By Colleen Schreiber
HEREFORD Ed Barrett has been in the cattle feeding industry full-time since 1959. He sold the first set of cattle he fed to E.C. Crofoot for 23 cents a pound fat and delivered them just like they were making $100 a head when in fact they were losing him what little money he had at the time.
In doing so, then 28 year-old Barrett was proving he had the guts to make it in the business, and Crofoot, who had long established his own cattle feeding reputation, took notice. It proved to him that Barrett was willing to take a risk, but most important, it proved that he understood the importance of honesty and of sticking to his word.
He's proven that time and time again over the last 40 years. Today Barrett owns three yards with a total capacity of about 135,000 head. Two of those yards, up until recently, were owned in partnership with the Crofoot family.
That legacy got its initial start in 1966 when Barrett agreed to come to Lubbock to manage a yard that E.C. Crofoot had purchased.
Crofoot had already built a name for himself in the feeding business in Kansas, where he had a 15,000 head yard at Strong City. When the feeding industry began its shift away from California and the Midwest to the Panhandle of Texas, Crofoot was one of the first to jump on board.
When Crofoot offered him the job at Lubbock, Barrett at first declined, but his wife encouraged him to at least go to Texas and have a look. In the end, Barrett took the job and that was the start of what became, basically, a lifetime partnership.
"They dont come any better E.C. Crofoot and John Wayne," Barrett says. "E.C. took a chance on me, figured I was honest, I guess, since I delivered those cattle like we were making money even though they were really taking the skin off our hineys."
"E.C. is one of the smartest people Ive known," Barrett continues. "He always knew how to handle people and he always had a good feel for the market."
Barrett and Crofoot bought two yards in Hereford soon after the 1974 cattle crash. Barrett, on the spur of the moment, had come to Hereford to have a look around, to talk to some of his fellow feeders and assess the damages of the crash. At the time, he was running Flint Hills Feedyard in Emporia. He and Ron Hughes had built the yard in 1968.
"It didnt take long before I realized that most everyone was broke," he recalls, "so I called E.C. and told him that I thought it was time to buy a feedyard in that country. He told me that if I would run it he would take any part I didn't want."
They bought the West Pittman in the summer of 1975 and the east yard a year or two later.
Barrett says he came through the 70s wreck better than many in Texas, mainly because he never quit selling cattle.
"My theory has always been to sell cattle every week," Barrett remarks. "When cattle are ready, sell 'em.
"When the freeze on hogs went off, the market went up," he recalls. "The cattlemen thought the same thing would happen when the beef freeze was lifted.
"I just didn't think the way everyone was waiting for it to happen that it was going to work out like they thought. We had too many cattle," he explains. "So the day before, I sold everything I could, some 2700 head, and thats the only thing that saved me.
"Dont get me wrong. It was tough," he continues. "I ended up collecting $61,000 in back taxes that year."
Barrett used some of that money in back taxes to get started again.
"I bought 200 steers that weighed 800 pounds and gave 25 cents a pound for them. Then I called E.C. and told him what I'd done and he said, 'Ed, buy all you can.'
"Well, I didnt have any money left, so I called Jack Baker out of St. Joe. I told him that I would pay for the feed if he would buy the cattle. He agreed, and we partnered on another 600 head."
He got in on another 2700 head or so when he partnered with Walt Porter, and it wasn't long before they had the Flint Hills Feedyard full.
In the early days of the Barrett-Crofoot partnership, about 25 percent of the cattle were company owned. Today that percentage has risen to around 65 percent. Barrett has a number of outside partners who start cattle for him, and in that way hes able to keep a fairly constant flow of cattle moving in and out of his yards.
The Barrett-Crofoot legacy came to an end recently when, to Barrett's dismay, E.C.'s son Jay decided he wanted out of the business. Barrett agreed to buy the family out.
"I hated it. Jay and I are like brothers, and E.C. is like a dad to me," Barrett says. "In all these years, theyve never questioned my judgement or a decision Ive made."
