By Patti Wilson, Contributing Editor
Chances are, you have met Bob Hibberd.
Not in a hand-shaking, howdy kind of way; you’ve probably met him driving down the highway. The veteran of multiple auction markets travels about 1,000 miles per week, filling orders for all stripes of cattle producers.
A Stellar Work Ethic
Hibberd was born at Riverdale, Neb., a scant 70 years ago. The 13th of 14 children (he refers to himself as “Lucky 13”), he grew up in a no-excuses world, learning early that, if you want something, you’d better figure on earning it … the old-fashioned way.
After graduating from Amherst High, Hibberd went to work driving a cattle truck. Already a serious student of livestock, he honed his skills on fill, weight and numbers. The guy clearly has a head for math and a great memory. Seven years passed as an employee before he purchased his own semi, then eventually expanded to a fleet of eight trucks by 1985. He says his trucks were on the road nonstop, 20 hours a day, seven days a week. He enjoyed his independence and contact with good cattle people.
A Winding Trail
Cattle buying crept into Hibberd’s life by way of friend Fred Schroeder of Shelton. “He made a cattle buyer out of me,” Hibberd says. He was already at the auction markets, waiting to load trucks, and Schroeder suggested he learn how to buy cattle. Why not? The job came easy to Hibberd, but the timing wasn’t right. Things were tough for agriculture in the 1980s, and he says he “couldn’t make a living.”
With the cattle business in the dump during the Great Recession, Hibberd resorted to plain, old over-the-road trucking. “It was easy after hauling cattle,” he says.
With his fleet of livestock trucks sold off, he drove fresh meats and then pizza to the eastern seaboard.
Although Hibberd enjoys driving, and says it was easy and interesting, he missed the cattle. The auction markets seemed to be calling him back. A God-given incident gave our trucker an excuse to go home and return to his primary interest, buying cattle. While in Burns, Ga., (take note of the ironic name), Hibberd’s truck caught on fire. It was a bad situation that prompted him to “never buy another truck.”
A Better Life
Free to choose a new direction, there was no doubt what Hibberd wanted to do. Upon announcing his intensions to his wife, Joyce, she exclaimed, “Oh my God! We are going to starve!” To which Hibberd replied, “Well, we’ll just have to try it and see.”
In 1990, Hibberd went back to cattle buying. He talked to his previous customers. Being well liked and having a good reputation was instrumental to jumping back into the deep waters of the cattle markets. All his former clients welcomed him back, and his business grew “better and better,” Hibberd explains. Word of mouth has been his standard contact for new customers, and today, he has retained many of those clients for more than 20 years. His business has snowballed to 70 to 75 cattlemen along the way.
Hibberd has observed that their businesses are, like all segments of the cattle industry, growing bigger. For example, he is currently the main buyer for Adams Land and Cattle at Broken Bow, a major cattle feeding outfit.
There are several people Hibberd credits with helping him restart a successful buying business and setting him on the right track in livestock evaluation. They are all from the Kearney area and include Fred Schroeder, George Rafferty, Dale Merriman and Gary Dahlgren.
Travel time is extensive; he wanders to Woodward and El Reno, Okla., the western two-thirds of Nebraska, Wyoming, Missouri and Kansas, ticking off the towns and markets like familiar friends and telling you exactly what kind of cattle you will find at each sale barn.
Hibberd is currently purchasing about 50,000 head of cattle per year, his biggest day being at Ogallala with 21 loads. They ranged from 500 to 900 weights. He says, that day, he “had to write everything down” rather than depend on his excellent memory. “It’s mental more than physical,” he says. “You take it home with you.”
Not to be dismissed, his supportive wife is instrumental in the business. Hibberd says he may be gone to a sale barn in one location when he needs to purchase cattle in a different barn on the same day, as well. Joyce mans the fort, being responsible for internet bidding and buying from their home base.
Private sales direct from the ranch are also organized. He says they comprise about 25 percent of his business. It makes him appreciate the scales in the auction markets. Although problems are minimal in weight estimation, he says it adds an element of stress. Either method of sale is OK with Hibberd.
Good people and good cattle are a driving force keeping Hibberd at work. Enjoying the products of sound breeding and management, he harbors a great deal of respect for both buyers and sellers.
Asked what advice he would give to sellers as they bring their product to market, Hibberd quickly responds. “Clean them up and present them like people want them!” he exclaims. “No horns, no bulls. No bad eyes, bad feet or frozen ears. Take these off at home and sell them at a different barn on a different day.”
He observes larger operators bringing better cattle to town. Smaller producers need to be mindful of what buyers are specifically looking for.
What Does the Future Hold?
This is a topic that Hibberd, and probably many cattle buyers, have a unique perspective on. They see all sides of the beef industry over a large area. Their opinions are relevant.
Hibberd’s first concern is the ongoing dilemma for procuring feedlot labor. He fears an intense shortage of feed truck drivers is causing critical problems in timely delivery of feed to cattle. He says family-run operations are thankfully better prepared to address labor needs more than larger commercial lots who rely totally on hired labor and are suffering the effects of widespread shortage of help.
The future of the cow-calf producer will be fine, he says, as long as they are breeding cattle that fit market demand. He also predicts the elimination of smaller herds due to possible inefficiencies, and children who leave home to take less demanding jobs in town. Breeding programs that are not tuned in to the commercial market will suffer badly, as well.
Feedlots are another matter. Hibberd maintains the next three years will tell, as low beef cattle numbers have created some chaos in feeder prices vs. fat markets. Right now, he says, feeder cattle are priced too high to maintain without the fat market catching up.
Large feedlots seem to have a marketing advantage over smaller operations. Although there are packer buyers who have some loyalty to these family lots, he says they are older men.
“In a dog-eat-dog world, younger buyers have less loyalty,” Hibberd says. “It’s only a numbers game.” Small feedlots will likely continue to struggle for slots.
Auction markets will remain in business despite the growing trend of private, direct or video sales. Sale barns will continue to pick up cull cows and cull feeder cattle.
When Hibberd is home, he “wants to do nothing.” He quickly adds, however, that watching cattle sales on the internet is good entertainment. The same goes for talking on the phone.
Hibberd’s friends might not know that he is fond of classic cars. He once had possession of a ’65 Chevy Malibu convertible. Another favorite was a ’71 Pontiac convertible. He finds few things more fun than driving down the road in a good old car, with the wind in his hair and sun on his face. He likes to take Joyce on rides in the country. Hibberd doesn’t currently own any of these beauties, nor is he a gearhead. He prefers driving over fixing or tinkering.
His goal is to continue to be a cattle buyer for another 10 years. It is a pretty simple and straightforward path for Bob Hibberd, a guy who is good at what he does.