La Junta Livestock Commission drives people to town every Wednesday
May 19, 2017
It's Wednesday in La Junta, Colo., and that means one very important thing to the local community — it's sale day at La Junta Livestock Commission, Inc.
Owned by Don and Janet Honey, the livestock auction barn brings ranchers and their families to town, where they buy and sell cattle, dine at the local restaurants and browse what the main street merchants have to offer.
Located 100 miles from Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico, La Junta (population 6,500) is in a prime location for ranchers to travel to merchandize their cattle. The Sante Fe railroad passes right through town, and the rural community also serves as the halfway point between Chicago and Los Angeles.
"This was a big railroad town back in the 1900s," said Jace Honey, the third generation of the Honey family to work at the auction facility. "Folks come down from the mountains and off the plains to sell their cattle here. It's a convenient hub to transport cattle to wheat pastures, grass and feedlots. For 200 years, this has been a trade town, and sale days are still the busiest days of the week for La Junta."
In its heyday, La Junta supported five local auction barns, but today, La Junta Livestock is just one of two that remain in business.
Started in 1955 by Jace's grandfather, Les Honey, along with his wife Margaret and business partner, Ken Vera, they built the sale barn from the ground up.
"Growing up, we spent every summer building corrals, rearranging the facility and making improvements on the barns," Honey said. In addition to opening up shop in La Junta, Les and Ken also leased a sale barn in Liberal, Kan.
"Sales back then were on Mondays in La Junta and later in the week in Liberal, so they would travel back and forth," Honey said. "They managed both barns until 1960 when Ken was killed in a plane crash."
The loss of Ken was devastating to the Honey family, but they kept moving forward in the auction business. In 1962, Don Honey, fresh out of the National Guard, went into partnership with Les Honey. By 1965, they welcomed another family member, Ron Honey (Jace's uncle) to the operation. Ron had previously leased a sale barn in Pueblo, Colo., so he brought ample experience to the auction barn, as well.
Jace learned the business of merchandizing cattle from a young age, working alongside the previous two generations on weekends, after school and during the summer months. He graduated from high school in 1981 and went to college to study agriculture.
"I lasted a year at college before I decided to come back home and get to work," Jace said. "I've been full-time in the business ever since."
In 1981, Don's cousin, Tom Walter, joined the business. In 1993, Keo Honey started working in the yards. Brother-in-law Brian Elder came on board in 2000. Needless to say, the Honey family is tight knit, and they lean on each other in both business and in life.
"It's truly a family affair, and my kids are the fourth generation to work at La Junta Livestock," Jace said.
Jace's two boys, Chance and Colt, along with Keo's sons, Trey and Hayden, and Elder's son, Daylon, have put in plenty of man hours working at the auction barn, learning from their dads, uncles and grandpa.
"The joke with the kids is always that when they 'take over,' this is what they are going to do different," Jace said. "We would be glad for them to be here, but who knows where life will take them."
Each March, La Junta Livestock celebrates its 1955 opening with an anniversary sale. The event draws a crowd with plenty of prizes for buyers and sellers provided by the auction barn and area merchants. Jace's wife, Lesli, works on sale days and offers her skills as a graphic designer to create hats with the barn's log on them for customers.
"We just celebrated our 62nd year in business and sold 6,000 head of cattle on our anniversary sale," Jace said. "We usually give away a trip to Las Vegas, and Grampa Les used to give away Stetson hats for the most cattle sold, most bought, seller who traveled the farthest distance, buyer who traveled the farthest, etc. The local merchants give away prizes, too, and we serve coffee and donuts. It's our last big sale day of the spring, so it's just a great time to recognize our anniversary and thank our customers who work with us throughout the year."
Despite the happy occasion of the anniversary sale, the calendar also marks some sad times for the Honey family. In 1983, Les passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack the night before the anniversary sale. He was 62 years old. In 2002, Ron, who had sold his share of the company to Don in 1990, also died of a heart attack just before the March sale. He was 64 years old.
