Carolina Curiosities: Cattle Auctions Offer Glimpses in Agricultural Heritage

by Ray Linville

When is the last time you attended a cattle auction? Never? But if no cattle auctions were held, your prime rib, flank steak, and hamburger would likely be in short supply.

Curious about the journey ahead for the cattle that you recently passed while traveling on a two-lane road in our area? Your chance to learn about American agriculture and appreciate the work of cattle farmers begins in nearby Chatham County, the home of Carolina Stockyards Company, one of about a dozen stockyards in our state.

Although Siler City is known much more for chicken production at the Mountaire Farms plant downtown that at full capacity can process 1.4 million chickens a week, Carolina Stockyards is the place to take grandkids (and adults) to watch old-fashioned livestock auctions. About a mile west of Siler City off U.S. Hwy 64, it holds auctions twice a week. Monday sales start at 1:30 p.m., and Friday sales begin at 10:30 a.m. It has 14 full-time employees but as many as 35 work on auction days.

Jennifer Thomas, office manager, says that auctions are observed frequently by members of Future Farmers of America and regional high school students who are planning agricultural careers. When you visit, you’ll be surprised how quickly a sale starts and ends. A helper brings in a steer and an auction begins immediately with its statistics displayed on a digital screen. 

The auctioneer’s voice booms over the loud speaker. Very soon “going, going, gone” ends the sale, and the next one begins. The tiered seating area that surrounds the auction floor is often crowded. As you watch, keep your hands down and be careful not to scratch an ear, adjust your glasses, or jiggle a hand. The auctioneer might interpret such motions as meaning that you’re placing a bid. For sure, don’t hold up a sheet of paper that is another signal you’re bidding.

The early days of Carolina Stockyards began in 1950 when brothers Harry Lee and Howard Horney, who were operating Horney Livestock, bought Siler City Livestock Company with auctioneer John Brewer. They gave the business, located south of the city, a new name: Carolina Stockyards. 

As the business thrived in the 1970s, it outgrew its facilities, and a new livestock market was built in 1972 west of Siler City where the business grew rapidly. It quickly became the largest stockyard in the state. By the mid-1980s, it was the largest livestock auction market east of the Mississippi River. In 2004, the stockyard was sold to Robert Crabb Jr., his father Ray, and several other investors.

In recognition of its contribution to the area’s economic growth, the stockyard received the Agriculture Hall of Fame Award from the Chatham County Board of Commissioners in 2010, the first year of the award program. At the time of the award, Commissioner Vice Chair George Lucier said that the stockyard means “so much to our agricultural excellence.”

Carolina Stockyards sells more than 80,000 head of cattle a year. On the last Friday in April, more than 1,000 head of cattle were sold (as well as 101 goats and 62 sheep). Weights ranged from slightly more than 200 to 1,800 pounds. The highest price range was $150-$186 per head. Prices paid here still set the market price statewide. 

Kevin Gray, owner and operator of Hickory Creek Farm, reflects, “I grew up going to the stockyards every Friday selling cows with my dad. Now 30 years later I’m taking my boys on Friday nights and hardly anything has changed.”

Don’t be surprised if you hear someone playing “International Harvester” by Craig Morgan, who sings, “I’m the son of a third-generation farmer. I’ve been married ten years to the farmer’s daughter. I got two boys in the county 4-H.”

People – sellers, buyers, spectators, farmers, friends – come and go throughout the day as auctions continue until all livestock are sold. When anyone is hungry, they walk to the on-site restaurant. Because auctions take up most of the day, having a place to eat is important. Needless to say, farmers can be hungry for beef: rib-eye, T-bone, and sirloin steaks are often featured at the casual restaurant.

Although Chick-fil-A cows want us to “eat more chicken,” poultry alone does not always make farmers and their families happy. More than for steaks, the restaurant is known for its succulent hamburgers, made from beef sold at auction and processed next door. The “lil” cowpattie burger is only $2.50, and a double cheeseburger is $6.25. 

Desserts are enticing: strawberry, apple, or peach cobbler is often available. A “holy cow” is popular with young visitors. “It’s a chocolate cake with caramel cream inside and frozen whipped topping and Heath pieces on top,” says Sherry Duncan, who started selling the dessert on the first day that she began as restaurant owner more than four years ago.

For some, like Michelle Hatley of nearby Saxapahaw, it’s a place to have lunch and reunite “with high school buddies.”

The restaurant at Carolina Stockyards is open on auction days: Monday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday (the only day breakfast is served) from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. It’s also open on Tuesday but a visit is better on auction days to observe the hustle and bustle of cattle sales.

The address is 260 Stockyard Rd., Siler City. The phone number of the office, open every day but Sunday, is 919-742-5665. The restaurant phone is 919-663-6032.

Editor’s Note: OutreachNC Magazine continues a bimonthly feature to explore places in our area that would pique our curiosity if we knew more about them.

Ray Linville writes about local connections to Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at linville910@gmail.com.