Bill Foxley’s introduction to the cattle business came from his father W.J., who routinely took him to the Omaha Stockyards on weekends and on cattle-buying trips during the summer. W.J. also had a 3-acre feedlot pen on the outskirts of Omaha where 2-year-old steers were fattened for market and his son learned about the work of caring for cattle.
At the beginning of one summer before high school, Foxley was put on a train headed to Montana to work on the Flying D Ranch, which was owned by a California family and leased by W.J. for $50,000 a year. The younger Foxley thought the 80,000-acre ranch was the “most perfect slice of the planet,” and as he spent the next eight summers there, his infatuation with ranching and love for the land of the West grew in intensity.
Working on the Flying D meant digging post holes and helping the cowboys with the 10,000 heifers that grazed the mountain pastures. Of his first summer on the ranch Bill said, “I learned how to play poker and got bucked off an old cow pony into the middle of Spanish Creek. Doc Jones, the ranch manager, cut me a $50 check at the end of the summer and later got chewed out for
paying me anything.”
Foxley remembers the mid-1950s as difficult times for cattlemen, and his father began divesting his interests in cattle and moving it to other investments. Foxley was attending the University of Notre Dame in 1957 when his father was killed in an automobile accident. W.J. left an estate of almost $2 million, half of which was left in equal shares in Foxley & Co. to his eight children.
A Great Start
Following a three-year commitment in the U.S. Marine Corps, one of Bill’s first visits was to the family ranch in South Dakota. There he discovered that fewer than 400 head of an original 500 calves remained, so he promptly fired the ranch manager, brought in a veterinarian and personally managed the care of the cattle. From then until the calves were turned out in May, only one more was lost.
Foxley says that became a transformative moment in his life. He loved the area and he had made the decision that ranching and the cattle business would be his life. Foxley had a net worth of $125,000 at that point—the book value of his 10% interest in Foxley & Co. inherited from his father’s estate. He recalls it was a great start for a 25-year-old in 1960, but he would not buy many cattle, even if leveraged. For the next 10 years, his siblings invested with him, prior to his buying them out.
By 1962 Foxley began what would eventually become one of the largest cattle feeding enterprises in the U.S. He bought a farm near the Omaha Stockyards with the topography suited for constructing a 15,000-head feedlot with adequate drainage. He also erected the first steam-flaking feedlot mill in the Midwest.
“The freight on mill parts from California was a minute fraction of the cost of shipping countless bushels of corn, were this lot to have been constructed in the sunny Imperial Valley,” Foxley says. “If California nutritionist Jim Elam could come up with a winning ration formulation, we’d be off and running.”
Foxley also saw opportunity in the new cattle futures contracts that were introduced during the early 1960s by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
“We were the first to use them successfully to hedge our highly-leveraged inventory of fat cattle. We constructed state-of-the-art feedlots at Bellevue, Manley, Mead and Bartlett, Nebraska, and at Ordway, Colorado, and purchased others in Texas and Washington.”
By 1980 Foxley & Co. was the nation’s largest cattle feeding company with 300,000 head of company-owned cattle on feed.
By the mid-1970s, Foxley says he became “edgy about the next market crash that would be over the horizon in 1974.” In March of that year he sold the Mead, Neb., feedlot to meat-packer Flavorland Industries Inc. of Sioux City, Iowa, for an estimated $6 million and 125,000 shares of Flavorland Common Stock.
During this time, Foxley also noticed Flavorland was in disarray from mismanagement. He negotiated the purchase of an additional 15% of the company’s stock to become its largest shareholder. A carefully orchestrated, leveraged buy-out made Foxley Flavorland’s new CEO. He now owned 85% of the Fortune 500 company at a cost less than its working capital with 100% borrowed funds. By 1976 the company’s fiscal earnings were over $4 million, 76% higher than its previous record earnings in 1973.
By then, Foxley says, Flavorland quarterly board meetings were little more than short lunches after passage of a resolution or two. The following year, Foxley took the company private.
Nourishing Crops And Cattle
In 1980, Foxley bought 10,000 acres of land in Nebraska’s eastern Sandhills to build a covered feedlot surrounded by sprinkler-irrigated farmland for liquid manure disposal as well as corn and silage production. Many were concerned about the environmental impact, but Foxley disagreed. “The spreading of liquid manure to nourish crops fed to cattle makes for a nearly perfect ecological system,” he says. “It is one of, if not the lowest-cost producer in the country.”
The 65,000-head feedlot at Barlett, Neb., has half-mile-long sheds over the waste pits that are emptied twice per year to fertilize the adjoining acres of irrigated corn.
Such was the nature of Foxley’s ingenuity, inventiveness and practical sensibility, according to those who worked with him. Former Foxley employee and business partner Dan May says Foxley “always had a lot of energy and was extremely intelligent. He had an uncanny feel for the markets and had ice in his veins when he made a trade even with huge leveraged positions.”
May says Foxley’s pioneering spirit and innovative approach to the cattle business was matched by his reputation as an astute and honest businessman, and he brought many progressive technical applications to both the feeding and care of cattle at the Foxley feedyards.
Throughout his career, Foxley was in the ranching and cattle business at every level. He has bought and sold ranchland, fattened and sent to market hundreds of thousands of head of cattle, developed new feeding formulas and processing techniques, adapted new ideas for feedlot pens, and essentially brought positive change and
greater productivity to his business and to the industry.
“The fact that I have been very fortunate in a tough business was due to the times, good people and the relatively high level of energy that I was born with,” Foxley says. “Of course, I have hit my share of potholes. The worst were due to a few bad apples and my lack of attention.”
Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame
The Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame was launched in 2009 to celebrate the rich traditions of the cattle-feeding industry and recognize individuals who have devoted their careers to producing safe, quality beef and improving production practices. Merck Animal Health, Osborn and Barr, and Drovers are the founding partners. A reception in January was held to formally announce the 2019 inductees: James Herring and Bill Foxley.