buyers. Otherwise, Stockmen’s Livestock will continue on, business as usual.