Cattle business from the producers' eyes

Allen and Lynda Berry run a cow-calf operation with about 130 head outside Trenton, Mo. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
Allen and Lynda Berry run a cow-calf operation with about 130 head outside Trenton, Mo. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
About the author
Investigations Editor

Peggy Lowe is Harvest Public Media's investigations editor, based at KCUR in Kansas City.

On the drive over, Allen Berry figured he’d get about $1.50 a pound, maybe walk away with $9,500.

The Green City, Mo., Livestock Market was jammed, pickups and trailers lined up in the gravel lot like it was Easter Sunday. A good sign.

“I think there’s a crowd today,” Berry said.

Berry is a family farmer who still raises cattle the old-school way, running what’s called a cow-calf operation, mama cows and their baby calves building up a herd.

With his wife Lynda, his high-school sweetheart he married 33 years ago, Berry runs a good-sized operation just outside Trenton, Mo., with about 130 in their herd. They own 600 acres, kept greener than most thanks to the creeks running through, and they row-crop 1,200 acres of corn and beans when they add some rented land.

On this late November day, the Berrys drove 40 miles east from Trenton, across the cattle country of northeastern Missouri, the rolling hills interrupted only by the sight of the Farmland Foods pork factory, a sprawling spot of gray in the green pastures, where they say 10,000 pigs are processed every day.

Operations like that made Berry get out of the hog business back around 2000. He watched as the corporations took over the pork industry, just like the big companies had with the poultry business. He put ads in the local paper and said if you have $50 come over to my farm, we’ll load the pig for you and good luck.

“What I call corporate farming took over the hog business and it went by the wayside for the small farmer,” Berry said. “I’m not saying that’s bad. To be honest with you, I was ready to get out of the hog market.”

Since then, he’s had the same worries about the cattle business, worries that come and go. He figures that cattle can’t be mass-produced like pigs and chickens. Still, he and Lynda would like to build up their herd to 250, a hope they sometimes reconsider.

“Do I build this cattle herd up?” Allen would ask himself. “Because we was at 30 head, we was at 50 head, we was at 70 head. We keep building this herd up and all of sudden something comes up and bang!, it’s over with, like the hogs.”

Berry’s right to worry. In the last two decades, the number of cow-calf producers has fallen by 21 percent and today there are roughly 750,000 operations like Berry’s raising cattle in the U.S.

“It’s still a concern to me. I guess if I was 30 years old, it would be a major concern to me,” he said. “But at 52, 10 years from now I’m 62, and I don’t see it happening in the next seven to 10 years. It may. If it does, I’ll deal with it at the time.”

So the Berrys kept working their cattle business every year the same way they always have, the way Berry’s dad, granddad and great-grandad did.

And that’s why they were at the Green City Livestock Auction Market here in late November, one of two times each year they sell some cattle, always here. They wish they didn’t have to, that’s how strongly attached they become to their animals, but they know it’s a business. Sometimes Lynda, who bottle feeds the motherless calves, can’t come on this trip. Like watching her babies growing up and going to school.

“If I could keep ‘em all,” Allen Berry said, “I would keep ‘em all.”

The Green City Livestock Auction Market smells like money. Might smell like something else to those who have never been to a sale barn, but from a cow-calf producer’s perspective, it’s all green.

Men dressed in jeans, work jackets and seed corn caps are sitting in the auditorium-like arena, watching as the bovine beauty queens are moved through one huge black gate and into the sale pen, weights and prices announced in red neon above. It’s loud – iron gates crashing shut, cowboys in chaps whistling to get the cattle to move, buyers on the phones with their bosses back at the feedlot.

The four auctioneers work the crowd like sing-song salesmen, watching for the almost imperceptible nods from the bidders, keeping up a patter and promising a good deal.

“Boys on these … we’re going to work with ‘ya,” one of the auctioneers said to the bidders. “Big old girls there,” his partner seconded.

The Berrys brought 11 yearlings over the night before, and although they are at the end of a long list of the 3,500 head that were expected at the sale barn that day, they go fast. The 10 heifers and one steer were a little heavier than the Berrys thought, so while the price per pound was less than Allen wanted, he still walked away with a check for $9,723.  

“I’m not disappointed in my price,” he said. “When I came over here, I wanted $9,500. I got a couple hundred more than that, so I’m happy with that.”

Some of Berry’s cattle will go to producers who need a fresh heifer, the others to a feedlot, which is where most of the cattle in the U.S. end up. From there, the number of owners grows fewer and fewer. By the end of the line, just four companies control 82 percent of the American meatpacking market.

Come early next year, Berry will drive back here to Green City and put 70 head up for sale.  He doesn’t expect the $2 a pound he got in December 2011 – that was a record – but he figures he’ll make some money.

The Berry’s other worry? That this family cattle business they have worked so hard on might not outlive them. Yet their faith seems to outweigh their fears – their herd gets bigger and just recently, he and Lynda signed a contract to buy another 170 acres. And their two adult children, a son in Kansas City and a daughter in Oklahoma, have both expressed some interest in coming home.

“Eventually I think they will want something to do with the farm, and I hope they do,” Berry said. “That would be my dream.”


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