Sales days for the employees at the Omaha Stockyards began at 4:00 a.m. For the farmers, the days began even earlier depending on how far they had to ship their cattle, hogs or sheep.
Tom Hoffman worked mostly with cattle, but the process was similar for the hogs and sheep. “The good cattle, the steer, they would go up in the ‘show’ alley which is where the large pens for the better cattle are shown,” Tom recalls. When he started he worked as a yardman. “You always want to put your cattle in a pen that’s advantageous to them.”
Sometimes, that was dangerous work. “A lone cow is a vicious animal,” Tom says. “I was more worried about being kicked by them than head-butted. A kick would just knock you butt over teakettle.”
Tom and the other yardmen would get the cattle ready and then wait for the market to open at 8:00 a.m. In the meantime, they might get breakfast at the Livestock Exchange building. “We would hurry up and wolf down our coffee and brag about our exploits from the weekend and things like that,” he says.
In many ways, the 11-story livestock exchange building was a city within the city. It housed not only the offices for the stockyards, but a bakery, cafeteria, kitchen, soda fountain, cigar stand, telephone and telegraph offices, apartments and sleeping rooms, a clothing store, ballrooms and a convention hall. As time went on, whole families would make sales day in Omaha a vacation and a visit to the big city. So, the Livestock Exchange Building was remodeled to include a Ladies Lounge on the mezzanine overlooking the lobby. By the 50s, most of the rooms were air-conditioned. With the addition of an “Autopark” in 1951, the building was in high demand for dinner-dances and conventions.
After Tom and the other yardmen finished their breakfasts, they would catch up with their “commission man.” These men worked as agents for the farmers in the negotiations with the buyers. Sometimes the cattle were headed for slaughter, and so the commission man would negotiate with buyers for the packinghouses that were located within a stones throw of the pens. Sometimes the cattlemen were selling yearlings for fattening or breeding stock. So, the commission man would deal with other farmers.
When an agreement was reached, nothing was written down. “All contracts at that time in the stockyards were strictly verbal,” Tom says. “If your word as a man and as a trader was no good, you were done for in the stockyards.”
When the deal was struck, the yardmen would be responsible for moving the cattle and finding the closest “number man.”
“Why did they call him that?” Tom explains. “Because he would regulate the numbers. Whoever got him first … we got the first turn to weigh the cattle.”
That was where the sales transaction technically took effect. The cattle “would go on one end of the scale belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and they’d come off the other end of the scale belonging to Armour or Swift of Wilson. That was the point of sale, right there.”
Then, the yardmen would herd the cattle to the slaughterhouse if they were ready to process them, to a holding pen if they weren’t, or to a loading chute if the cattle were going to a feedlot or somewhere else.
Finally, the process would start all over again with another herd of livestock.
Over the years, the farmers and ranchers would develop personal relationships with personnel at the stockyards. “Young lads like myself [would be] sitting on the fence like crows waiting for the cattle to come in,” Tom says, “because we knew Mr. So-and-So was going to be having a truckload or two of cattle come, any time from 3:00 to 6:00 [on Sunday evening]. We would take those cattle to their pens.” Then the next morning, the farmer would show up and the sales day itself would begin.
In a video segment, Tom Hoffman (right) talks about a typical sales day at the Omaha Stockyards at the height of its run.
Also, one of the men who changed agriculture by popularizing the center pivot irrigation system got his first understanding of what farming was about at the Omaha Stockyards. Robert Daugherty (left) went on to found Valmont Industries that builds and sells Valley Center Pivot Irrigation systems. He grew up as a “city slicker” in South Omaha where his father owned a livestock commission buisness. A young Robert worked the same kind of job that Tom Hoffman did. And Robert went along when his father visited farm customers. “I was a farmer, but I met and talked and visited with many, many farmers during my youth,” Robert says.