Logan County livestock auction serves as popular clearinghouse
BY CAROLINE MCCOLLOCH
DEGRAFF– Every Monday at 12:30 p.m., the mesmerizing cadence of a well-versed auctioneer conducts the transfer of hogs, cattle, goats and sheep from western Ohio farms to eventually become meat in grocery stores far and wide. Situated about equal distances from Sidney, Urbana, and Bellefontaine, Jackson Livestock Auction Service in southwestern Logan County serves a vital role in the local agricultural economy.
Entering into his 11th year as owner of the business, Chris Egbert was introduced in 1994 to the operation then owned by Howard and Jenean Jackson. Prior to 1987 it was known as DeGraff Livestock Auction. The Preble County native had gained experience managing hog production in southern and western Ohio farms for the Sheppard Grain Co. Working this territory proved an asset to running the auction business, as he made important contacts with producers and learned the ins and outs of livestock marketing.
Besides the weekly Monday sales where 200 to 400 head of stock are sold, the first Saturday of each month caters to some of the smaller species such as waterfowl, game birds, poultry and rabbits. It may have upwards of 150 sellers. Occasionally some of the larger species are also at the Saturday auction, such as alpacas, horses, and donkeys.
In addition to livestock, this monthly event offers many farm related items: firewood, hay, straw, machinery, vehicles, posts, tools, barrels, shrubs, fans etc. Pigs, goats, and sheep are sometimes sold, depending on what consigners bring.
The buyers and sellers (consigners) can be a diverse group. The reasons for selling animals are several – Some may be pets, some are raised for meat. Farm animals must on occasion be culled from the herd, whether because of impairments that interfere with production, or simply reducing a herd size. For example, the difficulty in finding or affording hay during a draught like the severe that gripped the nation in 2012, highlights how the farming profession demands strategies and planning for uncontrollable factors that affect profitability.
Buyers are sometimes known as dealers, depending on the volume of their typical purchases, and must be registered with the state of Ohio. About five regular dealers attend the Monday auctions; even though they are all acquainted, they still bid competitively against each other. The dealers may have contracts with packing houses to fill, and will transport the purchased livestock directly there. Other buyers bid on fewer animals for different reasons. Some will
buy “feeder” calves or hogs and raise them to sell for food animals at a higher price. The mix of buyers ranges from commercial producers and dealers to hobby farmers.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) inspector attends every auction (except holidays), to see that bills are paid promptly and to ensure the traceability of individual animals from the farm of origin to slaughter. This system has lately become part of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and compliance must be complete by 2015. The goal is to track every individual animal destined for slaughter in the U.S., no matter how few or many come from a particular farm.
Egbert sees the usual government requirements as well-intentioned, but often more complicated and tedious to put into practice, by which time the rules may change yet again. The more times livestock are bought and sold, the more complicated is the tracking, especially out of state.
Although ODA supplies the tags and other materials used to identify individual animals, the extensive record keeping under NAIS may influence some of the smaller producers to simply quit the business. However, animals born, raised, butchered and sold in the same regional area would greatly simplify required paperwork.
According to Egbert, more than two million hogs and approximately 650,000 cattle are slaughtered each week in the U.S. With such a volume of meat production it is impossible for inspectors to test every animal for disease. Although there are requirements for withdrawal of most drugs in livestock destined for food, and some mandatory testing such as scrapies in sheep and goats and tuberculosis in cattle and hogs, the emphasis of regulation is on traceability in the event of animal disease.
The livestock auction business in particular and the meat industry in general has changed a good deal since Egbert started working it in the 90s. As with many other industries, consolidation and a business practice known as vertical integration havebecome the norm. Larger businesses have bought up many smaller ones, resulting in less competition and fewer locally owned meat packing companies. The majority of slaughter facilities are owned by four corporations: Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef.
Whereas there used to be slaughter facilities in larger cities like Cincinnati and small towns like Piqua, now there is only one large meatpacking company left in Ohio. Most or all of the more numerous facilities in states like Kentucky or Iowa are owned by one of the big four corporations. The result of this consolidation can place fierce pressure on livestock dealers as they compete for fewer slaughter facilities to sell to.
Vertical integration has been a way for large meatpacking corporations to control animal production for consistency and volume. The old model of many farmers selling to many different slaughter facilities did not serve the industry’s demand for high output. The companies that dominate the market expect a guaranteed number of head at a particular weight, for example. So, packinghouses started the practice of vertical integration in order to secure supply and quality. Smithfield meats of the Carolinas began the practice of vertical integration.
Egbertcan typically work 60–90 hours a week or even some 22 hour days during the county fair season. He has established buying relationships with fairs in upwards of twenty counties, brokering deals with numerous meatpackers. Planning ahead and building those business relationships has given him a competitive edge. “I was pleasantly surprised at the results of meeting with people face to face, after having conducted business only by phone for such a long time.”
Buying hogs from county fairs is a very different kind of business compared to that of commercial producers, for whom raising livestock is a full time occupation instead of a summer project. Fair livestock (hogs and steers in particular) is difficult to sell to packinghouses because of the increased risk of drug residue, which makes the meat difficult to sell to increasingly selective markets.
Between auctions in DeGraff, Egbert is often making the rounds as buyer, brokering deals between producers and packing houses. He spends a lot of time on the road, and reflected about the changes in the auction business and the industry in the last decade. There are fewer livestock, farmers, and buyers. But he has low overhead and less competition since the auction houses in Wapakoneta and Springfield have closed.
Hog breeds have become less diverse and durable against environmental stresses, as selective breeding has been aiming for a certain percentage of fat. Consumers have for some time now demanded leaner meat, although less fat impacts the flavor and nutrition. This loss of durability has precipitated the need for more drugs and other interventions to protect producers’ investments.
Regarding the trend toward more local or regional food systems, Egbert sees it as more of a niche market since most people prefer food to be cheap. He opines that the many reported outbreaks of illnesses and food recalls from large facilities is more because of our instant communication systems rather than an actual increase.
“The work isn’t as easy or as fun as it once was” Egbert muses. But he is glad to make a decent income and be able to invest in the business. Plus, no two days are really the same—all in all, not a bad way to make a living.
Caroline McColloch writes for the
[/media-credit] A HOLSTEIN cow enters the auction ring at the Jackson Livestock Auction Service’s weekly sale in DeGraff.Piqua Daily Call