"It's supposed to be a happy celebration, but the timing of Les and Ron's deaths brings much sadness to the date, as well," Jace said. "Following Ron's passing, my mom took my dad to a heart doctor, and within a week, he had six by-pass surgeries. It was a drought year, and we were busy selling cattle. Dad had his surgery in April, which happened to fall on a sale day. The morning after the operation, he woke up and asked how the sale went, and she told them that it went well, but we were still selling at 7:30 a.m. the next day."
To get an idea of how big the sales were because of the drought, in 2001, La Junta Livestock sold 150,000 head of cattle. In 2002, due to lack of available grass and feed, La Junta Livestock merchandised 350,000 head of cattle.
"There was no feed, no grass — it was dry, dry, dry," Jace said. "By 2003, we sold only 50,000 head of cattle, and we've stuck to around 45,000-65,000 head annually ever since. It seems like folks haven't been able to build back up their cattle numbers. We had two years of drought, two years of bad blizzards, and many ranchers retired and sold their ranches for development along the front range. In just the last couple of years, we are starting to see cattle herds growing again."
Despite the highs and lows of the cattle business, La Junta Livestock remains a stable resource for the area ranchers. What's the Honey family's secret to longevity in a relatively risky and difficult business? It's generations of family working together, following a strong moral compass laid out by Grandpa Les.
"Les guided my parents who guided me, and we try to raise our kids just as the previous generation brought us up," he said. "We teach our kids from a young age that nothing in life is free. You have to have a good work ethic."
The other secret to La Junta transitioning so seamlessly from one generation to the next? It's all about customer service.
"Whether you have two head or 200, we treat everyone the same and try our best to connect buyers to sellers," Jace said. "It's a big deal for folks to sell their calves here once each year, and we want them to feel confident that they are getting the best price the market has to offer and welcome enough to come sit in the office and visit with us about anything.
Both buyers and sellers of La Junta Livestock sing the praises of the Honey family and their successful business.
"Since La Junta Livestock is family owned, I feel like they truly care about the seller and his cattle," said Roger Davis, a rancher who lives just north of La Junta. "They know you and your cattle, and they always have your back. They work hard to bring in buyers, and you know when you go to La Junta Livestock with your calves, that you're always going to get a fair price. Any time I've purchased open cows or bred heifers at the sale barn, I always get what they promise. It's never anything different. They are a great family who really go the extra mile to serve their customers well."
"La Junta livestock is a hometown, family-run business, and we've been selling calves with them for 20-plus years," said Glenn Marsh, who runs cattle in the southeast plains of Colorado. "Don Honey used to visit the ranch and look at the calves before we even brought them to town to sell. Jace always asks questions about our program, and the whole crew is really good at drawing in buyers and making connections with the folks who might be interested in our cattle. It's why I continue to go back each year. They are just really tremendous at what they do."
Marsh credits the Honey family for not only running a competitive and reputable auction barn, but for supporting the community, as well.
"They do a great job of supporting FFA, 4-H, junior rodeos and sports in the area," Marsh said. "Jace keeps kids involved and has even let my kids run the gate on sale day when our calves go through the ring. It's a great camaraderie, and my kids love being involved."
For Jace, supporting the area youth is an important facet of the family business.
"The area youth are going to be our future customers," Jace said. "We want to do everything we can to encourage these kids to stay in our rural community. We realize production agriculture is a risky, capital-intense business, and we want to do anything we can to help these kids and keep them involved and engaged in our small town."
For more information on La Junta Livestock, check out http://www.ljlivestock.com/ or find them on Facebook, where Jace offers weekly market reports, predictions and honest opinions on the many factors such as politics and weather that may be impacting current cattle prices. ❖
— Radke is a cattle rancher, freelance writer and agricultural speaker from Mitchell, S.D. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.