Where did all the cattle go?
A brief history of the Missouri stockyards
Kansas City and St. Joseph earned their cowtown reputations when their stockyards revved up in the 1870s. During their heydays, millions of animals passed through their gates annually. Today, you won’t find any livestock at the Kansas City site, and the St. Joe operation handles a small fraction of its former volume.
What killed the stockyards, and where did all the cattle go?
One man who can answer these questions is Glenn Grimes. At age 90, Grimes’s memory goes back a long ways. He worked as a professor in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Missouri from 1951 to 1985, and stayed on as professor emeritus until 2009.
Grimes offers a simple explanation for the decline of the stockyards: “Technology.” Specifically, trucks, refrigeration, and changing consumer tastes.
Ron Plain, who replaced Grimes as a livestock economist at MU, reports that rising labor costs and weather also took their toll. “Cities and feedlots/packing plants didn’t always make good neighbors,” he added.
The early days
Kansas City and St. Joseph launched as trading posts for Western settlers in the 1830s and 40s. Their locations along rivers made them natural transportation hubs. Cowboys began driving herds from Texas, Kansas and Colorado to new railroad terminals. By the 1870s and 80s, St. Joe and Kansas City boasted growing stockyards designed to rest and feed cattle before they rode the rails to slaughterhouses in the East. Besides cattle, hogs and sheep, the stockyards also handled horses and mules—for transportation and work, not for meat.
People used ice when it was available to keep meat cool, but otherwise
refrigeration didn’t exist in those days. In the book, “Kansas City, An American Story,” Rick Montgomery and Shirl Kasper wrote that Americans ate differently before the rise of big slaughterhouses: “People in small towns and rural areas bought dried, cured or canned meat because it didn’t spoil in transit [unless they butchered locally]. Hence the term ‘packing,’ which for centuries referred to storing highly salted meat in wooden barrels for later use.”
Harold Mills, an editor with the St. Joseph News-Press, writing in a May 25, 1980, article on the history of the stockyards, said it took cowboys several weeks to move cattle to St. Joe, across unpopulated and unfenced land. “Cattle reaching here were three to five years old, grass-fed and rangy, usually skinny and poorly fed—a far cry from the 18-month to two-year-old fat cattle marketed today.”
You’ve see cattle drives in the movies, but you might be surprised how hogs moved to St. Joe. “In the early days, hogs were killed in the winter,” Mills said. “Animals for slaughter were driven here on foot, many from as far away as 75 to 100 miles.”
Plain explained that livestock was shipped on the hoof to big city slaughterhouses so the meat didn’t spoil on the way to consumers. “Big city stockyards rose up because we needed a mechanism to bring cattle and hogs to packers that concentrated in big cities.”
Over time, Grimes said, farmers began forming livestock cooperatives to group their cattle into large enough numbers to fill rail cars for transport to KC and St. Joe. Private firms also provided the service.
Packers sent representatives to the stockyards to buy livestock. Cowboys on horseback, men on foot, and even trained goats pushed or guided animals on the hoof to nearby packinghouses.
Rick Montgomery wrote about how the industry spanned the Missouri River in a Dec. 8, 2012, Kansas City Star article titled The rise and fall of KC’s meatpacking industry. “Slaughterhouses lined the Kansas side of the bottoms, while the livestock crammed into Missouri pens and were weighed on Missouri scales. The arrangement allowed the industry to get around laws in each state.”
The smell of money
Montgomery quotes travel writer Emma Gage, who visited KC from Maryland in 1899 and marveled at the Armour plant’s efficiency. “We saw hogs cleaned, dressed and going into the refrigerating room 10 minutes after we had seen those same hogs alive,” she said.
Gage warned against wearing a white dress in the city as “specks of greasy smut float about in the air, and lodge everywhere.” In this age before environmental regulation and sewer systems, waste spilled directly into the river. The yards and plants spewed a miasma of aromas into the air—but those who benefitted called it the smell of money.
Stockyards and packinghouses like Armour, Swift and Wilson became the largest employers in KC and St. Joe. Plants recruited workers from Eastern Europe. Blacks escaping from the South also made up a large share of the workforce.
The killing floor could be dangerous. Scores of workers wielded a cleaver in one hand, with a steel mesh glove protecting the other. Giant vats of scalding water steamed nearby. Workers formed unions, and violent disputes cropped up.
Refrigerated trucks put meat on the road
Here’s how stockyards economics evolved.
• First, drovers herded animals to a network of pens, where they were loaded into rail cars for transport to Eastern slaughterhouses.
• When packinghouses moved beside the stockyards, it became cheaper to process there and move the meat to Eastern markets. The stockyards grew larger and more organized.
