Most of us who grew up with some degree of interest in the livestock industry have some memories of going to the sale barn when we were kids. I can vividly remember going to the sale barn with my grandpa, actually more often with my grandmother. For folks my age and over, you will recall it was a lot different than it is today. I don’t really know when the transition to stock trailers began, but most of the animals used to arrive in the back of trucks. The more sophisticated haulers had ton trucks with big sideboards, but for the most part, at least in my recollection, most of the livestock were transported in pickup trucks. For some reason, when I think back on those days, I can remember a great big mule standing in the back of a pickup with what looked like less than sturdy sideboards. There were a lot more stockyards a few decades back. And, if a community was lucky enough to have one, it was as much a fixture as the courthouse or the family drugstore. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. In fact, there have been a lot of new roads and bridges built, but one thing has remained the same: The stockyards in Alabama have played and continue to play a key role in disease surveillance and eradication in our state.
All of my veterinary career, I have had an interest in the livestock industry. I did my preceptorship and began practicing at East Point Veterinary Hospital in Cullman, which has the most beef cows in the state. I am not sure if that was the case back in 1988, but I know there were a lot of cows there. Even back then, as I tried to keep up with trends in the livestock industry and what we needed to know to help our large animal clients, we were told the community sale barn would some day go the way of the black and white TV. I can remember being told that if a small producer was relying on a stockyard to sell his cattle, someday he would have no place to market his animals. That prediction, like a lot of others, has not proven to be true. It is true the stockyards we have today have shown a tremendous ability to adapt to what is needed to market cattle today. Several stockyards, for one reason or the other, have closed over the years. But the stockyards remaining in business have taken measures that have continued to give the small producer a place to market his cattle, even if they come to market in a pickup truck.
Back in the 1950s, the USDA began to put into place regulations causing the stockyards to be partners with us in eradicating diseases such as brucellosis, tuberculosis and pseudorabies in swine. It began with regulations. If a stockyard was going to sell cattle that would be shipped across state lines, there were certain criteria they had to meet. While I know accommodating the testing, providing quarantine areas, assisting with trace backs and meeting other requirements have caused the stockyards some aggravation, they generally have been very accommodating to us, at least in my experience. Back in the days before data being stored on computers and even to some extent today, we can certainly interrupt an otherwise normal day in the stockyard office. Sometimes there is no other way to find out where a cow came from or who she was sold to than to dig out boxes of receipts from months to even years ago and go through them by hand. I will have to say computers have made that process easier, but we still depend largely on stockyard personnel to get the information we need.
Most people remember our blood testing cattle at the stockyard as part of the Brucellosis Eradication Program. The testing that took place in the stockyards was the result of a state regulation that required testing at change-of-ownership of breeding age, sexually intact cattle. That responsibility did not necessarily rest on the stockyard, but the producer. Most producers may not realize what a huge favor the stockyards did for them. Yet, the alternative to testing at the stockyard was to put the responsibility back on the producer. When I try to think of ways we could have got rid of brucellosis without the help of stockyards, I just draw a big blank. I do not believe it could have ever happened.
Now we have a new regulation requiring cattle to be identified at change of ownership. It is the producer’s responsibility, but stockyards are working with us to figure out a way to make animal disease traceability work. In my working with stockyard owners across the state, none of us are excited about another regulation, but we all realize, to compete or even sell our products on the global market, the ability to trace animal disease must become a reality. It is sometimes difficult to look beyond the process of raising cattle such as improving genetics, buying fertilizer, navigating through droughts and floods, fixing fences and buying feed. It is easy to forget that what we are really doing is making sure that when a customer pulls up at the drive-through and orders a hamburger or a roast beef sandwich that they aren’t told they will have to get something else because there was not enough beef produced to meet their order. Many stockyard producers realize the need for disease traceability and are looking for ways to make it happen to accommodate the average producer in our state.
As I said earlier, beef marketing experts had projected the community stockyard would go the way of the black and white TV. Maybe they have. Maybe today’s stockyards have adapted to the demands of what is required to market beef in today’s world. Just like adding color to the TV screen and changing from rabbit-ear antennas to cable and satellite hookups, stockyards have continued to meet the needs of the small producer here in Alabama. As I have attended meetings and have been on conference calls with people across the country discussing traceability, I emphatically remind them that the stockyards play a critical role in Alabama in the success of any such program.
I appreciate what the stockyards have contributed over the years to animal agriculture in our state. I appreciate their efforts and partnership in helping us with disease surveillance and eradication. And I appreciate being able to think back to when I was just a kid going to the sale barn with my grandparents and seeing that big mule riding off in the back of that pickup truck. My, how times have changed. It’s certainly not your grandpa’s sale barn anymore.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.