Barrett has come a long way from his humble start on a farm in Emporia, Kansas. Born in 1931, Barrett was next to the youngest of 11 children. There were nine boys and two girls. Like so many of that day, his father farmed and ran cattle and did whatever else it took to feed his family.
When the first tractor came out, Barrett says, his father vowed never to own one, and true to his word, they farmed with horses until about 1942.
"First we used a one-row cultivator. Then they came out with those two-row curlers. I couldn't believe how fast we got the job done with one of them," he says.
He and a brother, Bob, were so little that they had to harness the horse together.
"One carried the britch and the other carried the hames, and the one with the hames would have to climb the fence in order to throw it over the horse," Barrett recalls.
When it came time to put up hay, his mother worked in the fields as well.
"There were five of us smaller children, and Mom would put us under the rack wagon with our dog, Shep. Ol' Shep was supposed to keep us under the wagon. There's a picture in the family of Shep dragging brother Bill by the seat of his pants when he strayed out from under the wagon."
Barrett was too young to remember much about the Depression, but he does remember his mother crying to his dad to get some money together so they could go to town to buy groceries.
"It was tough," he says. "The minute we got out of school, and if I remember right we used to get out April 18th, all the shoes were taken off and put up, and we went barefoot the rest of the summer. The next year the shoes were passed down to the next kid."
He and his siblings were made to appreciate the meaning of hard work at an early age. His father gave him a cow to milk when he was only five.
"He blistered my hind end if I didnt get her dry."
The Barretts were always a close-knit family. He credits his mother, who was blind for part of her life, for inspiring his good outlook on life.
Two of Barrett's brothers went into farming. The rest chose other careers. Ed was the only one who broke off into the cattle business. Barrett says he always imagined himself being a cowboy, and his friend, Jim Lowder, inspired him to enter the cattle business. The two youngsters met at the Strand Theater.
"I saw this boy sitting there with this good-looking hat on and a good-looking pair of boots. He motioned for me, this farm boy dressed in overalls, to sit by him. That was probably one of the biggest thrills of my life. Weve been best friends since."
Barrett has a picture hanging in his home that in a way portrays his life where he came from to where he has arrived today. Its a picture of a little barefoot boy dressed in overalls looking down into a stock tank. The reflection looking back is of a sharp-looking cowboy on a horse.
When he was 14, Barrett began working summers for rancher Dick Hydrick. He quit school his junior year, tried it again the following year, quit again and never went back.
After that, Barrett went to work for Ben Robinson Feedyards at Lang, east of Emporia. He and Phil Hull, the manager of the yard, fed the 800 or 900 head all by hand with horses and scoop shovels. Sometimes, on Sundays, when the boss decided to take off, Barrett was left to feed all of them himself.
The cattle were fed a ration of silage, milo and soybean meal.
"That part hasn't changed much," Barrett says. "We scooped the silage onto a flatbed wagon and then put the milo and soybean meal on top. We had a hammer mill that we ran the grain through, but the soybean meal was in sacks."
Barrett also gained experience outside the ranching and farming business. When the REA lines were going in across the country, he worked for a time for J&J Construction. He started out on the framing crew. Once, when he decided to play hookey, he was demoted to the rock gang, but he eventually worked his way back up to the framing crew and later became a lineman.
He gained sales experience during a two-year stint as a wholesale distributor, selling candy and cigarettes and the like to restaurants and grocers in nearby towns. When he started, there were two other jobbers besides himself working the same route. His company had little of the business, but before he quit, he had it all.
His toughest sale was to Gibb grocery. He finally clinched the account when Winston cigarettes came out and he had the wisdom to save all his supply for Mrs. Gibb.
He was working for the county electric co-op when he married Millie Merry. The year was 1951 and both were 19. Barrett courted Millie on and off through high school.
When they married, she was working at the local grocery store. She had earned a $100 bonus and Ed had a $100 gas bill at the local filling station. He used Millie's $100 to pay off his bill.
