The Rise & Fall Of The Omaha Stockyards

Omaha’s livestock market became the largest in the world.In 1955, Omaha’s livestock market became the largest in the world. Everyday, thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep were shipped, first by rail and later by trucks, to Omaha’s pens where they would be sold to packinghouses for slaughter or to other livestock producers for fattening or breeding stock. The numbers from the late 40s and 50s were staggering –

  • In the next to last year of World War II, there were over 7.7 million head of livestock processed through the Omaha livestock market. When Omaha took over as the number one livestock market, there were 6.7 million head processed.
  • By 1957, the livestock industry – that included the stockyard company, an astounding 19 different meatpacking companies, 40 commission firms, a special railroad just for livestock, and other companies – employed half of Omaha’s workforce.
  • At its height, the stockyard itself employed 300 to 400 people with crews running 24/7.
  • In 1958, there was more than a million bushels of government grain stored at the stockyards to feed the livestock as they awaited sale.
  • Throughout the 50s, Omaha attracted livestock from around 30 states and Canada.
  • On any given market day in the mid-50s, over $2.5 million dollars worth of livestock was handled – almost $18 million worth in today’s dollars.
  • Some market days, the livestock trucks would be lined up from 36th and L Streets all the way west to 72nd Street. Stockmen would have to serve as traffic cops to keep the trucks moving, and still it would take hours to unload.
  • In addition to trucks, the stockyard was serviced by at least six railroads – the Union Pacific; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Missouri Pacific; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; Chicago & North Western; and the Wabash. There was also an internal railroad system owned by the stockyard itself.
  • The livestock pens spread out over 250 acres – much larger than most farms at the time – dominating the landscape of South Omaha. Buyers and sellers could survey the herds from the comfort and safety of elevated walkways eight to 10 feet above the pens. They could escape the manure but not the smell.

Total Livestock Receipts, Omaha and Chicago graph The development of the livestock industry, of course, is the stuff of legends – hundreds of “Western” movies were made about the cattle drives from Texas up the railheads in Nebraska and Kansas. In the late 1800s, cattle would be shipped alive to the Chicago Livestock Market. This was before any kind of refrigeration. The beef industry was limited by climate. Cattle and other livestock sold at Chicago were then shipped alive to slaughterhouses close to the consumers.

New York City in 1880 was the nation’s largest beef-producing center, and there were scores of slaughterhouses scattered across the city close to the consumers. The health inspectors hated it, but the consumers preferred their beef fresh.

At about this same time, Gustavas Swift began to revolutionize the industry by bringing refrigeration to meatpacking. Swift realized that it would be cheaper to ship dead meat east out of Chicago than live steers. For one thing, only 60 percent of the weight of any cow was useable meat. The rest was waste, so why ship it? Feed for the cattle on the trip was expensive. Many died and almost all of them lost weight.

The trick was inventing a refrigerated rail car and then building ice stations along the route to maintain ice harvested from the Great Lakes each winter.

By 1880, Swift was able to begin slaughtering and dressing cattle in Chicago and shipping beef to his first clients in Boston. Within just five years, his refrigerated beef had pulled even with shipments of live cattle to eastern markets.

One of the reasons for the success is that, by 1900, “chilled beef” was being sold for 30 percent less than beef from live cattle.

Omaha steps up. In 1883, a Wyoming cattle baron, Alexander Hamilton Swan, was coming back from a sales trip to the Chicago Stockyards when he stopped in Omaha for a break. He must have thought it would be a lot easier to ship cattle to Omaha – probably just a day’s train trip from Wyoming – than all the way to Chicago. So, he talked with six Omaha businesspeople, including John A. Creighton who had helped his brother Edward build the first transcontinental telegraph line alongside the Union Pacific. Swan convinced the businesspeople that a livestock market in Omaha would be a good idea, and a year later building began.

Over the next 70 years, the Omaha livestock market grew to rival Chicago.

A young Tom Hoffman started working in the Omaha Stockyards in 1955 – the same year that the record was set for the largest single day “run” of cattle through the yards
film_hoffman_L-1. “It was bedlam keeping track of 53,000 cattle on a Monday,” Tom says. “But for a young man, like myself, working in the stockyards, all I saw was one animal with four legs that had to be watered, fed, weighed, kept track of, moved from here to there. It was glorious bedlam!”

The heyday continued for the Omaha Stockyards for a few more years. But in 1967, the number of livestock brought to Omaha dropped precipitously. Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) had opened up packing plants closer to the livestock producers and was buying directly from them. In addition, the old “Big Four” packinghouses – like Swift, Armour, Cudahy or Wilson, all of who had packing plants next to the Omaha Stockyards – saw their market shares decline, so they weren’t buying as many head from Omaha Stockyards.

The late 60s sounded the death knell for Omaha.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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