Stockyard

Robert Crabb Jr. is the new owner of the stock market — livestock, that is — that sets the Dow for cows across North Carolina.

When radios had tubes and sat on oilcloth-clad kitchen tables, a man could count on certain things. One was that somewhere on the dial, just before daylight, would be a farm show featuring Reno and Smiley, the Briarhoppers or some other act, their corn-pone humor and ringing five-string banjos helping to bring up the sun. And that between tunes, a solemn announcer would read yesterday’s prices from the Siler City livestock market.

That didn’t change when the farm shows and their country cutups jumped from radio to television. Even today — with cattle wearing bar codes and farmers picking up their checks minutes after the sale, thanks to computerized weigh-ins and payouts — the prices paid at Carolina Stockyards, the largest stockyard in the state, still set the market price statewide.

One difference is a new owner. Robert Crabb Jr. and a group of investors bought the stockyard last year from Howard and Harry Horney, the brothers who had owned it since 1950. “One thing led to the other,” says Crabb, 36, who grew up on a farm near Milton, a crossroads in Caswell County near the Virginia line. He began raising beef cattle in junior high school and had worked part time since 1991 as a livestock grader for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

“We decided we’d open a livestock market in Eastern North Carolina but ran into a lot of opposition. I asked the Horneys their advice. They said the best advice they had was to buy this one.” The stockyard opened in 1948, two years before the Horneys bought it. They moved it to the outskirts of Siler City in 1972.

Last year, the stockyard sold about $40 million of livestock, slicing off commissions that averaged about 2.7%. It has 14 full-time employees, though as many as 35 work on Mondays and Fridays, sale days when the market is a blur of motion, a smorgasbord of smells, a clatter of sounds.

The gate opens at 7 a.m. Buyers and sellers flow in, driving pickups with tall livestock racks or pulling closed trailers or piloting rumbling tractor-trailer rigs. Some come early because they think prices will be better when the buyers are fresher. Or maybe they don’t mind waiting in line when they can pass the time talking. Small farmers spend most of their time alone. “They like to socialize when they get a chance,” Crabb says. “A lot of the others have cattle as a second income. They have a job down at the garage or drive a truck or whatever.”

In holding pens with boards worn smooth by millions of restless rumps — the market sold 86,673 head of cattle last year, along with 4,700 goats, a few horses and a lone llama — cows and calves low plaintively. “Hey, ya! Hey, ya!” men yell as they prod them from pen to pen into the sales ring. An auctioneer — Crabb has three — begins. “Who’ll gimme ... ” On a busy Friday, 1,500 head pass through the ring. On its perimeter, buyers compete with each other with studied casualness. A nod, a blink, a twitched finger. A cow is sold.

On a good day, the folding seats around the ring are nearly full of men in gimme caps with logos of tractor manufacturers. Fathers bring their children. Crabb estimates 85% of sales are calves, bound for Midwest feedlots, where they’ll be fattened for slaughter. Dads don’t always tell their kids everything.

At the market’s Carolina Restaurant, burgers and home-cut fries are popular. The smells of onions and hot dogs mingle with those of the barnyard. Crabb has plans for this place. Carolina Stockyards has started selling stock trailers and other farm equipment. He expects to add more items, such as fencing. “We figure if a farmer has got the check in hand from his sale, if we’ve got what he needs, he’ll buy it.”

“Hey, ya!” Another cow enters the ring in a halting trot and wanders around, looking puzzled. The auctioneer begins, and in seconds its sale is recorded. The Department of Agriculture reports on 11 livestock sales a week, the two here — the only reporting site with twice-weekly sales — and nine elsewhere. “The prices here are sort of a guideline,” Crabb says. Many farmers will sell their stock or hold it accordingly.

Like the prices and volumes on Wall Street, sales from this stock market will show up in the Agriculture Department’s report. Somewhere, sometime before sunrise, some farmers might hear about it on the radio.