• After 1949, when refrigerated trucks hit the road, it eventually became less expensive to feed livestock in rural places, slaughter them there, and transport the meat by rail and truck to urban centers.
“Things began to change with better roads and the advent of trucks in the 1930s, making it possible for farmers to deliver livestock to more local markets,” Grimes said. “Around that same time, sale barns cropped up in smaller towns and cities.”
Plain agreed, adding, “Once refrigerated trucks came along, packers realized they didn’t need to be in the city anymore. They moved to the country where livestock was welcome.”
Labor issues also doomed big-city packers, Plain said. “Rural labor was cheaper, because the cost of living was lower.”
Changing industry, changing tastes
“There used to be huge numbers of fat livestock, ready for slaughter, that moved from mid-Missouri to the premier markets in Kansas City and St. Joe,” Plain said. “That’s where they brought the highest price.”
Until World War II, growers raised most cattle on grass and sold them ready for slaughter. After the war, consumer tastes changed. In previous years, people ate grass-fed beef, which they often boiled. As incomes rose, consumers wanted corn-fed steak. Growing fertilizer supplies and new technology made it possible to grow more corn in more places, and feedlots started up across the High Plains.
Missouri farmers began raising feeder calves and selling them at local markets to buyers who delivered them to feedlots.
“Today, there are local sale barns everywhere,” Plain says. “From the farmer’s perspective, it’s cheaper to sell cull cows and calves locally than to haul them away.” Buyers purchase calves at local auctions and truck them to plants or feedlots.
Grimes points to other changes, including the increasing size of livestock production operations. Concentrated cattle feeding came along in the 1960s and 70s, when larger lots developed. Today, you see mostly custom feedlots. While feedlot owners usually feed some cattle for their own account, most also serve other producers who retain ownership of the cattle and pay the feedlot owner to feed and care for them.
The hog industry took a different path in the 1980s and 90s, Grimes added. Today, hogs are usually raised to maturity by their original owners. The newest hog kill plant of any size in the U.S. recently located next to the St. Joe stockyards. “But the plant generally doesn’t buy hogs at auction,” he said. “Producers contract directly with packers to provide hogs that meet their particular needs.”
Wet weather moves cattle west
Weather was also a factor in banishing cattle from KC and St. Joe, where the average annual rainfall runs from 35 to 39 inches. “Cattle don’t perform well in mud,” Plain said. “Their hair coats provide good insulation until it gets wet. Then there’s less weight gain and more health problems.”
Until 30 to 60 years ago, Plain said, farmers mostly fed cattle where the corn grew—in Corn Belt states like Missouri, Iowa and Indiana. “But where there’s corn, it rains—unless you irrigate,” Plain said. “Feedlots moved to dryer places.”
To places like Garden City, Kansas, one of the nation’s top feedlot centers, where it rains just 19 inches a year. “Today, feedlots on the High Plains might handle 50,000 head, and they continue to get bigger,” Plain said.
By contrast, Missouri is a cow-calf state. “We sell our calves at auctions and sale barns, and they go west or north to be fed and slaughtered,” Plain said. “They’re fed in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado, and they end up in packing plants in places like Garden City and Dodge City. That’s where the cattle go now.”
The cowtowns live on
Plain summarizes what happened to the stockyards this way: “All the big-city stockyards, from Kansas City to Chicago, lost their animals when they lost their packinghouses.”
The region’s economy continues to depend on agriculture. A thriving animal health industry, including pharmaceutical companies, operates from Manhattan, Kansas, to KC and St. Joe. The Kansas City Board of Trade handles a good share of the nation’s wheat.
Plain reports that many packinghouses make their homes in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Premium Standard Farms operates a large hog slaughter plant out of Milan, Missouri. A Cargill plant in Marshall, Missouri, brings meat in for processing and packaging.
Mark Servaes carries on the livestock tradition at the St. Joseph Stockyards. Servaes has worked at the livestock auction there since 1991, and bought the facility in 2012. “We’re one of the oldest markets west of the Mississippi, and we plan to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said. “Most of our sellers come from within 100 miles. Some buyers come from a little farther away.”
The auction handles 100,000 feeder cattle a year, 6,000 hogs, and a growing number of goats and sheep.
The old St. Joseph Livestock Exchange Building still stands nearby. “The city’s trying to restore it, but it’s a mess, an eyesore,” Servaes reported.
Thanks to Bill Haw, Sr., the Livestock Exchange Building lives on in Kansas City, Missouri. He began renovating the nine-story edifice in 1990 when he was president of National Farms. He later bought the building on his own. “I developed the site because of the incredible link between the yards and the history of Kansas City,” Haw said.
