KINGDOM CITY - For Craig Timmerberg, a farmer from Williamsburg, it was at the Callaway Livestock Center that he realized raising cattle was a bad habit.
"It yields a pencil thin profit when it works at all," said Timmerberg, who owns about 30 head of cattle. "If you want to drive that new, big pick-up with everyone else, this is not going to do it."
However, Timmerberg, a full-time insurance agent, said working with cattle isn't about profitability.
"It's nostalgia, a hobby, something I grew up with," he said. "So many people do it for little or no money at all."
Although there were more than 4 million cattle and calves in Missouri last year, more than two-thirds were owned by farmers with under 100 head of cattle, according to the Missouri Agricultural Statistics Service.
Since 1970, farming has increasingly become an income supplement instead of a primary business, explained Lowell Mohler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
"Farmers work 40 hours a week, range the rest of the time, and enjoy every minute of it," Mohler said. He said while most farmers in Missouri raise fewer than 100 cows, it usually takes 300 or more to turn a profit.
"This made a living for daddy years ago, but son comes along and it's not enough to provide for the family," Mohler said.
Missouri Gov. Bob Holden has recommended a variety of improvements designed to strengthen the state's cattle industry, including increased funding for the Meat and Poultry Inspection Service, which helps framers market their cattle within Missouri by conducting quality inspections.
"It gives more authority to the state inspection service," said Russ Kremer, director of the Missouri Farmer's Union, pro-farming group that supports the inspection program. Kremer said the program would benefit family farmers unable to get the federal government to inspect their livestock.
Mohler said he was also pushing for farmer involvement in cattle alliances, in essence marketing groups for small producers.
"We have a great industry in this state," Mohler said. "We're pretty proud of that."
"THE SMELL OF MANURE"
The afternoon sky streaked into sunset as farmers arrived from as far away as Nebraska for the monthly bull and cow auction in Kingdom City.
Timmerberg, one of about 500 farmers watching the bidding, said often more than $600,000 passes between these buyers and sellers of cattle.
"Some real big money goes by right before your eyes," Timmerberg said.
Consignment records show business at the Center has grown steadily since it opened in 1993. The Center, which consigned 92,492 head of cattle last year, has become an economic and social hub for beef producers in central Missouri.
In addition to the monthly auction, organizers said they also attract a sizable crowd to their Monday auctions.
Like a Spanish bullfight, two of three owners stand at the center of a small arena and spurred furious bulls in tight circles. Atop a platform, auctioneer Jack Harrison, the third partner, quoted bids with lightening speed.
The crowd has proved receptive. Missouri ranks second in the nation in beef production, and, for the first time in 20 years, national demand for beef increased last year, according to the Cattlemen's Association.
"A lot of people have no idea exactly where cattle come from," said Steve Renchler, a farm hand who has long worked in the dirt and manure of the Center's 275 cattle pens. "A lot would be in awe. This is a whole lot of responsibility and at times a whole lot of organization."
Occasionally, a cow will want to snort with you or butt heads, but that's pretty rare, Renchler said.
Renchler's coworker, Jim Davis, retired from a Fulton brick plant, but fights freezing temperatures and long nights in order to spend time with the cattle.
"I don't have to do it. I just really like fooling with cattle on the farm," said Davis, 63. After an auction, Davis and Renchler work as part of a 25 person team that corrals as many as 2,000 cattle into pens or trucks, depending on demand.
"It's not brain surgery, but you have to really watch what you're doing," Renchler said. "We work long hours from the front on back."
Although the Center is an important part of the state's beef industry, farmer Timmerberg argued the cattle industry in Missouri had yet to live up to its potential.
"New homes just don't look like home unless there are three or four cows standing out there," he said.
"They do business as respectable as it's done anywhere in the nation," Timmerberg added. "But, if Missouri would commit all of the land out here that is suitable for cattle, then the smell of manure would leave the state of Texas."