Cattle dealer Jared Bates wasn't born in a barn, just raised in one--probably the biggest in Lebanon.
His first playpen was the Lebanon Sale Barn, which soon became his schoolroom. Today, a livestock sale barn serves as his business office as he operates the Alexandria Stockyard, a market for cattle, sheep, goats and hogs. Bates focuses on the beef.
He's quick to confess he learned from one of the best cattle minds in Wilson County, his grandfather, the late Alvin McKee, who ran the Lebanon Sale Barn for more than 30 years and was made an inaugural member of the Wilson County Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2007.
"I started staying with my grandfather when I was 7 or 8 years old, and he went to cattle auctions all over, up to six or seven sales a week. That's how I began," said Bates, whose mother, Wanda, and uncles, Bill and Carson McKee, operated the sale barn with their father.
"I started buying cattle when I was around 10. My grandfather had extremely great knowledge of cattle. He taught me everything about it. He was about as good a teacher you could have."
It started with a gift: a cow
Bates remembers his first time to explore the sale barn when he was but a whippersnapper of 2 or 3 years of age. That was when his granddad gave him a gift that set him on the trail he still follows.
"He gave all his grandkids a cow, and he gave one to me. I was excited," said the young cattleman.
The lad gave his registered purebred Charolais the name RC, and he tended it over the next 12 years or so. She rewarded him with about a dozen calves.
"My mom started me working there when I was 13, cleaning the barn, filling up hayracks. She paid me $5 an hour. I started doing a lot more with cattle when I was 15, maneuvering and handling. I kind of paid my way through college, buying and selling cattle and working at the stockyard at Lebanon," said the Watertown High class of 2004 grad, who went on to Middle Tennessee State University to get a degree in agribusiness.
One sale barn to another
The McKee family made the decision to close the Lebanon Sale Barn in 2009, about the same time Bates was getting out of college. Deciding to start his own business, he opened a sale barn in Woodbury, Tennessee, in 2012.
"It was available for lease," he recalled. "They had been selling roughly 20 cattle a week, and we went there and averaged a little over 200 a week."
After two years, he got out of the Cannon County stockyards as he was getting more into purchasing beef on the hoof.
"Mainly what I do is buy cattle for people," he said. "I've got some customers in the Midwest. They want to buy a tractor-trailer load and will want a uniform set of cattle. For instance, a guy might want a set of heifer calves weighing 400 to 500 pounds."
Meanwhile, the Alexandria Sale Barn, 20 miles southeast of Lebanon on Highway 70, had been shuttered for about 20 years and was available. Bates leased the site as a holding barn where he could feed, water and reload his cattle.
Later, assessing the site, he figured it had a good location and could be put back into use as a sale barn without too much expense, thus he opened the Alexandria Stockyard on March 1. Now it serves farmers from Wilson, Smith, DeKalb, Cannon and Rutherford counties.
Selling is about relationships
Among the Wilson Countians who sell some of their cattle at Bates' auction are brothers Phil, Pal and Perry Neal. They carry a trailer load of 10 to 15 head to Alexandria twice a month.
Said Phil Neal, "They've been real friendly, and Jared's quick to get 'em unloaded, no lines. They have good help. It runs smoothly.
"We sell some to Carthage, about half to each place. The big advantage to going through Jared, they don't have as many head so we don't have to worry about getting hung up in a two-hour line.
"We've known him forever. He knows cattle as well as anybody and has connections all over the country with lots of people wanting to buy from him. He definitely knows as many cattle people as anybody in the state," said Neal.
The sale barn auctions are held at 2 p.m. Wednesdays. A typical sale may bring together 30 to 40 sellers and 10 buyers. Most of the cattle moving through here are Angus cross, Charolais and Hereford.
Business is beef
Bates said he had been selling an average of 250 cattle a week but that number has declined due to the hot summer weather.
He checks into the barn around 7 a.m. the day of the sale and helps weigh the cattle. He might do a little work on the computer in the office but says, "A lot of what I do is visit with people. My grandfather taught me the stockyard owner or manager must try to get the highest prices for the seller, but at the same time, you've gotta have a good relationship with the buyers."
Orchestrating a weekly livestock sale is not for the timid. It takes a bunch of folks to make things flow smoothly. Assisting Bates is his cousin, auctioneer Joe McKee of Lebanon.
"My goal is to get the biggest price at the auction for the seller of the cattle. The key is understanding the value of the animal itself," said McKee, who also auctions cattle in Dickson on Mondays. "I grew up around the livestock atmosphere. This is a very comfortable place for me."