"That way we started off all even," he says.
They've been together now for 48 years.
"Shes the best," Barrett says of his wife. "You can take a good woman and a sorry man and make a decent man out of him.
"Millie has stuck with me all the way," he continues. "Once she threw John Waynes picture out; said she couldnt stand two John Waynes in the same house. The next day she retrieved the picture, but its never looked quite the same."
After his stint with the electric company, Barrett returned to the life he loved. He went back to work at Hydricks for awhile, and then Jim Lowder's father, Lee, hired him to work on their ranch at Allen.
Barrett also worked for a small meat packer in Emporia. Fanestil Packing Company slaughtered 30 or so head a day.
"I was the only one the boss would let rib cattle. I could get more meat off the cattle than anyone else," he insists.
For that he drew 90 cents an hour. He worked right alongside the grader.
"He would grade and I would rib, and when I didn't think he was doing a good job grading, I'd get him to take a break. When we would come back, I would convince him that he needed to regrade some of them."
Could he work in a packing plant today?
"In a minute," Barrett says.
Barrett gained his first real experience in the cattle feeding industry in 1959 when he and Jim Lowder hooked up again. Lowder had been hired by a milling company in Emporia to run a new feedlot they were building. Naturally, his first choice for assistant manager was his good friend, Ed Barrett.
Soon after the 2000-head capacity Cattlemens Feedyard opened, the two pooled what resources they had, Jim $10,000 and Ed $2000, and together bought 400 head.
"I dont remember what we paid for those cattle, but I do remember that they were costing us 50 cents a head a day to feed and they were only gaining about a quarter of a pound a day," Barrett recalls. "I had already struck the deal with Mr. Crofoot, and I knew right away that we had a problem. I knew that when we got done we would be broke, so I had a talk with Jim and then we had a talk with our banker, Chet Morris. Chet asked us who else knew we were broke. When we told him no one, he told us that wed better get out there and get some more cattle bought before anyone else found out."
That same day Lowder flew to Mississippi, and through Jim Runyan, of Swift and Henry, bought from the Quinn brothers 400 head of cattle.
"Jim called that night to tell me what he'd gotten done and I told him that those were all the cattle the bank was going to let us buy, so I told him to buy twice as many."
By the time they finished feeding those cattle they had made all their money back and then some. They were rolling once again.
Luckily, over the years, the two have shared more good deals than bad ones, but seldom did they pass up an opportunity where they thought there was a buck to be made. Such was the case when their Texas friend, Thomas Earl Winters, sparked their interest in feeding some "awfully cheap" lambs. Neither of them knew anything about the lamb business, but 10-cent lambs, Lowder says, sounded too cheap to pass up.
"I wanted to try maybe a load," Lowder recalls, "but Ed said, Hell, let's buy 1000."
After losing two or three head nearly every day, an old Ace Reid cartoon the one where the cowboy on horseback was trying to pull his horse up before he went off the edge of a cliff brought the two to their senses.
"When Ed saw that cartoon, he figured it was a sure sign telling us it was time to get out of the sheep business," Lowder says.
Barrett hired on with the Crofoots as assistant manager at their Lubbock yard in 1966. He moved into the manager's position within three months and stayed that round until 1968. He returned then to Emporia to build a feedlot with Ron Hughes.
"E.C. called one day and asked when we were going to have the yard built. I told him July 12, and on that day 1800 to 2000 head arrived to help us start the feedlot. That's the kind of man E.C. is."
Considerable change has occurred during this pioneer feeders tenure, and he says some of the changes have made the game less fun to play than it once was.
Still, he says, "there is always an opportunity in this business."
He admits that perhaps there arent as many opportunities as when he first started partly, he says, because of the "big boys" the Continentals and the Caprocks.
"Whenever theyre buying cattle, you just kind of have to step aside and work around the fringe edges and try to buy something they dont want," he notes.
"I love to buy cattle when no one else wants them. E.C. once told one of his buyers, when you dont have any other orders, then buy me cattle. I tend to follow that policy.
