The Hit Man
By Lee Pitts
I’ve always enjoyed shipping cattle even better than branding or pregnancy checking cows, and there are many reasons why. Being the son of a long-haul trucker, I liked the smell of diesel before sun up, and I liked talking to the truckers who were always from exotic locales, like Iowa and Nebraska. The truckers hauled hogs out to California and backhauled California calves.
I also enjoyed shipping day because it gave me a chance to use my collegiate livestock judging team skills by sorting off calves in the sorting alley. I’ve also always had a secret desire to be a rodeo clown – I certainly have the clothes for it – and by dodging cows, bulls and calves and diving over fences head first in the sorting alley, I was sharpening my bullfighting skills.
Because most of my friends are auction yard owners or video sale reps and because they knew I liked to ship cattle, I was asked numerous times over the years to ship cattle for them. Mostly this happened when my friends had another shipping scheduled that day, because they lived eight hours away, while I may have been right next door, or maybe they wanted to watch their kid play soccer or a Little League game.
While I’ve seen photos and dreamed of one day being asked to load 18 trucks all in a row, it never happened to me. Mostly, I got to ship a lot of mixed-load, one truck deals where the seller was a cantankerous old coot.
Because the buyer wasn’t going to spend a fortune on plane tickets, motels or speeding tickets just to have a rep there on weigh-up day, it meant I had to represent both the buyer and seller. I also got asked to ship a lot of cattle when the cattle I’d be shipping were sold three months prior on the video and the cash market was now a lot lower.
In this case, my instructions from the buyer were always the same, “Put a hard sort on them.” This is order-buying speak for, “I want as few of those high dollar calves as possible because I can buy them a lot cheaper now.”
This meant I had to be very creative in coming up with excuses to sort calves off. Of course, I sorted off all the gimps, muddy, off-colored, horned calves or those still wearing an eye patch, but I also sorted off calves because they may have had an ingrown nose hair, a rat tail, dilated pupils, carpal tunnel syndrome, poor angle of the dewclaw, a “type A” personality, two white hairs on the belly, a high tail set, a rash I interpreted to be a precursor to a wheat allergy, hemorrhoids or just because a calf walked a little funny.
Of course, the opposite was true and if the price of cash cattle was a lot higher on delivery day than the price agreed to three months prior, the buyer wanted as many of the cheaper cattle which could fit on the truck – even if it meant an overweight ticket for the driver.
The buyer’s instructions in this case were always the same, “Put every calf on the truck that can walk up the chute.”
Needless to say, this type of behavior did not endear me to the ranchers whose cattle I shipped, and I got a nagging feeling the only conflict the buyer really had that day was what ball game to watch on television.
I stopped shipping cattle for my “friends” after I secretly overheard a conversation between an order buyer I’d just shipped a load of cattle for and the very angry seller. Neither knew I was listening in.
The order buyer had the call on speaker and after listening to the rancher call me a long list of expletives my order buying “friend” said, “Sorry Joe. It sounds like Lee really screwed up. He considers himself quite the cattle judge which is funny because you ought to see his cattle. If he applied the same set of criteria to them, they’d all be sorted off.”
Ha, ha, ha. So, the next time I got a call from my “friend” to ship some cattle I replied, “I’m on to your game. From now on, do your own dirty work because I refuse to be your ‘hit man’ anymore.”