Building a career as a livestock buyer

Lyal Fox Jr. reflects on what’s changed, what’s remained constant and what he’s learned over the years buying livestock

From left to right: Peter, Lyal Jr., Rose, Spencer and Isaiah Fox.

The Fox family is well known in the Canadian livestock industry, as breeders of Holsteins, Percheron and Morgan horses, polled Hereford and Angus cattle, and sheep. They have been involved in many different operations all over the world.

One family member, Lyal Fox Jr., forged a slightly different path as a livestock buyer.

In the early ’90s, Fox returned home to Lloydminster after attending the Royal Agriculture College in Gloucestershire, England. He was unsure of what he wanted to do but with a strong drive and entrepreneurial spirit, he started a feed mill. Always one to have many projects on the go, he also starting working nights at the Heartland stockyards in Lloydminster. This led him to Regina where he co-ordinated horses going to Japan. He was also involved in shipping fat cattle to Ontario and to the U.S. At that time, he also looked after the feeder cattle being sent from Pound-Maker Feedlot at Lanigan, Sask.

In the following years, Fox had a short stint with Canada West out of Innisfail buying lambs. He also worked with the Blacklock family at Saskatoon, later reconnecting with Heartland at their Virden, Man.location.

He and his wife Rose formed their own company enterprise, Just Livestock, in 2000 at Lloydminster. They started shipping hogs with 3,500 head a week going to Maple Leaf and exporting about 1,000 head to the U.S. Shortly after he started buying butcher and feeder cows with a Cargill order and exporting some south.

The game changed in May 2003 with BSE as cattle exports to the U.S. ceased. Knowing they needed to adapt, the Fox family then started a trucking division of Just Livestock, which they operated until 2011. In the fall of 2005, Fox started buying cows for Cargill.

In 2007, Lyal and Rose, with three young boys, purchased a ranch at Shellbrook, Sask., and relocated the headquarters of their operation. His territory expanded. They were still operating an assembly yard at Lloydminster, as well as one at Saskatoon.

Growing up in the Fox family, Lyal Fox had many opportunities to travel and meet people. He notes what a small world the cattle industry is and how many connections he has made over the years.

Breaking into the order/cattle buying business was no easy feat. He credits some of his early mentors, who were also competitors, for showing him the ropes.

Lyal Fox Jr. photo: Courtesy the Fox family

“I learned so much from Steele Tollstrup, Bob Lister and Clayton Hesje,” he says. “All of them were tough competitors, but I think I was stubborn enough to hang in there and stick it back to them on occasion.”

In later years he also cites Bruce Hepburn from Cargill as being an important mentor and teacher, and more recently Dan Giles. Close working relationships were formed by talking to these fellows every morning. Working with and learning from all these people has been a major highlight of his career.

It is a busy world and he operates with many things going on at once.

“When sitting at the auction ringside, you have to be able to listen to the auctioneer, follow what is going on to be able to buy, as well as taking phone calls and dealing with other situations. You have to be able to multi-task,” he says. And it all moves at a rapid pace.

He also cites attention to detail and dealing with issues immediately. “You can’t leave things to the next day as there will be a whole new set of issues then.”

Some might say he is old school when he emphasizes the importance of trust and a handshake to close deals. “That is not as prevalent as it once was, but it is still very important to me and how I conduct business.”

It’s valuable to be able to accurately describe the animals and management program, he says. “Producers need to be proactive and stay on top of the markets, particularly when they are getting ready to sell animals.”

The Fox boys are also involved with the livestock industry. Pete is now working as a buyer for Gibson Livestock, Spencer with Lyal and Rose, and Isaiah is at home starting his last year of high school. A highlight for Fox has been the opportunity to work with and include the boys in the business. They are the fifth generation in the ag industry.

“I am getting older and the boys are getting wiser,” he says.

The couple always wanted to provide the boys with opportunities to be part of the family business if they were interested.

COVID has affected the Fox family, with less travel and more at-home work. In a normal year, Fox would put on 150,000 to 175,000 km driving to the markets. This past year it had dropped back to 80,000 to 100,000 km. At one point during the busy fall season, he would drive to Meadow Lake for a morning sale, then travel the 200 km to Lloydminster for the afternoon sale. Next, he’d drive about 300 km to Westlock for the evening sale and be back to Saskatoon for the next morning.

He has seen changes in the business over the years with more technology and video sales in the auction industry. “I still think there is going to be a role for auction markets, as a video cannot capture everything,” he says. “The ring has an important element in price discovery.”

Determining weights, yield and shrink is a critical piece of his business and that is more difficult to do without actually seeing the cattle. The reliance on cell phones and texting has changed the way of communicating.

“Be aware of what we are up against as an industry and the competing products that are entering the marketplace. Believe in what you do and believe in what you eat,” he says. Understanding the urban consumer and being able to promote beef are becoming bigger priorities for producers.

Fox has been somewhat involved in the feeder cattle component but recognizes the strength of those involved in that business and has focused on his niche in the cow trade. “None of this business is for the faint of heart,” he says. “Sometimes there are tough negotiations. But you are only as good as your money and the quality of the cattle has a big impact.”

He always tries to fairly represent both the producers and the plant.

“At the end of the day you have to take the good with the bad,” he says, a similar sentiment to one of his life’s philosophies.

About the author

Contributor

Kelly Sidoryk ranches with her family just west of Lloydminster, Alta. She consults in a number of areas including succession planning and holistic management.

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