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New owners take the reins at Stockmen's Livestock Exchange

Larry and Judi Schnell and Jim and Renee Erickson have sold Stockmen's Livestock Exchange to John Fischer, Austin Henderson and Dan O’Donnell. The sale became final on Dec. 23, 2022.

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Semis and pickups hauling calves arrive and unload at Stockmen's Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, North Dakota, in 2017.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek file photo
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DICKINSON, N.D. — Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange had been in Larry Schnell’s family since it started in 1937, and he had been a “partner in some way, shape or form for 45 years.” Longtime business partner Jim Erickson started “riding alleys” at the sale barn when he was 11.

But nothing lasts forever.

The two men, who were longtime owners of the western North Dakota livestock auction along with their wives Judi Schnell and Renee Erickson, decided to pass the barn to a new group of owners. The sale to John Fischer, Austin Henderson and Dan O’Donnell became final on Dec. 23, 2022.

The new owners are intent on building on what Schnell and Erickson have done and express gratitude for the opportunity they’ve been given.

“This place hasn’t changed many hands in the past 85 years,” Henderson said.

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While Fischer, Henderson and O’Donnell have an “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality about Stockmen’s, they also see some advancements that could help buyers and sellers. They’re considering adding online bidding options to cow sales and adding more sales to help with flow. They’ll keep operating out of the two barns on the east side of town. And they want to live up to Schnell’s and Erickson’s reputations.

“We’ll sure do everything we can to do business with people the right way,” Henderson said.

A lasting legacy

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Larry Schnell, seen here auctioning off calves on Oct. 24, 2017, at Stockmen's Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, North Dakota, had been a partner in the business for 45 years before selling at the end of 2022.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek file photo

“I’m unemployed,” Schnell said in a contented manner in a recent phone interview. It was time to sell, he explained, so that he could spend more time with his grandkids.

Erickson perhaps wasn’t quite as ready to be done, but the time was right to give a new generation an opportunity to take the reins. Fischer, Henderson and O’Donnell, he said, are the “right people to treat our customers the way we’ve treated them.” And he couldn’t imagine having anyone as a partner other than the one he had.

“Larry Schnell was the best partner you could ever have,” he said, adding that their wives also got along well.

Over the years, the two fixed up facilities to keep with the times, and Erickson said the sales now run a lot more smoothly than they used to. Plus, he said the cattle have gotten better.

“People do a better job of raising cattle,” he said.

And he has high praise for all aspects of the business.

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“Our customers are great, too,” he said, talking about all the components of the business needed. “It takes the customers, it takes the cattle, it takes the business, it takes employees.”

Schnell noted that the breed of cattle also has changed. There used to be many different breeds coming through the rings, and they used to come in smaller groups. Now the larger operations are more focused on black-hided cattle, an influence of the premiums in the Certified Angus Beef program, he said.

“That’s really changed the whole dynamics of cattle breeding,” he said.

With 80-85% of cattle now coming in large groups of black cattle, “it makes sorting much easier,” Schnell said.

Getting out of ownership doesn’t mean the two are done with the cattle business. Both are still listed as field reps on the Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange website.

Schnell has another year serving on the executive committee of the Livestock Marketing Association, and he can see himself getting involved in other livestock groups. A lot of people would like to see the cattle industry go away, he said, and it takes someone standing up for it to keep it going.

“There’s always something coming at us. I don’t think that’ll change. It’ll continue,” he said. “We’ll continue to have our struggles with how people view agriculture and livestock production specifically. So we need to continue to basically promote ourselves, promote our own industry. I think that’s a big key to the future.”

Erickson still is going to work at Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange. At 56, he said he has a lot of time left in the field. He’ll work on sale days and do some auctioneering, and he’ll do farm appraisals as a field rep. Eventually, he and Renee plan to move to South Dakota.

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“And if they want me to, I’ll still come back and sell for them,” he said.

The new generation

Each seeking to outbid the other in an affair that’s half gamesmanship and half livelihood, buyers bid on cattle at the Stockmen's Livestock Exchange. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press
The new owners at Stockmen's Livestock Exchange want to continue the operation's reputation as a good place to do business for buyers and sellers.
James B. Miller Jr. / The Dickinson Press file photo

Fischer, Henderson and O’Donnell were not, Erickson said, “pulled off the apple tree.” Instead, they were people he and Schnell saw as having the knowledge and potential to keep the business going into a new era.

“They all three have young families, so they’re going to do a good job,” he said.

The new owners have a broad range of experience in the business.

“That’s a good thing,” Schnell said.

Fischer has been at Stockmen’s the longest. He started at 16, working in the back pens, then continued on through high school and college. After college, Schnell and Erickson offered him a job as a field rep, and he’s been there in different capacities ever since. He also ranches on the side.

O'Donnell started at Stockmen’s in 2017 as a sorter. He grew up on a Wibaux, Montana, cattle operation and had worked for several grazing associations. Henderson has been an auctioneer at Stockmen’s since 2020 and also had his own cattle operation.

Fischer said he knows 90% of the customers and deals with the buyers daily. He said he's been there long enough to have done pretty much everything except “auctioneering, and Austin has that covered.”

He, Henderson and O’Donnell became fast friends, and Fischer said all three are “free thinkers” intent on continuing and improving the business.

“We all three work really well together,” he said.

Stockmen's coverage through the years
DICKINSON, N.D. -- Dining out can be a chance to relax, let someone else cook -- and just watch the world go by. Or, sometimes, in Dickinson, to watch the cows go by. Thousands of them, literally. About every week in Dickinson, on Thursdays, and ...

O'Donnell in the last year and a half has taken on management of the business’s employees. He said their intention is to “carry on Jim and Larry’s legacy.”

Henderson remembers enjoying trips to sale barns as a kid. He grew up to run 300 cows on the ranch his family homesteaded near Solen, North Dakota, and fed 600 calves a year. But the sale barn kept calling to him. He went to auction school in 2017 and afterward started doing some farm sales. He got his first invitation to hold the auction block at Herreid (South Dakota) Livestock Market in 2018, and then he got on at Napoleon (North Dakota) Livestock, Rugby (North Dakota) Livestock and Stockmen’s.

Henderson said he had been approached about buying in to other barns, but none were as intriguing as being a partner at Stockmen’s, which was already a “well-oiled machine.” He sold his cattle and machinery to focus all his attention on Stockmen’s.

“This is cattle country out here, and this barn has a great reputation for doing business and doing business the right way.”

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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