The building’s 120 tenants include Farm Journal, MachineryLink and the Swift and Henry Order Buying cattle operation. Others carry less manure on their shoes, including legal and architecture firms, charities and art galleries. Haw also restored the Daily Drovers Telegram Newspaper building, which helped attract other trendy companies nearby, including a wine tasting and event space.
You can enjoy a steak at the Livestock Exchange Building’s Golden Ox Restaurant, a stockyards fixture since 1949. Haw says the restaurant frequently offers informal tours of the building. If you want to see ghosts of past glory, take a gander at the historic stockyards photos lining the building’s first floor.
Missouri Farmer publisher blasts packers in 1923
In 1923, Today’s Farmer’s predecessor, Missouri Farmer, covered a battle between a Kansas City packing house and farmer-owned livestock cooperatives. Publisher William Hirth exchanged an extraordinary series of letters with Armour and Company.
Recent changes in federal law required packinghouses like Armour to operate within regulated public markets in large stockyards like Kansas City. Hirth accused Armour of getting around the law by sending buyers to unregulated stockyards next to smaller plants in places like Fowler, Mo., near Springfield. There, Hirth claimed, Armour’s buyers purchased livestock at high prices to try to put local buyers, including Farmers’ Livestock Shipping Association, out of business. In addition, Hirth charged that Armour’s buyers purchased more animals than the Armour-owned Fowler plant could process, and Armour then moved the animals to its Kansas City plant.
“I challenge you to deny that you are operating this plant beyond its capacity and that to this extent Armour and Company is relieved from having to buy hogs in the open, competitive Kansas City market,” Hirth charged.
In a related article, Hirth added, “Every move in the game shows that the packers are seeking to destroy the only agency through which an honest and legitimate price can be created and maintained—namely, the open market.”
Hirth’s colorful language makes for entertaining reading. He criticized Armour’s similar practices in Ray County, northeast of Kansas City. “In view of the fact that the farmers of Ray County can, when the wind is in the right direction, smell the delicate aroma of your Kansas City packing houses, do you still contend that these hogs are not subtracted from the Kansas City market?”
Armour’s F. Edson White, president, fired back responses—all published in Missouri Farmer. White lacked Hirth’s drama, but his letters were impressive in length and detail. In his last letter, White said, “I do not see that we can gain much by prolonging this correspondence. I do not believe that we will come together. You…are simply applying the methods of sensational journalism to what I should consider a private correspondence.”
Hirth put forth a heated defense of farmers: “Armour and Company is so big and powerful that it can get along without the good will of those who toil in the fields and feedlots and who are today fighting with their backs to the wall.”
1866 The first railroad bridge spans the Missouri River at Kansas City. Texas cattlemen deliver 260,000 head of cattle to Sedalia that infect local livestock with tick fever. Missouri farmers offer armed resistance and stampede the herds. This bitter resistance, along with a quarantine imposed the following year by the Kansas legislature, push Texas herds to rail terminals further west in Hays, Dodge City and Abilene.
1870 The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad recognizes the need for a market in Kansas City, and builds pens to handle 100,000 head of cattle.
1871 Railroad companies launch the Kansas City Livestock Exchange, the city’s first unified stockyards, on 13 acres in the West Bottoms along the Missouri River. The operation grows over the years, taking a back seat only to the Chicago Stockyards.
1875 The first refrigerated rail cars are invented, allowing for transport of processed meat. Live animals also continue to ride the rails.
1878 The Kansas City Stock Yard Co. becomes a bi-state operation, with land along the Kansas and Missouri sides of the river.
1880 St. Joseph has operated as an important meatpacking center for a number of years. This year, workers chop 25,000 tons of ice from the Missouri River and Lake Contrary for local packinghouses.
1887 St. Joseph Stockyards opens as a rest-and-feed station for livestock before trains take them to Eastern markets. In coming years, St. Joe claims to be the largest stockyards west of Chicago.
1899 St. Joe welcomes a new four-story Livestock Exchange Building. The Big Five packing companies now operate plants in KC. Hereford breeders begin what’s known today as the American Royal Livestock and Horse Show in KC—the first show of its kind in the U.S., patterned after a British show. It lives on today as one of the nation’s largest shows.
1910 The new nine-story Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building houses 475 offices, including the stockyards company, railroad and packing house representatives, telegraph stations, banks, restaurants, and government agencies.
1919 Missouri Farmers Association (MFA) begins sponsoring the formation of hundreds of local livestock shipping associations to assure correct weights and measures. The associations ship livestock to larger markets
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