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After 62 Years as a Cattle Buyer, Don Boyer Begrudgingly Retires

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, September 10, 2021

Even after working the same job for 62 years and putting some 3.1 million miles on who knows how many cars, Don Boyer isn't exactly relishing the idea of retiring.

If it were up to him, the venerated cattle buyer would continue to get up every morning at 5—sometimes earlier—to hit the road well after his 90th birthday in May. Unfortunately for Boyer, a bout with the coronavirus in July has forced his hand.

Two doses of the coronavirus vaccine may have saved Boyer's life, but the aftereffects of the illness are telling him it's time to turn the keys of Boyer Cattle Co. over to his youngest of two sons, Kevin.

"That word retirement was never in my vocabulary," Boyer said while sitting on the front porch of his farmhouse in Rochester last Wednesday. "I never wanted to retire."

Talking to Boyer about his career that began in 1959 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president is like opening a time capsule—watching him pull out the names of meat packing companies that have come and gone, recollections of visits to stockyards throughout the Midwest, and colorful tales about the industry's migration from the East to the West, the decline of Indiana's once-thriving beef herd and how the black Angus breed rose from obscurity to become the gold standard.

Following the footsteps of his father, Lawrence, who was a livestock trader known at the time as a "pen hooker," Boyer sold his first cattle to Hygrades Food Products in Indianapolis, Emge Packing in Anderson and the Yellow Creek brand in Elkhart.

In 1960, Boyer formed a partnership that took over the Liberty Mills Sale Barn, the oldest in Indiana. Boyer also auctioneered at Liberty Mills until the enterprise folded three years later.

"I also auctioneered in Sturgis, Mich. on Tuesdays," he said. "It didn't pay anything at that time; you'd only get like $50 for the whole sale."

In 1963, Boyer had to give up the auctioneering gig after he began working for Marhoefer Packing Co. in Muncie, which at one time was one of the 12 largest in the nation but eventually closed in '73.

"Back in those days, with me being from northern Indiana, I went to the Chicago stockyards, and Indianapolis, Evansville and St. Louis," Boyer said. "Now, they're all gone. We called ourselves 'instinct buyers,' where more or less today you do it all by calculators and so forth.

"Back in the old days we'd automatically see an animal and we pretty well knew what it was worth. This goes back before we got the (USDA) yield grades in the cattle business, which I reckon came on somewhere around '85 or '86. And, everything was carcass cattle. Kroger's would come in the plant, mark the cattle they wanted and cut their own meat. Today, everything's cut in the packing plant and boxed."

Buyers like Boyer would assess the cattle brought to the pens at the stockyards by producers and buy them directly from the farmers' representative called the "commission man."

"A lot of times, I'd buy 150 to 200 out of Chicago for Marhoefer," Boyer said. "The truckers would load them and back then, you had straight, 40-foot, wooden trailers. You didn't have these big possum bellies like you have now."

From Marhoefer, Boyer went to work for Gentner Packing Co., a Kosher plant in South Bend.

"The biggest number I ever bought was from the Logansport Sale Barn on a Friday," he recalled. "They had 1,100 cattle that day down there and I bought 745 of 'em."

In the late '70s, he would also fly back and forth to Nebraska.

"I'd go to the feedlots west of Omaha in York, and we bought 2,100 cattle that one day out there in November," Boyer said. "(Afterward), a big snowstorm had come through and when we went back to pick 'em up, you never knew they were the same cattle. There was mud and dirt all over them.

"When we bought them originally, there was a 4-percent shrink, which was normal, and then they gave me another 2 (percent). Gentner's had four of those big railroad cattle cars that they'd load in Omaha and send back to Chicago, and then they'd truck them from there to South Bend where they'd kill 'em."

Another time, he bought 2,300 cattle from a feed yard in Amarillo, Texas that were shipped straight through on an express train to Chicago in 36 hours.

When the Gentner family shuttered the packing plant, Boyer went into order buying for six-eight packers, the biggest of which was the Dubuque Packing plant in Genesee, Ill., now owned and operated by Tyson.

Kevin recalled his father telling stories about Aurora Packing, a Kosher plant near Chicago.

"It's right in the middle of Chicago so when the trucks would go in there to haul cattle in, well the manure would run out of the back of the trailer," Kevin said. "They'd take 'em right in downtown Chicago pretty much. Then all the city people and the cops would be there, and they'd get shut down. I've heard about this forever."

Kevin also remembers family vacations to places like Montana, which included an obligatory visit to a feedlot.

In the early 1990s, Boyer and his sons would cover the Indianapolis stockyards and sale barns in Little York, Topeka, Shipshewana, Walkerton and Logansport on a weekly basis.

Around about 1998, Boyer formed the Boyer Cattle Co., and Carol, his wife of 53 years, has handled the books ever since. By the early 2000s, however, a change in the industry landscape caused Boyer to make another business move.

"It started in the East when the colored, fat cattle out of Pennsylvania disappeared," he said. "Then they disappeared out of Ohio, and then Indiana and then Illinois. There weren't enough fat cattle left so I went with Cargill (in Wyalusing, Pa.) about 21 years ago."