"Im like everyone else, though," he continues, "if cattle get to bringing 86 cents and I find some for 84 cents even though theyre probably still too high, Ill likely buy them."
Are the corporate feeders bad for the business?
"No packer should be allowed to own cattle," he opines. "Used to, when the market would go to hell, feeders would get down and we could afford to get in there and buy some. This last time around the big boys have just kept after them and kept the prices high. They just dont run out of money."
Barrett believes the big will continue to get bigger, at least, he says, "until we have a double wreck. You can break a big one too, and it will happen someday.
"Cargill is a little tougher," Barrett continues. "Theyre a family-run operation, but if those packing houses go to losing money theyll shuck them. Theyre not in the business to lose money."
When buying feeders, Barrett doesnt have any real secrets. He looks for condition, weigh-up and price, the same as everyone. "I prefer the kind that make money," he says, but "I still get taken every once in awhile."
There have been times, too, when it was the other way around. He recalls one time shortly after he and Lowder had built the yard at Emporia. His friend, Jim Runyan, was just getting started good in the business.
"Jim came by one day just wanting to buy cattle something terrible. I had bought some cattle a couple of days prior, and oh, they were full. We weighed them straight that morning and I sold them to Jim for the same money as I gave for em." Laughing, he says, "They fed high, but I helped him out just like he asked."
Barrett used to feed a lot of plain cattle.
"I'll never forget one day E.C. and I were looking over the cattle. Someone had sent in some real plain heifers. He asked who sent them, and when I told him how much they cost he said, I kind of like them."
Today, he says, he cant really sell a plain one and he hardly can sell a heiferette.
Barrett is no more fond than anyone else of today's marketing pattern in which, more often than not, the entire week's showlist in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains sells in about a 15-minute window.
"Were just like sheep one follows the other. They (packers) really have us trained to do it in 15 minutes," Barrett says. "In the last three years, if you didnt jump on that boat when it was offered the first time, you didnt get your cattle sold."
Thats why even though he prefers to sell cattle in the cash market, he struck an arrangement of sorts with IBP. It was this arrangement that allowed Barrett to move numbers when he needed to.
"You have to get rid of numbers, and thats what I was thinking about all through this last wreck, he says. "Everybody has to do what they have to do."
Barrett doesnt like to call it an arrangement or even a contract, because he says he doesnt have to send a set number every week.
"I can send 1000 or 2000, or I can skip a week."
In actuality, Barrett is of the opinion that there isnt any such thing, really, as a formula or a grid.
"Oh, they talk about formulas and grids, but the packer has the control. Hes the last one who marks it.
"Ive tried formula and Ive tried grid," he continues, "and my cash cattle always bring more money. Maybe I dont feed the right kind of cattle."
Despite the apparent trend away from the cash market, Barrett believes that as numbers get shorter, there will be fewer cattle sold on formula arrangements.
Being short of numbers, however, doesnt always benefit the industry either.
"We usually have a better market when we have more cattle," he insists, "and the reason is because the packers and the chain stores know they can fill their supplies. Like right now, we have more cattle than weve had in awhile and we have a better market. When were short of cattle, the packers tend to cut their kill back, and that only hurts us more."
Barrett has been through basically every market wreck since 1959.
"When I got married, I warned Millie that every cattleman is supposed to be broke at least three times, but for some darn reason Ive been lucky.
"I remember sometime in 1996 telling Mr. Crofoot that I didnt like this thing. He said, Ed, Ive known you quite a long time, and weve never missed a wreck. Why worry about it now?"
Most of those who went through the 70s, Barrett says, learned from their mistakes. For the most part, history hasn't repeated itself, at least in terms of a horrendous backlog of really heavy cattle.
Barrett says one difference today compared to the 70s cycle is that its tougher to recover losses.
"After 1974, I made all my money back in about eight months because I jumped out and bought enough cattle," he says. "Back then, if you could stay in you could make it all back in one or two turns. Thats not the case today."
