2021 Black Hills Stock Show Agribusiness of the Year: Justin & Brooke Tupper, St. Onge Livestock
For countless U.S. industries, the past year packed a powerful gut punch, and the livestock trade was no exception. But at St. Onge Livestock, Justin Tupper and his family kept moving cattle through the ring just like every other year, doing their best to keep ranchers in the black and the rest of America in burger. It was this commitment to customer service and steadfast support of the ag industry that earned them the Black Hills Stock Show’s 2021 award for Agribusiness of the Year.
According to BHSS general manager, Ron Jeffries, “St. Onge Livestock and Justin and Brooke Tupper have been long-time supporters of the livestock industry. They volunteer to help with many activities, and sponsor teams for ranch rodeos and calcuttas. They’ve just been a pillar in the ag community in Western South Dakota and the livestock community. Justin also serves on a national livestock advocacy board, donating his time and energy to improve the livestock industry.”
As vice president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, Justin Tupper moonlights as a vocal campaigner for ag in Washington, going to bat for the producer.
“I’ve always been a big advocate for the rancher’s side of things,” says Tupper. “We spend a lot of time trying to level the playing field with some of the big four packers and get some strength back to the producer.”
Strong advocates like Tupper were even more important this past year, when meat prices went through the roof. For the first time in a long time, Tupper says, the average American is concerned with where their beef comes from and how it’s processed, and that’s leading to some good conversation among legislators. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has brought significant challenges to the cattle industry, Tupper explained, it has also drawn attention to the need for policy changes.
When he’s not rubbing elbows with politicians, Tupper is head honcho at St. Onge Livestock, where he spends much of his time in the ring and working on the day-to-day tasks of managing the sale barn. Justin and Brooke Tupper have been at St. Onge Livestock since 2007, where they’ve succeeded in making St. Onge a destination facility for producers to unload their annual calf crop.
“We’ve worked through a lot of improvements over the years, from upgrading the computer system to rebuilding the yards. We’ve expanded quite a little,” says Tupper. “All of those things just striving to make the experience of the seller better.”
If their numbers are any indication, the sellers’ experience at St. Onge must be a good one.
“We sell somewhere around 100,000-125,000 cattle through the ring here each and every year and somewhere between 80,000-100,000 sheep through Newell every year,” says Tupper. Not to mention the nearly 15,000 cattle that St. Onge Livestock sells by video annually.
According to a long-time livestock transport representative, “A lot of folks will drive right past other sale barns and take their livestock to St. Onge. The relationships there are just different.”
Tupper insists that their success is because of their customers: “Without question, it’s all about the people. The cattle market is obviously extremely complex, but it’s really a service business, and you’ve got to take care of your customer and your customer’s animals and be able to get them through in a timely fashion and then strive to get the best price for them.”
Tupper understands how critical sale day is for the producer: “That’s their one payday for the year, for most of them, so we’ve got to do everything we can to get every dollar we can out of those cattle.”
Tupper says that one of his biggest but most rewarding challenges is serving both buyers and sellers. “It’s a delicate balance, what we do. We work hard for the seller, and that’s who pays our commission, who pays our bills here. But we’ve also got to be able to bring in that buyer, make sure this is a place he feels comfortable buying those calves and knowing that we’re going to show him some of the best quality in the country right here in St. Onge.”
A self-taught auctioneer who grew up rattling paddles at his father’s sale barn, Tupper says he wouldn’t want to do anything else.
“There’s no doubt that the sale barn business is kind of all we know, that’s what we’ve done all our life,” he says. “When we can give the customer a good market and they can leave here with a good feeling that they got all they could out of them, I just think that’s the biggest thing we have to strive for. It’s definitely very satisfying when we have a good sale, and we know the market, and we’ve gotten all we can out of those cattle and squeezed every dime out for the producer – that’s a great feeling.”
Like most ag businesses, St. Onge Livestock is a family affair. Justin and Brooke have been married for 22 years and all four of their children are involved in the business one way or another.
“Our twin daughters, Emily and Maggie, work in the office and help out back some. Taylor sorts out back and is definitely an integral part of making sure everything runs the way it needs to. Cody helps us auction some; he’s been to auction school and sells a little bit for us in Newell and St. Onge…It’s definitely a family business,” Tupper says.
About St. Onge Livestock being named “Agribusiness of the Year,” Tupper reiterated that it’s all about their customers: “We’re very excited – it’s definitely a huge honor. We take a lot of pride in trying to take care of the customer and knowing that that’s what drives our business – if we don’t have them as a customer and we can’t treat them the way they need to be, then we won’t have them as a customer.”
As to what St. Onge Livestock has planned for the future, Tupper plans to just keep running ‘em through the ring.
“St. Onge has been a hub for Wyoming, Montana, and Dakota cattle for a long time. We want to make sure we continue to make it a gateway for western and northern cattle to the feedlots and wheat fields going south.”
Somewhere between “going once…” and “sold!” Tupper manages to find time to support the livestock industry with things like rodeos and auction competitions. It’s businesses like St. Onge Livestock that can take a year like this last one and turn it into a positive opportunity for the livestock industry. That’s the true spirit of ag worth honoring – not just shuffling them through the ring but, like Tupper says, squeezing every last dime out of them.
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