Cattle buyer works to build herds out West

Dec 11, 2015  | Ep4116

In the rough and tumble world of cattle production it takes a certain type of personality to handle the monetary risks of a volatile market and the often bigger than life personalities who buy those animals. From ranchers in the high plains to employees beyond the packing house door few are able to fill those boots but Walt Hackney makes the grade.

Hackney has spent countless miles on the open road over the past six decades traveling from auction barn to weighing shed, buying millions of cattle from New York to California. He remains one of the few who will purchase feeders for placement, negotiate futures contracts and sell cattle directly to packers. 

Walt Hackney, Hackney Ag: “I'd like to think that there are others that are as deeply interested in protecting your client base as what I am. And I believe that there are out there doing it… It helps stabilize your market”

The day Hackney graduated from Oklahoma State University, he left for Ottumwa, Iowa and his new job as a cattle buyer with the John Morell Company. The trunk of his car was filled with a few pots and pans, some old clothes and a well-worn saddle.

Walt Hackney, Hackney Ag: “I had visions of standing on the lower boards of a corral looking out over a herd of finished cattle ready for a packer to buy them… Well, it just goes to show you how wrong you can be. … That first morning I signed in at the plant and they gave me a pair or rubber boots and a fire hose and they said, your first job will be to go out and wash the manure out of the pens and you keep washing them until you get ready to go home tonight.”

After several months of working his way through every aspect of the production line, Hackney was put on the road buying cattle. Over the next few decades, he started a family, became head cattle buyer for the Excel Packing Company, formerly owned by meat industry giant Cargil, and in 1992 he opened Hackney Ag Associates – a full-service cattle buying and forward contracting operation.

Twenty-five years ago, while crisscrossing the country, Hackney came upon one of the most significant, single-focus projects he has ever tended despite the fact it represents only a small sliver of his overall business.

High in the Rocky Mountains, ranchers near the town of Collbran, Colorado, were having trouble making a profit on their cattle.  The Collbran ranching community pushed Mike Ralston to the front of the pack to ask Hackney, who was buying cattle for National Farmer Feeders at the time, to purchase cattle from a pool of 25 producers.

Mike Ralston, Collbran, Colorado: “Well, actually, I wasn’t real sure when I first met him. We weren’t, none of us were real impressed with him, ya know. You had to sorta warm-up to him but and maybe he’s just mellowed out over the years, I don’t know. But as a person, he’s about as honest and straight forward. He gets along with everybody, which is important. What you see is what you get.”

Herd size near the town of 700 varies widely from less than 10 to more than 200 head. Hackney brought his life experience to bear on the Collbran pool and, after several years of working with local producers, he has watched the rag-tag collection of genetic diversity that varied from paddock to paddock become a single herd of consistent cattle.   

Walt Hackney, Hackney Ag: “You have to be very candid for one thing…. I'd say, ‘Now, we're going to improve on your next calf crop and we're going to show a better set of calves than what you have delivered in here today or you're not going to be able to continue in the group.’ Or ‘You are an excellent example of what we have strived to do in your group. I want to commend you on where you're at.”

The people who bought cattle from the pool began to notice the animals looked like they came from one rancher instead of a loosely knit group of producers. Word reached another group of cattlemen in Rangeford, Montana. They asked Hackney to take up their cause and he agreed to lend them his advice. Both programs started attracting the interest of ranchers across cattle country in the Northwest.

Walt Hackney, Hackney Ag: “…I don't have enough time left and it's too tiring and too much of a challenge to start over again with another new group. Now, if they want to come in and take a lesson off of the existing group, ya'll come.”

Today, cattlemen in the Collbran pool, who have listened to critiques of their cattle over the years, continue to feel like they are being treated fairly by the veteran buyer.

David Long, a 4th generation cattle rancher, works with his son and grandson a short distance from the weighing shed.

David Long, Collbran, Colorado: “I just think the world of the man, the way the whole thing is setup. His crew is just like part of the family after this many years.”

After 3 days of weighing and buying, checks are written to pool members in Roland’s living room. Thousands of dollars go back into the pockets of Collbran ranchers who are already working on the animals they’ll sell next year.

Longtime friend Ed Warner, clears the cattle through his Albia, Iowa-based Central States Cattle Company.

Ed Warner, Central States Cattle Company: “We’ve come to know Walt as a very honorable, very honest guy, and very big hearted. And he is fair with everybody that he deals with. If there’s any mistakes or any problems, Walt’s probably the one to take the bump.”

Farther down the buying chain are producers like Bob Friest of Hubbard, Iowa. On a foggy fall morning, he is taking delivery of 480-head of cattle from the Rangeford, Montana pool. A few years ago, Friest sought out Hackney because he wanted the best cattle available.   

Bob Friest, Hubbard, Iowa: “It don’t cost you any more to feed the good ones than it does the bad ones. Ever since Walt and I have gotten together he’s always did the best he could ever do for me.  Not only for the producer out there, he gets the money for the producer, but he makes us feel like we’re getting a good buy on the cattle on this end.”

When calving is complete in the high country, Hackney will be back in the saddle putting more miles on his car. His rounds will take him to Collbran where he can look over this year’s pool and sign a few contracts.

Walt Hackney, Hackney Ag: “Our industry is one of a few that you actually grow about as much in the hard times as you do in the good times. Hard times, you're forced to really wear out a number 2 lead pencil making it work. And so the hard times and the good times thrown together I wouldn't want to change a thing.”

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller

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