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Herds in the hills: Cattle farming is a huge business in southwest Missouri

Springfield Livestock Market
Chris Drew
Springfield Livestock Market

In this segment of KSMU’s Sense of Community Series Entrepreneurship in the Rural Ozarks, hear how area ranchers make ends meet in the cattle business and about the unique role the Missouri and the Ozarks play in the national cattle industry.

As he walked around the Springfield Livestock Market Center, Tom Kissee said it was just a bit of a slow day at the market. Cowboys are always optimistic he said, hoping next week things will be more advantageous.

We’d just gotten through a week of triple digit heat index values, but it was a pleasant Monday morning when the tour took place.

This business is generational for Tom. His grandpa looks out on the main office in a newspaper clipping from the 1950s advertising Springfield Union Stockyards. It isn’t the 50s anymore though.

Despite the fact that some of the work is still best done from horseback, today’s facility is modern and efficient. Tom shows me scrolling tv screens of current sales updating in real time — and a maze of pens where consigners can pull up to unload, and each animal gets a barcode sticker on its back — keeping track of it from start to finish. When you scan the crowd, you’ll find folks scrolling their phones to keep up with prices.

A total of 375 cows and bulls will be bought and sold by the end of this day, often one at a time, with buyers making the call in just 10 or 15 seconds. Ranchers come from an hour or more away, and buyers from major meat packers line the auction room stands.

With drought, heat and humidity an issue across the region this past summer, many ranchers have already sold more of their herd than they may have hoped to at this point in the year. It has been a rough summer.

“Most people are probably only getting half to two-thirds of the volume of hay that they got last year,” Tom said. “Their grass is eat off, so we’ve liquidated a lot of herds. A lot of people have just said ‘I can’t do it, it’s not feasible,’ so they’ve sold their cows.”

Keeping a herd comfortable, healthy and fed is just part of the battle. Maintaining equipment and covering the costs of gas and other resources can add up, too. Unexpected costs like hay when you’d hoped to rely on rain and fresh grass can add up quick, and, of course, a rancher takes on months of costs and debt before they pay off.

Here at the market’s restaurant though, at any local cattleman’s association meeting or the county and state fair, there is a sense of camaraderie and community. Ranchers swap stories, celebrate the good times and help get each other through the rough times.

“We really support each other,” Dr. Adam McGee explained. "If somebody’s tractor breaks down, there’s usually somebody there to help them because we all go through those hard times. We’ve all experienced that and share in some of the heartaches together.”

Dr. McGee is an assistant professor in the Animal Science Department at Missouri State University's Darr College of Agriculture and a rancher raising Hereford cattle with his wife. Born in Purdy, Oklahoma, Dr. McGee spent time working in Nebraska as well.

Those wide-open spaces fit nicely into our imagination of the American cowboy, the cattle drive and the expansive ranch, but it may be surprising to know that Missouri has the third greatest cattle inventory of any state. Polk, Lawrence, and Texas counties are three of most flush cattle-producing counties in the Nation. Even Greene County has over 36 thousand head.

Like with almost everything agriculture, it comes down to the dirt.

“In the Ozarks we have a lot of really not great soil, a really rough environment that fits really well with grazing cows and grazing animals,” Dr. McGee said. “So, we can do a really good job especially with the cow/calf segment — we’re starting to see more of the stocker segment of let’s extend that grazing and keep some of those around, but we can do a really good job with that grazing animal.”

Inside the pins at Springfield Livestock Market, with cows awaiting the auction.
Chris Drew
Inside the pins at Springfield Livestock Market, with cows awaiting the auction.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports the average cattle farm has 44 head, and Dr. McGee tells me it's most common in the Ozarks to have a herd that small or smaller, though cattle can number in the thousands on some farms.

Most of these cattle are a generic breed, but around Springfield pure breeding is exceptionally popular. Most of the money in raising pure breeds is in genetics or direct sales to customers. This can mean more work for the rancher in marketing their cattle and in record keeping with associations that maintain breed standards.

Overall, the average cattle farmer in the Ozarks probably grew up around cattle and is farming as a second income, checking on animals at the beginning and end of the day, working a day job and returning to their cattle late in the evening. As demanding as that is, it's difficult for a small farmer to also compete with the resources of a professional feedlot or take on the additional challenge of marketing their own product themselves. Those that do it well may have an opportunity to make more money, but the reliability and simplicity of the traditional market and supply chain is appealing.

Either way, it can make for long days. It can also make for a sizeable income or second income. It is not odd for the Springfield Livestock Market to do over $1 million dollars in sales in a day. In 2019 there were almost $2 billion dollars in cattle sales across the state.

Kissee said the thing about farmers is that money stays right in the community.

“As those farmers come in and they sell their cows, most all of them either stop at Mac’s Vet Supply and shop, they’ll stop at the feed store on the way home, they may stop at the supply store and pick up whatever they may need back at the farm," he said. "A farmer doesn’t keep that money in the bank very long.”

On the local scale, ranchers in the Ozarks are trying to get by like any of us, the best way they know how, continuing traditions that have been in their family and in the region for generations while keeping up with new trends and challenges like any industry. In the age of the hustle and gig culture, many farmers are keeping up one of the oldest hustles known to civilization, raising a bit more on the farm than they need and taking what they can to market. But the passion runs deeper than that.

Dr. McGee told about a recent Sunday afternoon when he went to check on and water his cows, and he looked over and saw a new baby calf. It reaffirmed for him that he's in the right business.