NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, November 10th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio. And we’re so glad you are!
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Where’s the beef?
Beef production in the United States is expected to exceed 27 billion pounds this year.
You ever wonder where it all comes from?
EICHER: Beef cattle are raised in all 50 states, and many go to auctions as a part of the production chain.
WORLD senior correspondent Kim Henderson went to a livestock sale in the heart of cattle country. Here’s her story.
AUDIO: [UNLOADING CATTLE]
KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Every Tuesday, cattlemen haul them in by the truckload. Brangus. Charolais. Hereford. Today, some 500 head of cattle have landed at the Lincoln County auction barn, one that’s been operating since 1943. But Mike Smith says his family was in the beef business even before that.
SMITH: My great-granddad actually started buying cattle in the 1920s, They would drive them downtown and they’d load them on railroad tracks to Chicago.
Smith says the best part of managing the auction is the relationships his family has built with customers. They share the ups and the downs.
SMITH: When they have a bad year, you know, we have a bad year. We’d love to get top dollar all time, but it depends on the market that affects the whole community—the car dealerships, the tractor dealerships, the feed mills—you know, it just kind of revolves around the price of cattle.
The market took a hit earlier this year when the pandemic shut down packing plants across the country.
SMITH: So we had a backlog of cattle to be killed, prices went to record highs on the retail level, and the consumers were, you know, they were hurting…
But virus or no virus, cows calved in the spring, and it’s weaning time.
AUDIO: [CATTLE PEN CONVERSATION]
That’s why George Higdon is doing some scouting beside an open-air pen.
HIGDON: I’m looking at what calves are bringing per pound—whether bulls, steers, heifers, whatever—I’m looking at my calves and getting an idea of what they’re going to bring when I start moving them…
In another pen, a veterinarian is checking a cow’s mouth to estimate its age. He also performs a palpation to determine pregnancy stage.
Nearby, Anna Michael Smith is adding a bovine accessory as part of a new USDA program.
ANNA MICHAEL: It’s called an EID. It’s an electronic tag that goes in their ear, you can scan it and pull up their information.
That helps with traceability. If a disease breaks out, a tag will lead straight to the original farm. Anna Michael says it’s a good program, and she likes this kind of work. She’s the daughter of Mike Smith and his wife, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. The college senior represents the fifth generation in the family’s auction operation.
ANNA MICHAEL: I drive home three hours just to come to the sale every week while I’m in class in Starkville. I worked at a sale barn all day yesterday, and then drove here this morning so I could work here, and then I have to go back after to go to class. So it just means a lot to me.
Anna Michael’s grandmother and aunt work inside the office, a concrete room where Reba McIntyre sings on a GE alarm clock radio and 4-H photos line the wall.
AUDIO: [MEN DISCUSSING TIRES]
Her grandmother has been behind the counter for six decades, getting to know customers like the one sitting on a wood-frame couch with foam showing through the cushions. Another is in a rocker. But everyone else is in the arena. It’s time for the auction.
This slice of Americana wears boots and lined faces. Some are farmers. Some are order buyers who’ll ship whole truckloads to the Midwest tonight.
The auctioneer comes in with a Dr. Pepper and a zippered mic bag. He takes time for a smear of Chapstick before he starts his fast talking.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF AUCTIONEER]
The crowd watches a quick dance of open chutes and closed gates. A cow brings in big money as the auctioneer praises her slick coat and sizable bag. He jokes that the glow in her eyes may mean she’s already bred.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF AUCTIONEER]
When metal railing is all that separates spectators from hide and hoof, it seems easier to understand Bible times—when cattle was the stuff of sacrifices and the measure of a man’s wealth.
But exercising dominion over these sizable creatures is dangerous work, and Mike Smith has the crutches to prove it.
SMITH: I was in there weighing a bull and just got in a place where I couldn’t get out of his way, and he hit me in the leg, broke my main bone right in the knee, tore the knee all up, 14 weeks, no weight. Got all kinds of hardware in there.
Smith’s uncle, 81-year-old Meade Mathis, is hurt, too.
SMITH: He just got out of the hospital, recovering from broken ribs. And it was a law of physics, 2000 pounds of versus 200 pounds. You lose every time.
Mathis has headed up the auction since 1959. His story shows what it takes to build something that lasts five generations.
MATHIS: My second year of college, my dad got sick and I had to come home and sort of take over the business.
Mathis hasn’t missed many Tuesdays since, but last week he was out with those five broken ribs. Today, as he found a seat on a bench directly across from the auctioneer, the crowd gladly welcomed him back.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Lincoln County, Mississippi.