Clayton and Union County, NM – Feedlots, Grass, Bankers and the James Family

In 1970, Clayton Cattle Feeders asked if I would do their consulting. That began a long association with the people and livestock industry in Union County and the surrounding areas of New Mexico. I was contacted because they bought a Cabot Popper to process their milo and I was working with the original feedlot (Veribest Cattle Feeders) that had installed one. Cabot recommended me as a consultant.

Clayton is the only town of significance (population 2,500) in Union County, and was also home for five feedyards plus the center of some of the best short-grass grazing in the U.S. Over the next 30-40 years, I became acquainted with many great people who were also colorful and tough. I fed and grazed over a 100,000 head of personal cattle in the area and I also ended up with partial ownership of two feedlots.

Union County has a unique high-desert climate with 10–15 in. of annual rainfall and low humidity because it is at more than 5,000 ft. in altitude. On average, the climate is great but there are exceptions and extremes. I’ve seen severe blizzards as early as late-October and as late as mid-May.

For instance, we had a Halloween blizzard one year that killed about 100 of our yearlings on excellent pasture. That storm then went straight across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle. The length of the storm was approximately 120 miles and the width only about five miles.

I had a client (Forrest Warren) with pasture cattle north of Stratford, TX, who was scheduled to ship the first of November. There were 504 head in the group he was shipping, and when the blizzard was over, only four were alive. No storm insurance. What made our deal tough is that we had winter insurance, but it did not start until Nov. 1 – the day after the blizzard. This storm occurred in the mid- to late-’70s while we were still recovering from the wreck of ’74. We didn’t need the added grief.

Another severe blizzard occurred at Easter in the mid-’90s. I had several thousand light yearlings with Benny Gilbert in northern Union County. My wife Caroline and I were in California, and Benny called me about 4 a.m. California time. I asked him, “How’s the storm?” His reply was, “Doc, it’s not a pretty picture.”

He said he was lost and thought he was right on the edge of a canyon in his pickup and didn’t dare move. He sat in his pickup for several more hours until his hired man came and, sure enough, his pickup was about five ft. from the canyon edge. We lost about 150 calves in that storm – but more about that later.

The challenge of multiple owners

The ownership of Clayton Cattle Feeders was initially 20 stockholders, each with equal shares. The group was made up of local ranchers and businessmen who were pretty smart and damn tough. After the wreck of ’74, several wanted out and three of the stockholders, Charlie James, the manager; Clyde Sowers, rancher and owner of the Union County Leader newspaper; and Bill Shaw from San Angelo; wanted me to buy any stock offered by the other stockholders.

I didn’t have much money, but it didn’t take much and I wanted to own pens with a couple thousand head capacity for experimental purposes. In the end, it all worked out well, but there were some bumps along the way. At the first stockholders meeting I attended, they spent the entire time in heated arguments. I vowed never to go to another stockholders meeting, and I gave Charlie James my voting proxy.

It was unusual that Clyde Sowers came to the meeting with a briefcase. When we left, I mentioned to Clyde that he had never opened his briefcase. He replied, “I didn’t have to, but I had my .45 in there in case things got out of hand.”

The four of us ended up owning the feedlot plus a wheat-native pasture ranch nearby. When Clyde died, his wife, Betty, inherited his shares and we decided it would be good to get key man life insurance policies. When the insurance agent made her presentation and we accepted it, we ran into a glitch because Betty wouldn’t give her age. She said it was none of our damn business—so we estimated her age and got by.

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Charlie was a good manager and the feedlot stayed jammed full of cattle with a customer waiting list for many years. In the mid- to late-1980s, several people wanted to buy the feedlot. I thought the price they were offering was fair, so I told Bill and Charlie I thought we should sell. They asked if I would be mad if they bought my portion and kept theirs. I said, “Not in the least.” I consequently ended up with a nice profit that helped buy a southwest New Mexico ranch. Later, Bill and Charlie got crossways and Bill brought Charlie out. I was sad that what once was a great partnership and friendship ended in total disarray.

Clyde and Betty Sowers loved to throw parties. At one of their Christmas parties, Betty ran out of Frangelico and sent my pilot to the local liquor stores to buy a bottle. They didn’t have any in Clayton, and I found out years later that Betty then sent my pilot and plane to Amarillo for a bottle of Frangelico. I never paid much attention to the hours or expenses with an airplane, but that was an expensive bottle of liquor.

Betty died of cancer several years later. What made this especially traumatic was that her son, who was in his late 40s and was running the newspaper, died suddenly three days before Betty died. No one wanted to tell Betty the bad news as she was in and out of consciousness. The lady taking care of Betty said she kept saying, “I hear my baby crying and I need to go.” That still sends shivers down my spine.