If Hooter remembered right, it was Benjamin Franklin who first pointed out that a confederation of like interests must stick together or surely hang separately. At least that's what he was trying to relate to the worried voice on the other end of the phone.
“It'll be fine, Wally,” consoled Hooter. “You did exactly right. I'll be happy to visit with this guy on behalf of the group. Don't worry.”
The group in this case was a cooperative of sorts which Hooter and a pile of acquaintances had formed over the years—folks like himself with some cows of their own and some stockers to trade depending on the grass situation—in order to compete with folks who had lots more cattle than they did individually. As a group, they would pool their shopping lists to buy animal health supplies and feed in quantity at lower prices. Sometimes they'd pool cattle to offer bigger packages, too.
“Thanks,” said Wally. “And remember, just represent them all like they were your own. We'll stand behind whatever you get done with the guy.”
Somehow Hooter had suddenly become the official spokesman of the unofficial group. As he hung up, though, he was beginning to feel more like the official phone operator. Hooter had fielded one call after the other from folks in the cooperative, who were as distressed as Wally by the demands being made by a new order buyer who was representing a long-time customer of the cooperative. The members all told the new order buyer the same thing: “You'll have to visit with Hooter about that.”
The that in this case was the order buyer's insistence that each seller sign an affidavit declaring the age of the animals.
The Age Rage
As Owen Slickwheel skidded his new Avalanche to a stop in front of the pens, he bailed out the door, cell phone clutched to one ear and a scowl on his face.
“You Hooter McCormick?” demanded the order buyer.
Hooter looked around him at the vacant pens, then back at the impatient Slickwheel. “Apparently so. Who might you be?”
The buyer squinted his eyes at Hooter, not sure whether he was being made light of or if the other members of the group had failed to call Hooter like they told him they would. “Name's Owen Slickwheel. There's a string of folks I'm set to buy from who say I've got to get the go ahead from you. They said they'd call.”
Hooter had his greasiest coveralls on. Relishing the opportunity, he leaned against the shiny Avalanche and propped his elbows on the hood, which drew a wince from the buyer.
“Yes sir, they called me. Said the price and conditions were agreeable, all except something about an affidavit of some kind.”
“For age,” said Slickwheel, glaring hard at Hooter. “I'm sure you know the Japanese are making 20 months of age a condition of sale. That means in order to buy your calves we have to have either proof of birth date or a signed affidavit declaring the cattle will be no older than 20 months of age at time of harvest.”
“See, there's your first problem,” said Hooter. “We could sell you 3-day-old calves and not have any idea how long they'll be stockered or fed, meaning there is no way we can assure the age at which they're slaughtered.”
Slickwheel glared harder. “Let me back up and go slower. You need to sign an affidavit declaring what age the calves are today, then we'll worry about and accept responsibility for the time between now and when they're harvested.”
Hooter was drawing a happy face in a grease smudge his sleeve had smeared on the hood, apparently oblivious to what was being said.
“Your second problem is assuming we give a gnat's knuckle about selling anything to the Japanese.”
Slickwheel was beginning to turn all kinds of red. He jerked a cigar from his shirt pocket, jammed it into his jaw and nearly bit it in two. “You're not selling anything to the Japanese, we are,” he growled. “And, we're saying in order to buy your calves we've got to be able to verify age for the Japanese. And, would you please quit drawing on the hood of my pickup.”
Hooter was beaming. “Is that what you call this? How much hay can you get on it? As far as the Japanese, are you selling to them directly, you and the feedlot you represent?”
Slickwheel was searching for a match. He didn't usually light his cigars but needed to now. “You know very well what I'm trying to say. We sell to the packer, who sells to the Japanese, and they're telling us we have to verify age going to them, meaning we have to verify age coming into the yard.”
“All of them?”
Slickwheel look confused. “All of what?”
“All of the packers you sell to sell all of their cattle to the Japanese?”
“No, of course not!”
“Then, why do all of the cattle you're bringing to the yard have to be able to go to the Japanese?”
“That's not how it works.”
“How what works?”
Slickwheel had finally found some matches, but the breeze was keeping him from his goal. “How any of it works,” he all but screamed. “They don't know which pieces of which carcasses will wind up in boxes that the Japanese are going to buy, so they have to make sure all of the carcasses are age-compliant.”
“Sounds like a shoddy way to run a business,” grinned Hooter.
A vein was starting to stick out on Slickwheel's brow. He just stared at Hooter for a long moment. “Look, do you people want to sell your calves or not?”
“Of course we do,” said Hooter calmly. “And judging by the rubber you've worn off this new ride of yours, making the rounds to all of us, and sitting here chatting rather than stalking off, you'd really like to buy our calves.”
“So, continued Hooter, we'd like to sell our calves to you on the price and conditions you've already offered, and we'll provide proof of age if that's what you require, but we're not going to sign an affidavit.”
“What proof of age?” grunted Slickwheel.
Hooter reached into the back of his own pickup and retrieved a bulging gunnysack that was light as a feather. He handed it to Slickwheel. “Proof like this.”
The order buyer reached into the sack and pulled out a handful of masking tape and hair. His expression did the talking.
“When I boostered my calves I took hair samples,” grinned Hooter. “See the sample for each calf is stuck to the tape and his tag number is written on the tape, along with the date the sample was taken.”
Any defiance left in Slickwheel was doing a good job of hiding. “But how…”
“I say all of them. Instead of hair, you'll find a tooth in there from 319. Lord, he hit the head gate so hard he knocked most of the rust off it. We never could get the hair sample, or get him boostered for that matter. I'm telling you that straight out.”
“I'm not sure how the other members of our group are keeping track, but I'm guessing it's similar.”
“But…but…this doesn't prove age,” managed Slickwheel.
“Actually, tied to my calving records on the one side, and a DNA sample from the carcass, then tying the two together, you'd be able to prove without much question which carcass came from which calf,” said Hooter.
“But the packer isn't going to DNA-test all their carcasses,” grimaced Slickwheel.
“Look, you want proof of age, there's your proof. What you folks do with it on up the line is up to you.”
“But it doesn't prove anything.”
“Tell me this, then, how does that affidavit you want us to sign prove any more than this?”
“Well, it…what I mean…what we need…”
“What you want,” interrupted Hooter, “is a scapegoat, a signed document absolving you of all responsibility. We'll assume our responsibility, but not yours, too.”
Slickwheel wasn't looking quite so slick anymore.
“Then of course, we'll want you to sign this affidavit,” said Hooter, fishing a paper out of his coveralls.
“It gets at that second problem I mentioned earlier. We don't want any of our calves to wind up as meat in Japan. We wouldn't sell those folks a 20-day old hotdog with the way they've insulted us, insinuating that America's beef supply is somehow unsafe when it's the safest in the world. We'd like you to sign that affidavit as a condition of us selling to you.”
The fire returned to Slickwheel in an instant. He smashed his fist down on the hood of his pick-up thing. “We won't sign a document like that. We can't control who the packer sells the product to, and we couldn't prove it anyway, we…”
“It's tough, ain't it,” smiled Hooter. “Tell you what, seems to me you and me would be just as well off to go ahead and do the deal, you forget your affidavit and we'll forget ours.”
While Slickwheel was blasting across the cattle guard in his newly dented ride, Hooter was making a call: “Hello Wally, looks like we've got ourselves a buyer.”