Communication, he points out, is so much better today than in years past.
"You cant slip up on anyone like we used to," he says. "Anyone can find out what the market is at any time. We used to have a lot of people in the business who were just marginal operators," he continues. "E.C. told me once that all I had to do was outsmart 51 percent. That was possible then, but anymore its a little tougher."
Barrett says it's also harder to read the market today than it used to be.
"Today you just really have to be lucky," he insists.
Lik many of his day, Barrett believes the industry would be better off without the futures market.
"Wouldnt that be wonderful, for me, anyway, if we did away with it. The futures market runs us," he says. "We wouldnt have the market we have today if it werent for the futures. We would have come out of the hole a lot quicker if we didnt have that board."
Risk management is the latest buzz term and one that Barrett has little use for.
"Risk management is for some damn man thats scared," Barrett opines. "Risk management is someone covering their hiney. I want to make money in the cattle business. I dont want to hedge. The biggest thrill I get out of feeding cattle is making $100 a head, and if I hedged Id never make $100. We could probably hedge and keep these feedlots plumb full and the feedyard would make all the money in the world, but thats no fun."
That said, Barrett believes that in the future his sons might have to use more risk management. "Either way, you have to be a risk taker and you have to have foresight, and I guarantee every once in a while youre going to be wrong."
Barrett says what he enjoys most about his job are the people. He hasnt forgotten the leg up that E.C. Crofoot, in particular, gave him so many years ago. Barrett has done the same for many others over the years.
Jack Jones is just one of them. He partnered with him and another fellow on their first pen of cattle, and Barrett agreed to stand all the loss the first time. If they made money, however, they were on their own.
"They made money, and when I asked Jack if he wanted his money, he said, Hell no, I want to buy some more cattle. Hes been more than a little successful since."
He's helped bail numerous others out after a wreck or hung on with them during a wreck.
"We dont ever quit a man when hes down," Barrett remarks. "We just expect him to work a little harder. If hes honest and hard-working, well get it back."
Twenty-nine year-old Tommy Runyan is one of his latest proteges. The two began a partnership in the mid-1990s. Runyan runs cattle for him on a place near Purcell, Oklahoma. He also has an order with Barrett.
"There isnt any better that I know of," Runyan says of Barrett. "I wouldnt be doing what Im doing if it werent for him. I could be buying cattle, but I wouldnt have this place and I wouldnt be running as many cattle as I am. Hes responsible for what Ive done up till now.
"As far as buying cattle, Ed gave me the ability to stay there, and what I mean by that is he gave me a steady order that enabled me to kind of stick it out through the lean years."
Runyan says one lesson learned from Barrett in regard to buying feeder cattle was to "buy em thin. You can do a lot of things wrong, but if the condition is good on the cattle, hell like them."
Barrett has worked closely with a long line of the Runyan clan, starting with Tommys granddad.
"My granddad helped Ed out some when he was young and hes worked close with my uncle and with my dad. I guess he figured if I was anything like them that I was probably a pretty good risk," Runyan says.
"As long as you tell Ed the truth, youre never in trouble," he adds. "It may be wrong and he might not like it, but as long as youre honest with him it wont matter."
Its that lesson on honesty that Barrett says hes tried to pass on to his kids.
"Whatever you do, stick by your word. Your word is the most important thing," Barrett says. "If you tell someone youre going to do it, then do it. Every once in awhile its going to hurt, but thats just part of it."
Barrett is fortunate in that he has good partners in his own family. His three sons are all involved in the business as well as his son-in-law. Rodney runs the west yard and Bob manages the east yard. Youngest son Brad handles the insurance program, and Jan's husband, Ron Weishaar, handles their commodity trading.
Barrett says his sons have to make their own destiny.
"Ive given them a good education. Mainly that education has come from experience, from being in and around the business."
What does the future hold for Ed Barrett?
"I hope I dont have to retire," he says. "I might go broke tomorrow, but hell, Ive had lots of fun."
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