A Little Bit About Cattle Auctions

I was once researching livestock auctions and when the actual concept of a ring with auctioneers started. While there were some used in the 50s (maybe as early as the 40s) it appears that it mostly became a widespread way of selling cattle and other stock in the early 60s.

Prior to that, the Livestock Commission was mostly a place to bring sellers and buyers to a central location where they would get together and strike a deal. Then the house would weigh and facilitate the transaction and collect their fee.

If anyone has knowledge about or if you actually remember your first cattle auction in action, I would appreciate your input.

I remember going to San Antonio Union Stockyards in the 50’s, around 1957 or 58. I guess I figured there was an auctioneer but read the other day that they didn’t build the first ring until 1960. That’s what peeked my curiosity.

These are a couple of excerpts from the San Antonio Business Journal written at the closing of the SA Union Stockyards that got me thinking about when auctioneers began being used.

1. Kothmann, 77, remembers the first cattle auction held at the stock yards in 1960. It was his family business, J.W. Kothmann & Sons, that sold the first cattle at the auction. The cattle belonged to H.B. Zachry Co., whose construction business had built the auction arena that same year.

Appropriately enough, the last group of cattle to be sold at the final auction were from the U-Bar Ranch, which is owned by the H.B. Zachry Co.

2. In the early days, cattle were sold by a process called private treaty, Kothmann says. It was similar to a bartering system at a street market. Potential buyers would approach the brokers and they would hash out a price for the cattle. It was not until 1958 that they switched to the auction system.

“That seemed to be the coming trend back then, and it was the way people wanted to sell their cattle,” Kothmann says. The first auctions were held inside a large tent set up on the stock yard grounds. But cold and rainy weather prompted the stock yard company to commission H.B. Zachry to build the auction arena.

San Antonio’s Union Stockyards

Below is about the best article I’ve found on the history of the SA Union Stockyards that has now been closed almost 20 years.

From The Houston Chronicle

“Union Stock Yards says goodbye after 112 years in San Antonio”

John W. Gonzalez | April 22, 2001

SAN ANTONIO — After 112 years as a landmark of the South Texas cattle industry, the Union Stock Yards held its final auction last week, giving workers and well-wishers one last chance to savor its colorful yet faded traditions.

In an auction barn that used to witness thousands of transactions a day, only about 130 head of cattle were sold — mostly at above-market prices to nostalgic buyers.

Together with families that have operated the facility since its inception, the small crowd of cattlemen and women bid farewell to a business that sprang up in 1889 on what used to be the outskirts of the city — where cattle trails met railroads — and soon became surrounded by slaughterhouses and packing plants.

But over the decades, the 34-acre stockyard has been swallowed by urban growth and its large-scale way of doing business has been supplanted by small, rural auctions and direct marketing by ranches, including over the Internet.

“This is an emotional morning,” general manager Mark Judson said glumly, before thanking the many people who kept the business running for so long.

If the stockyard’s woes were boiled down to one word, it would be “location,” said cattle buyer Jeff O’Quinn of Hereford.

“Where the (large) numbers of cattle are, they have to drive past two or three auctions to get to this one,” he said. One reason for that, he said, is urban growth that has reduced the number of large ranches close enough to San Antonio to make doing auction business here feasible.

Some longtime workers were misty eyed as the last few cows went before the auction crowd. But others kept smiling as old friends bade them farewell and mourned the loss of an institution.

“Things happen. I’m very disappointed. I started working here when I was 13 years old,” said Milburn Mertz “Bubba” Kothmann of the J.W. Kothmann & Sons Commission Co., one of the oldest livestock brokerage firms in the nation.

The 77-year-old cattleman has been a fixture around the stockyard since 1948. “Now I’m just going to shut my doors and sit at home and watch the grass grow,” he said.

His grandfather, J.W. Kothmann, went into the cattle business in 1893 and became the stockyard’s first tenant. The first cattle sold by Kothmann’s new company came from H.B. Zachry’s ranch in Webb County and as a tribute to that historic tie, the last cattle auctioned were brought to sale by the Kothmann company for the U-Bar Ranch, which is owned by H.B. Zachry Co.

“The Stock Yards is not an office. It is not a job. It is a family,” said a prepared statement from the Kothmann family.

“The Kothmann business was subject to market prices, economic hard times, wars, weather conditions and natural catastrophes. It is hard for any business to succeed in San Antonio for 100-plus years. It is real hard in the cattle business,” the statement said.

When its weathered, empty pens are dismantled, plans call for turning the site along Interstate 35 into an industrial park, possibly with a tie to NAFTA activity. For more than a decade, warehouses have been springing up around the stockyard, about two miles southwest of downtown, replacing dwindling livestock-related businesses.

“When we started, this place was out in the country. Now it’s right in the center of town and there just aren’t the cattle there used to be,” said Carlton Hagelstein, a retired 50-year employee whose great-grandfather helped launch the stockyard.

“It wasn’t uncommon to have 5,000 or 6,000 (sales) on a busy day,” he said.

In the auction facility’s heyday in 1950, about 1 million head moved through the stockyard. Two decades later, less than half that number were handled and by last year, the traffic had shrunk to 82,000 head, Hagelstein said.

“Give ’em a few months and they won’t even remember we were here,” he mused. “It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.”

3 thoughts on “A Little Bit About Cattle Auctions

  1. The success of the city, growing out past the stockyards, doomed what had been successful stockyards.
    40 years ago I was in North Wales (Anglesey). Driving around I admired stone houses. Then had dinner with a school teacher in his 50s in a modern home. I said I thought it would be wonderful to live in one of the old stone ones. He and his wife replied that they HAD lived in one for a while, in the cold and damp.
    I wonder if 21st century methods of selling cattle are, similarly, better than the 1960s methods, and that the progress might not be welcomed by many people who actually DO the buying and selling now.

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    1. I go to cattle sales and goat sales with my brother occasionally. He’s the rancher of the family.
      It seems like time has stood still with the method and the people from when I used to go to auction barns 50 years ago.

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