He opens the auction with, "We're selling a boy calf today by the pound." Less than a minute later he lets it go to the highest bidder, hollering "goes for $1.60."
Among others pitching in at the sale barn are Jack Simms of Mt. Juliet, who weighs the cattle and writes tickets; penners Junior Stills of Woodbury and Carl Knowles of Smithville; livestock handlers Josh Bryan and Dylan Parker of Lebanon, B.J. Comstock of Carthage and Mike Houskins of Kentucky; computer clerk Rene McKee; office staffers Kim Autry, Sheila Woods and Melonee Payne of Smith County; and, working the ring, Troy Smith of Gladeville and Terry Blair of Alexandria.
Bidding like theatre
A video monitor perches high above the auctioneer's head. Each cow has a yellow tag stuck on its back. The computer clerk types the tag number into the computer, and once the cow is sold, the price per pound it sold for flashes on the screen along with the name of the buyer.
For a novice at the sale, it can be near impossible to spot who is bidding, as the buyers might nod or wink an eye or flick a finger.
The sale ring, a wooden amphitheater of sorts, seats about 150 with the serious buyers sitting in roller chairs at ringside.
Said Bates, "Most of the buyers are buying for someone who is wanting calves that they will grow for several months and then sell 'em to someone who will bring them to a feed lot when they're six to eight months old."
Bates bids on cattle during the auction, buying some for his customers and some for himself, as he raises cattle on four or five small farms around Lebanon.
"I want to hold the cattle up to market prices. If the buyers aren't buying a certain class of cattle, I can't let them fall out. I buy 'em and then figure out what to do with them," he said.
After each cow or block of cattle sell, the ring entry computer clerk hits the send key, and the transaction goes directly to the office below. Sellers will pick up their checks that same afternoon.
Beef market can be bullish or bearish
Lately, cattle prices have not been favorable to farmers.
"Last year it took as big a spike as ever took. It had been as high as $2 to $3.50 a pound, so it's 50 percent lower this last year," said Bates, noting prices currently average $1.20 to $1.40 a pound.
UT Extension Agent and Wilson County Director Ruth Correll offered her take on the cattle market based on the information she receives from beef cattle economists.
"Cattle prices are always extremely volatile due to many factors. These factors include the number of head in finishing feedlots, the overall number of head of cattle, the demand for beef, the price of competing proteins such as pork and chicken, the amount of available forage across the country, the price of grains, the weather, the export and import markets, the value of the dollar in world and the futures market to name a few," said Correll, who keeps an eye on livestock, forage and row crops.
"According to the experts, the current slide in prices is likely due to a greater number of heavier calves going to market last year and this spring. The effect of this was heavier finished cattle which drove up the supply of beef on the market. The cattle futures market is lower, the price for finished cattle has declined and therefore a downward slide in calf prices."
From Bates' point of view not only are prices dropping, but the number of cattle buyers, like old soldiers, are fading away.
"As the older generation passes away or gets out, their children are not staying in," he said. "And some of the cattle companies have had financial issues and gone bankrupt. I think the cattle industry in the area is gonna decline because there is so much development and building. Then we're gonna have a downward spiral."
Kicks, steaks and high stakes
Still, he continues the family traditions that were instilled in him by his grandfather, and he clings to the lessons passed along. One of those essentials, said Bates, "In your business dealings it's sure important to take care of your customers and treat them fair." He follows that one with, "Be sure to appreciate your family and friends."
Another thing this line of work offers are long hours and an occasional kick in the shins. Bates labors 60 to 80 hours a week. Come fall the hours likely will increase.
As for hazardous conditions, he said, "I've been pretty lucky really." Yet, one of those blows from a cow's hoof rendered him unconscious and sent him to the hospital for the first and only time in his life when he was a teenager.
An optimist to a mild degree, he said, "Hopefully, I can continue to do what I do--buying and selling and operating the stockyards--but I may have to get into something else in the future. I think I'll have another 10- to 15-years here."
One thing that will never change is his favorite meal.
"It's hard to beat a good steak," says Bates, who, better than most, knows the high stakes involved in bringing a beef cow from field to market to the dinner table.
This livestock market for cattle, goats, sheep and hogs holds a weekly auction at 2 p.m. Wednesdays. Stockyard phone: (615) 529-2119. Owner: Jared Bates: (615) 308-8503. Address: 31994 Nashville Highway (Highway 70), Alexandria (about 20 miles southeast of Lebanon).