By Tom Collins
LISTOWEL — Cattle sale barn managers are preparing for a slowdown that might impact sales even this fall.
David Carson Farms and Auction Services at Listowel has shut down the sales barn and cancelled or postponed all live sales due to COVID-19, David Carson told Farmers Forum. “We’re doing nothing but getting bills in the mail,” he said. “It’s devastating. Never in my wildest dreams, I ever thought something like this could ever happen.”
One of the concerns from Carson was the age of people who attended his auctions. COVID-19 is deadlier the older one is, and Carson didn’t want anyone getting sick from attending one of his sales. As the auction sales are about half of the farm’s income, it was a tough decision, especially since spring is usually a busy time, he said.
The original plan was to shut down until the end of April, but Carson is worried it might be a few extra months on top of that. Then it might take a while to see crowds build back up to what they used to be.
Aside from the auctions, Carson raises about 1,800 cattle, half of which are beef and cattle raised for market. He also milks 150 Holsteins and raises heifers. He usually sells about 50-70 fresh heifers a month. Last month, “we might have sold 20.”
The dairy-heifer industry was already suffering from lower prices, and some farmers are dumping milk as there isn’t anywhere to send the product. “When you’re dumping milk, you’re not going to buy replacement cattle,” Carson said.
Carson did consider moving his auctions to online, but livestock buyers prefer to see the animal in person before a sale. Plus, there’s the atmosphere that a live auction brings.
“When you’re sitting in the ring with 100 people, and you see three people bidding, then you’re probably tempted to bid too,” he said. “There’s a hype that goes with the auction that you don’t get when you go (online).”
Reed Crawford, of River Point Cattle Co. at Glencoe in Middlesex County, holds an annual spring bull sale but this year switched the April 11 sale from a live auction to a treaty sale. Similar to a tag sale, a floor price is determined for each lot. Potential buyers can attend 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 potential buyers.
Crawford is preparing for a potential loss but said the sale is important for the farm’s bottom line.
“I wish we were in the financial position that we could have just cancelled it,” he said. “We really depend on that for our operations for the year. We had to somehow change it for the income.”
The sale normally brings about 100 people to the auction. He didn’t want COVID-19 to be spread during a sale on his farm. The decision to switch was made in mid-March before the provincial government limited gatherings of no more than 50 people (it has since been limited to no gatherings of more than five people).
Crawford said this also limits the risk to himself, his wife, Jane, and their two young daughters.
“Did I really want to have that many people around, being in that close contact with that many people, and then if anybody was spreading it, to bring it home?”
Looking ahead, some sales managers are concerned that if there aren’t any shows or sales during the summer that could put a damper on sales in the fall. Crawford said that his annual fall sale is even more successful than his spring one and hopes everything will be back to normal by then.
Other sale barns are asking sale barn spectators to stay home instead of treating the sale barn as a social scene. Ab Carroll of the Ontario Stockyards at Cookstown says his sale barn has assigned seating two metres apart and using only every second row.
“As few (buyers) as possible but enough to remain competitive,” Carroll said. “This is pretty well the only realistic option.”
Payments can be made online and Carroll is asking all buyers to mail in their cheques. Sale barns are also now shying away from dealing with cash, he added.
WESTERN ONTARIO: Sale barn managers worry about long-term impact of COVID-19
By Tom Collins