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Last cattle auction at KC stockyards

DATE OF EVENT: Thursday, Sept. 26, 1991

DATE PUBLISHED: Friday, Sept. 27, 1991, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: The Kansas City stockyards opened in 1871. During its 120-year history, it endured a damaging fire in 1917, devastating floods in 1903 and, especially, 1951. And there were good days, too; for example, a record run of cattle — 57,642 head — in 1943. The yards closed in 1991, leaving Kansas City, the nation’s cowtown, without cattle.

Stockyards end a 120-year tradition

By Gene Meyer

A 120-year-old link with Kansas City’s agricultural heritage ended Thursday when the Kansas City Stockyards held its last regularly scheduled cattle auction.

Rising costs and changing agricultural marketing patterns are closing what once was the nation’s second-largest cattle market, which had withstood five wars, two major floods and a devastating World War I-era fire.

“Livestock producers are like the rest of us; they want convenience, convenience, convenience,” said Mike Sweet, associate director of the Livestock Marketing Association, a national trade group based in Kansas City.

“It simply is no longer convenient for them to ship cattle by rail or truck through urban traffic when so many competing facilities are closer to home,” Sweet said.

“What we’re doing is a matter of pure economics,” said Bob Thomas, president of Kansas City Stockyards Co., after the final day’s run of about 150 bawling cattle cleared the market’s well-worn auction ring.

“The cost of water and the cost of taxes were doing us in,” he said.

Details of the stockyards’ future were not immediately clear.

Thomas said the yards’ auction facilities, located on 34 commercially valuable acres just north of Kemper Arena, would be available for farmers to market hogs and sheep directly to brokers.

Thomas and Kansas City agribusiness executive Bill Haw reportedly have been negotiating plans for the now nearly empty marketplace, but both men declined Wednesday to disclose details. Last year, Haw bought the market’s Livestock Exchange Building headquarters and 13 acres next to the stockyards.

“I’ll be happy to talk about it when we’ve got something to announce. That should be pretty soon,” Haw said.

About 50 stockyards employees will be dismissed as the last of the cattle are loaded out this week. Thomas said a staff of about six would remain to handle the hog and sheep sales.

Finally, Thomas and other stockyard officials are preparing for the first of two auctions to dispose of what has become increasingly surplus equipment since the turn of the century.

The Kansas City stockyards are one of the two oldest surviving major agricultural institutions in the city.

In 1871, meat packers, livestock dealers and railroad barons began trading livestock very close to where the stockyards are now located in the West Bottoms near the Kaw River. The trading began a half decade before a loosely knit grain market known as the board of trade formally organized into what today is the Kansas City Board of Trade.

From its beginning to about the early 1950s, the stockyards flourished. Thanks in part to their location near main rail terminals linking western producers to eastern markets, sales increased almost continuously. The yards were all but devastated by a 1903 flood, a 1917 fire and a second, far worse flood in 1951.

More than 1 million animals a year tramped through acres of alleys and pens during the yards’ peak, during World War II and the years just before the 1951 flood. Only Chicago’s stockyards were larger then, and those have long since been razed to make room for shopping malls.

By the time the 1951 flood waters receded in Kansas City, however, industry trends were leaving its stockyards behind too.

Meat packers began leaving aging Kansas City slaughterhouses to put up more efficient processing plants nearer giant Corn Belt and Great Plains feedlots.

Farmers increasingly began negotiating directly with packers or marketing through smaller regional auction houses, which also were proliferating.

Federal livestock regulators at the U.S. Packers and Stockyards Administration say only Kansas City and 13 other places in the United States still have stockyards large enough to be classified as major terminals. That’s a drop of about five in the last two years.