End of an Era

The Final Gavel

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
St. Joseph Stockyards auction ring (Jim Patrico)

With an auctioneer's "What'll ya give me for this lot, boys?" and a ringman's "Yep! Yep! Yep!", the last of the great Missouri River stockyards faded into history. By the time the St. Joseph (Missouri) Stockyards sold its final feeder cattle in May 2021, it had endured floods, market fluctuations and industry upheavals for 134 years, and it had outlasted the other great Missouri River stockyards in Kansas City, Omaha and Sioux City. But, a changing industry finally killed it.

Those four great stockyards shared a story, which began in the 1880s. Together, they expanded markets for Midwest and Great Plains beef by making it available hundreds of miles from where it originated. In so doing, they also helped shape America's inexhaustible taste for red meat.

Each of the great Missouri River stockyards began as a way station for cattle and hogs headed to packing plants back East in big cities like Chicago. Millions of live cattle from Midwest farms and Great Plains ranches rested in the stockyards before a final train ride to America's dinner tables. In the stockyards' heydays of the 1920s and through the 1950s, Kansas City alone often took in more than 60,000 head of cattle per day, according to some reports. Little wonder that each of the river cities embraced the nickname "Cowtown;" the livestock industry was the economic base on which each defined itself.

That base included Midwest packers, who by the turn of the 20th century, took business from eastern processing plants by building their own plants near the river stockyards. In the 1960s, new packers followed that business model and established plants near western Kansas feedlots and in rural areas. That move cut into river stockyard business and allowed packers to lower labor expenses by hiring nonunion workers. At about the same time, both the beef and pork industries were consolidating, with contract production (especially in the pork sector) eliminating the need for auctions: The animals' destination was predetermined before they were even born. It was just a matter of shipping them from farm to processing plant.

The inexorable tide of change eventually made the river stockyards superfluous, and they folded like poker players who knew they had losing hands: Kansas City in 1991, Omaha in 1999 and Sioux City in 2002.

SURVIVOR

But, the St. Joseph Stockyards, while far from its glory days, found a formula for staying in business. Its owners discontinued hog sales and shrank the cattle pens from about 80 acres to 21. They also shifted emphasis from slaughter and replacement cattle to feeder cattle sales. They could do that -- as others could not -- because they had an infrastructure advantage.

In Kansas City and Omaha, Mark Servaes says, "access got to be a problem" for feeder cattle trailers. As the larger cities expanded, highway systems enveloped the stockyards, and "farmers had a hard time trying to get a truck and trailer through all those overpasses. That didn't happen in St. Joe."

Servaes was the last owner of the St. Joseph Stockyards. He didn't invent feeder cattle sales in St. Joe, but he knew the business and made it work. After working at the auction for more than 20 years as a commission man, he bought the property in 2012 and ran a thriving auction that sold fat cattle on Mondays and feeder cattle on Wednesdays. The plan worked well for nearly two decades.

But, eventually, 59-year-old Servaes wanted to slow down. Years of standing on concrete floors in the ring and dodging unpredictable 1,000-pound animals had taken a physical toll. Plus, environmental regulations were making the business more costly to maintain. Besides, he was ready to move on. After several years of turning down offers to buy him out, he finally got an offer he couldn't refuse from Albaugh, a farm chemical company that owns land adjoining the stockyards. They coveted Servaes's land and were willing to pay top dollar for it.

Reluctantly, Servaes agreed to sell the land and write an ending to the St. Joseph Stockyards story. "The history of the place is the part I'm struggling with. I knew it [the closure] would have happened eventually. But, it's hard to make that decision."

GOODBYE

On the day of the last auction, Servaes, who describes himself as a humble man, became a blushing center of attention. One by one, longtime customers put a hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye and told him they would miss him and his auction. They reminisced about the years they'd shared in that noisy auction barn and kidded each other about the future. Some of them had sat in the same seats week after week for decades, and Servaes made plans to salvage those seats and present them as souvenirs. "Turns out I don't really have customers any more," Servaes says. "But, I have a lot of friends."

One of the stockyard regulars was Bob Waddell, who started working there as a teenager in 1960 because the $1.77 hourly wage he could earn moving cattle and hogs was far more than he could make with his newspaper route. He loved his new workplace so much, he stayed for more than 50 years. "I guess I got manure between my toes," he laughs.

Servaes expects his friends and customers in northwest Missouri and northeast Kansas will find other country auctions to make their trades. "Osborn (Missouri) has a good little auction," Servaes says. "And, Clarinda (Iowa) was always a strong competitor for us."

As a special treat for the standing-room-only crowd on the final auction day, Servaes invited back some of the auctioneers who had worked there over the years. Some had become celebrities, including two who have held the title of World Champion Livestock Auctioneer.

One of them, Lanny Ireland, tied a ribbon on the day for the patrons and for Servaes. "Thanks," he said as he left the auction stand. "It's been a great ride."

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