Lee Pitts: The Cow Buyers Dance
I was a sophomore in high school the first time I ever set foot in an auction market and it was love at first sight. I was smitten and immediately wanted to run away from home to join the one ring cattle circus. I’d have cleaned water troughs just to be a part of something so magical.
Of course I was impressed by the auctioneers and i couldn’t begin to imagine how they did what they did. The market was close to Bakersfield, California, and was owned by Skinner Hardy, one of the first World Champion Livestock Auctioneers. He ran a great market.
I knew I would never have the talent to do what auctioneers did but the more I watched the cow buyers in action the more I realized that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never achieved that goal but whenever I had a free day on the road you’d find me at the nearest auction market pretending to be a cow buyer and trying to guess the weight of the cattle as they entered the ring. (Keep in mind this was back in the 1970’s when you didn’t find out the weight until AFTER the animals sold.)
I never got tired of watching the battles between the auctioneers and the cow buyers. It was like a well choreographed dance, one was trying to get as much for the cattle as he could while the other was trying to buy them as cheap as possible. The relationship between the auctioneer and cow buyers is all together different than the one they have with the order buyers of stocker and feeder cattle. Order buyers for stockers and feeders are semi-friendly whereas cow buyers just jeer and sneer at anyone who comes close and woe be the unlucky person who accidentally sits in “their seat” on sale day.
Stocker and feeder order buyers wear Luchese boots, starched jeans and monogrammed shirts and have all their appendages. Cow buyers are usually missing a digit or two, wear rumpled clothes, have holes in the bottom of their boots, their faces are scarred and they look like they just finished a knife fight. When stocker and feeders buyers bid they make a big production of it; when a cow buyer bids he may only wink his one eye that isn’t made out of glass. Cow buyers chew on unlit stubby cigars, and write down their purchases on market cards with short stubby pencils. They are smarter than a tree full of owls, can multiply and add faster than a calculator, can guess the weight of any cow within 20 pounds and can tell you how much she’ll yield in salable beef. They get a report card on how they do every week and they gotta be good or they’ll be gone.
Sadly, in many markets these days there are only two or three cow buyers present on a weekly basis and they are very territorial. If a new packer buyer tries to expand into new territory and tries to buy cows at a different market the resident cow buyers will freeze him out and won’t let him buy anything. After two or three weeks the newcomer will stay home.
Years ago I wanted to build my own leather reata and the best rawhide you can get to make one is from a Jersey cow which meant I’d have to attend a dairy auction. The one I chose had two resident cow buyers unaffectionately known as Mr. Scowl and Mr. Growl. I was out of my territory and they didn’t know me. When a Jersey cow entered the sale ring that fit my fancy I raised my hand and soon found myself in a spirited duel. I got the Jersey bought way over the market price and both Mr. Scowl and Mr. Growl gave me a death stare that rattled my bones.
Even since that day I feel like I’m being followed and my phone is tapped. I engaged the services of a home security outfit, bought a German Shepherd for my wife and check underneath my truck for bombs before I drive it. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is for buying a cow in another man’s territory but I fear I won’t live long enough to find out.
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