By Tom Collins
INDIAN RIVER — To handle COVID-19 concerns, managers are doing everything from postponing sales, to switching to online only, to considering tag sales or a hybrid of all three.
Billy Elmhirst, of Indian River Cattle Company, says that live auctions are designed to create excitement but smaller crowds and a gloomy atmosphere is impacting the numbers of cattle sold.
“You’ve lost your excitement, hype and atmosphere,” he said. “You can’t get that atmosphere when the whole world is somber.”
Last month, Elmhirst managed a bull sale that normally sees an attendance of 100 people. Only 30 potential buyers showed up and there were no phone bids or Internet feeds. While the prices were good, the auction ran out of buyers.
“We looked out at the stands and said, ‘We still have 10 more bulls to sell, and everybody sitting there had already bought a bull,” he said.
Parts of the sale barn are only four-feet wide, so someone can’t pass by without touching, which breaks the physical distance rules. While keeping live sales or switching to online only are options, so too is a tag sale. A tag sale is where a floor price is determined for each lot. Potential buyers can come in advance and indicate which animals they like. If only one person is interested in the animal, that buyer gets the lot for the floor price. If there are two or more interested buyers, a mini-auction takes place among those two or more potential buyers.
“We’re torn here a little bit, trying to do the right thing,” said Elmhirst. “But at the same time, we need to make a living. We’re trying to figure out the right way to do this to keep people comfortable.”
Looking ahead, COVID-19 could also play a role for sales in the fall. Elmhirst says if there aren’t any shows or sales during the summer that could put a damper on sales in the fall.
Postponing also isn’t an option, said Elmhirst. Cattlemen want the animals bred so the cows give birth around Jan. 1. That means the breeding needs to start soon, so postponing these sales until COVID-19 blows over isn’t doable.
That breeding schedule is one of the reasons why Brett and Brian Coughlin, of Cornerview Charolais farm, at Cobden in Renfrew County, made the decision to move their annual bull sale online and by phone call only.
“If we don’t move the bulls out now, we pretty well miss our season and we aren’t really willing to sit on them for another year,” Brett said. “We don’t really have the facilities to keep them.”
They called all registered bidders from the last few years in advance to encourage them to go online. That helped turn the March 28 sale into a success. The top-selling bull, BCN 33G Cornerview Guinness, sold to Stephane Marenger at Gatineau, Que. for $6,800, while the average sale of 21 bulls was $4,570. Last year’s bull average was $4,209.
One farmer showed up for the auction. He drove an hour from Pakenham. He was put in a corner to keep him away from the employees.
The online portion of the sale normally complements the 150 people who show up each year, but Coughlin knew they couldn’t control how many people showed up the day of the sale. While most everyone supported the decision to move online, at least two potential buyers were upset. “They (thought) we’re crazy for doing this,” he said.
Winchester’s Hugh Fawcett postponed two auctions by the end of March, and didn’t know when they would be rescheduled. He said he wouldn’t have been able to enforce the rules to keep everyone two metres apart. He said online sales were never an option.
“People all over the globe can be watching your sale,” he said. “If you have the right kind of thing to sell, it can be pretty good. Cattle are a little different than a piece of equipment or a car. The buyers have to see them (in the flesh).”
Brian Kelly is one of the organizers of the Eastern Select Bull and Female sale scheduled for April 11 at Hoard’s Station at Campbellford. While things could still change, as of April 1, the plan was to limit the number of people who could attend while including an online option.
This year, potential buyers can view the bulls at the sale barn for two days before the sale.
“We put a lot of money into these animals. We raise them and here we are sitting on them,” said Kelly. “People need bulls but they have to get to be able to see them and want to buy them.”
Sale managers get creative to hold cattle auctions amid COVID-19 fears
By Tom Collins