We can set our clock by David Heller of the Hallettsville (Texas) Livestock Commission. When this cattleman says he’ll arrive on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. to haul our livestock, count on it.
As David turns off the main road onto the uneven surface of our lane, the gates and safety chains inside his 32-foot cattle trailer rattle. The noise breaks the calm morning.
Our cows, lured into the holding pen earlier with the promise of range cubes, raise their heads. That dreaded noise is all-too-familiar.
They swing around as if to say, “Oh, it’s him again…”
I feel a surprising sense of reassurance at David’s routine arrival. All is well in our little corner of the world, COVID-19 or no-COVID-19.
No turning back now
The cows with calves anxiously check on the whereabouts of their offspring, but it’s too late. We’ve moved them into the corral leading to the loading chute. Then the cows seem to recognize that one of their own is penned with the calves, too.
Socks had limped in discomfort for months because of a hip problem, so it’s no surprise she is being sold. However, we all hate to see her go.
David swings wide to make the 180-degree turn into our driveway. In the 20 years he’s been coming here, not once has he run over my crepe myrtle bush or scraped the side of his trailer on the ornamental iron fence. Not every driver towing a trailer can say that, but David has been practicing for more than 30 years.
At 8:30 on the nose, he slowly drives up to the metal gate where I’m standing and briefly stops.
“Good morning, Mrs. Thomas,” he says with a Texas-sized grin.
“How are you doing today?”
Amused that he still addresses me as Mrs. Thomas after all these years, I grin back.
“I see even your cows are practicing social distancing!” he says.
David is referring to Patch, whose oversized hoof had been trimmed the night before. Since the procedure will affect how she walks for a while, she is content to be off by herself.
David doesn’t roll his eyes because our herd is so small that I name each cow. It also doesn’t seem to matter that we’re among the Hallettsville Livestock Commission’s smallest customers.
Some beef cattle operators sell hundreds of head at one time and many deliver their own livestock to the auction barn. But many others don’t.
On Mondays and Tuesday mornings before the 11 a.m. sale, David picks up cattle from farmers and ranchers north of Hallettsville, a town of 2,550. His younger brother, Rodney, hauls for cattlemen whose herds are south of town. When livestock numbers are larger than average, the brothers team up to get the cattle to market.
On an average week, they cover several hundred miles before the weekly sale kicks off.
Load ’em up, move ’em out
After David pulls through the yard and backs up to the headgate where Emil is standing, I close the gate and walk over to the corral to watch. We’ve repeated this process numerous times, but we are always relieved when it is completed safely.
An essential business in an essential industry
When the majority of businesses were forced to shut down in March to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Texas Governor Greg Abbott deemed livestock auctions as essential entities. With an estimated 13 million head of cattle or 13% of the entire U.S. total, the state’s cattle producers continued to feed the chain that put beef on grocery store shelves.
The Hallettsville Livestock Commission scrambled to add COVID-19 safety measures to its operating procedures. Stern new guidelines were issued to limit those inside the sale arena to the order buyers and the commission’s employees.
- Sellers were to remain in their vehicles while the commission’s staff tagged and unloaded their livestock. Then they were respectfully asked to go home. Checks would be mailed rather than picked up at the office.
- Order buyers who were purchasing livestock were asked not to have others accompany them to the sale arena.
- All those involved with the weekly sale were reminded to stay home if they had a fever, were feeling ill or exhibited other symptoms of an illness.
Hallettsville Livestock Commission president Mike Heller says many meatpacking facilities closed temporarily when the COVID-19 virus spread to plant workers in March. That constraint caused the cattle market to drop about $100 per head.
It has recovered about $75 per head, although it’s still down from earlier this year.
This is not the first time that producers have ridden a rollercoaster regarding cattle prices, however.
In 2014-2015, cattle numbers increased nationwide because of strong prices. That caused the market to drop substantially in 2016-2017. Since then, the numbers have been relatively flat. Mike hopes this is the bottom of the cycle and it will move up from here.
“Mother Nature always plays a role also!” he adds. Halletsville Livestock
“Besides,” Emil continued, “We aren’t dealing with just some guy who drives a truck pulling a cattle trailer. David Heller is part owner of the livestock commission in Hallettsville. His livelihood and personal integrity are tied to the auction barn’s ongoing success.”
Livestock sales a family tradition
Livestock auctions are in David’s blood. His great-grandfather, Oscar Heller Sr., and grandfather, Oscar Heller Jr., began operating cattle sale barns in Lexington and Brenham in the 1950s. Subsequent generations have carried on the tradition in several different locations.
David credits his father, Mike Heller, for blazing a trail of his own, although it is linked to their rich family heritage. After graduating from Weimar High School, Mike went to work for Beken Livestock, a Weimar-based wholesale company that purchased cattle to fill orders.
In fact, the day David was born his dad was hauling a load of cows from Sealy, Texas. Mike also served in the U.S. Army for two years, one of them in Vietnam.
Mike and his wife, Jenny, and their sons moved to Yoakum in 1972 when he went to work for Doc Hagan who owned both Hagan Cattle Co. and the Hallettsville Livestock Commission. Through hard work, frugality and foresight, Mike was able to acquire Hagan Cattle Co. and buy into the Hallettsville Livestock Commission when Doc Hagan died in 1983.
David began riding with his dad when he was seven or eight years old.
“By the time I became a teenager, I had seen miles and miles of Texas from the passenger seat of Dad’s pickup. Later, I saw a lot more on horseback, helping to gather cattle from the brush country.
“We covered an area up to 150 miles south and 150 miles north of Hallettsville. About 10 or 12 of us sometimes worked seven days a week on those roundups.
“As time went on, helicopters did the gathering.”
When David graduated from Yoakum High School in 1988, his dad asked him what his plans were.
“I told him I’d like to work for him, but Dad said I needed to do something else for a year. I didn’t understand at the time, but I did later.”
David enrolled in a two-year course in Livestock and Ranch Management at what is now Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas. He also got a part-time job at a local grain company sacking and moving feed and sweeping the floors.
“Going to school wasn’t my thing and I found the grain business monotonous. I made it one year before I told Dad I had to go to work,” David recalls. “He finally agreed and here I am.”
What gives David satisfaction? First on his list is his: wife, Lynn; daughter, Rylee; and son, Cole, as well as his parents, brother and extended family. Next come friends, followed by his work.
“I love animals, especially cattle and horses. I prefer to spend my day outdoors. I also enjoy visiting with all our customers when I pick up their cattle,” David says.
“There’s something new in this job every day, which is very important to me. It’s still lots of fun. Because of the COVID-19 virus, this is a tough time for everyone, but we’ll get through it.
“The ride goes on!”