As packing plants east of the Mississippi closed down for various reasons, the industry gravitated toward Iowa, which Boyer pronounces "Io-WAY," and farther west, he said.

Eventually, big dairy concerns, such Boss Dairies in Texas, moved into Indiana, and Boyer began selling kill cows that were finished giving milk.

"After the fat cattle started disappearing, I could see where my deal was headed because of the numbers, and that I had to go to these big dairies, and I did," he said. "I'm the one that started Fair Oaks giving cows direct to Cargill."

Legend has it, Boyer said, that some of the thousands of acres of land purchased by the dairies along I-65 in Demotte had been owned by the Mafia in Chicago.

"I don't know if this is true or not, but I think it is," Boyer said.

Boyer also adapted to industry fluctuations. In 2000, he started his current working arrangement with the Rochester Sale Barn.

"At that time, one semi-truck would haul all their kill cattle out—it was down to nothing," Boyer said.

Despite others in the business who told Boyer that there was no way Rochester could be revived, and after working for no pay for the first six months, he started recruiting Mennonite farmers who were moving into the area.

"At first, they'd take their cattle to Logansport, or Shipshewana and Topeka," Boyer said. "I just kept working all these guys, and I knew everybody within 75 miles because I'd been around forever. And farmers from all over would come to this sale because it was on a Saturday. We got the thing going and within the first year, I got the numbers up to 100-130 cattle. The second year I got it up to 200, later on it was up to 300 and then we got up to 400.

"Kevin had the lowboy semi at the time and he was hauling backhoes or bulldozers for the Mennonites, so he actually knew a good many of them. So between him and I, we got all these Mennonites to switch to Rochester and they've just kept coming in there."

Said Kevin, "Sometimes, you don't get home until 1-2-3 in the morning when they have the sheep sale in the spring, and Dad stays there the whole time till it's over. He used to work Monday nights till 10, 11 or 12 o'clock and take off at 4 in the morning for Indy every Tuesday. When I was a kid, I did not know how he did it."

In 2006, Kevin and his older son Dan bought the family's corn and soybean operation from their father and continue to plant 1,500 acres. Boyer attributes his longevity to a couple of factors.

"Up until the last three or four years, it was a pretty high-paying deal and that keeps you in it," he said. "But there's been a lot of changes. Up until 2017, I was covering all of Indiana, all of northwestern Ohio, all of Michigan clear to Grand Rapids. I was getting all these cows from all these dairies—$3,500-$3,800 a week commission."

When Cargill shifted some of Boyer's territory to another buyer, it was a blessing in disguise.

"I was 80 years old and running day and night," he said. "Actually, I guess it was a good thing because I was beginning to run out of gas."

The other reason Boyer has stayed in the game so long is because of what happened after his older brother, Kenny, quit working.

"When my brother turned 65 he retired out of the factory he worked at, and in a year's time he got cancer and died, and that's always been on my mind," Boyer said. "If he hadn't retired, he might have lived several years longer."

Boyer traded in cars every two years because he put so many miles on them. He's driven several brands but his ride of choice is a Buick.

"I've had so many cars it's unreal," he said.

The technology in the Buick LaCrosse he's driving these days compared to the Ford Fairlane he started out with is akin to the changes in beef.

"Years ago, Angus wasn't a top cattle," Boyer said. "That only came on in the last several years. What we used to have was a crossbreed cattle, which at one time was the big deal. They found out that with grading the black Angus meat, you can't beat it and you can produce a higher cut of meat. Black Angus became king."

Last year, Boyer bought over $6 million worth of cattle, which was down because of COVID. From 2010-17 Boyer would sell $12 million to $15 million worth.

He's seen cattle sell for as low 45 cents a pound to a high of $1.75 per pound. Today it's at about $1.25. Boyer's commission was 35 cents a hundred pounds for 40 years until it went up to 50 cents just six months ago.

"This is a very competitive business," Boyer said. "You got buyers coming in from Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania. You have to outbid 'em."

Shipshewana, for example, sells three cows a minute, Kevin said, adding, "when they're through the ring, they turn 'em once or twice and out the door they go."

Boyer is one of eight surviving members from a class of 33 seniors who graduated from Mentone High School in 1951.

What Boyer has enjoyed most about being a cattle buyer is the interactions he had with customers and the friends he's made.

"You deal with people 100 miles around you, one right after the other," he said. "They talk to me and want to know what the markets are and when to sell their cattle and when to do this and when to do that. I don't know if I ever thought about myself as being important, but a lot of people counted on me."

Whether Boyer is ever regarded as a legend in the beef-buying industry will be up to others to decide, but one thing is certain: His competitive spirit isn't letting him go willingly, especially when others in his age group continue to buy cattle.

"In Michigan, Donny Zandbergen buys for Cargill and he's still going," Boyer said. "I was always saying that I was going to work longer than Donny Zandbergen. Anyway, I guess it's been a long road and the road is coming to a dead end."

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