Online cattle sales on the rise, but live auctions not going anywhere

Internet auctions were key at the start of pandemic but live sales are only down slightly

The pandemic has boosted the use of online auctions but selling cattle the old-fashioned way isn’t about to disappear, says a veteran auctioneer.

“Sales at the auction market are down slightly but not a lot,” said Jason Danard, vice-president of Strathmore-based Calgary Stockyards and head of its online division, The Electronic Auction Market, which is used by other stockyards and auction marts.

“We’ve seen a slight increase in our numbers on the electronic platform. I think COVID-19 has accelerated some of the growth we’re experiencing and will continue to experience.”

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Chance Martin, president of the Alberta Auction Markets Association, said there has been a small uptick in interest in watching online sales since COVID reared its head, but overall not much has changed.

“Some more producers stayed home and watched their cattle sales online as opposed to being physically in the arena,” said Martin, who co-owns Thorsby Stockyards. “I think the same number of bidders either bid or watched online that normally do.”

Having an online option was critical in the early days of the pandemic, which coincided with bull sale season.

“Without the internet I don’t know what would have happened with the bull sales,” said Danard, adding that most of these sales wound up just as profitable as the previous year’s.

“We didn’t miss five minutes of work. We carried on.”

Roy Lewis, a longtime beef cattle veterinarian (and a columnist for this paper), is more blunt.

“The online stuff absolutely saved (purebred bull sales’) ass — no question in my mind,” he said.

Lewis is an advocate of online selling, saying it reduces stress on animals and reduces health problems.

“Every time you stress cattle by mixing and matching them you’re going to have issues,” he said. “There are extra costs to the producers and the whole industry to truck a whole liner of cattle from A to B just to unload them, sell them and load them again to take them to C.

“It seems crazy to me when we can video them and it’s basically like being there.”

The pandemic has changed live auctions. In addition to social distancing, many auction markets are requesting that people not planning to buy cattle to watch online instead of attending on site. Some request that only one family member come to the ring to bid, although others (including Calgary Stockyards) allow family cohorts to sit together as long as they’re six feet apart from other groups.

While attending auctions in person has long been a tradition for ranch families (for both business and social reasons), the impact on animal health can be considerable, said Lewis.

“With live auction sales, it takes two truckloads before they settle into their home pen,” he said. “For a calf especially, that’s just fraught with increased respiratory disease risk and all kinds of things.”

And the risk goes up considerably when cattle are pre-sorted into uniform lots, he added.

“For example, all the black 600- to 650-pound steers are in one pen,” he said. “When they’re sold there might be cattle attached to 10 different owners, but they’re sold as one lot to a feedlot.”

Although Lewis doesn’t blame auction markets for wanting to make the sales process more convenient for buyers, vets like himself consider pre-sorts “dynamite.”

“Pre-sorting just makes vets shudder. You’re commingling them and making them susceptible to disease because they come from all these different places.”

But “there’s a place for both” types of auctions, said Danard.

“A larger cow-calf operation of 200 to 300 calves and greater can quite often put together groups that work on the internet,” he said.

“Meanwhile, auction markets are great places to sell cull cows, for example. Quite often a producer might be culling 10, 12 cows — it’s hard to facilitate a direct sale with a smaller group like that. The auction market remains a very competitive place to sell those groups.”

Lewis agrees there is still room for live auctions because they’re such a tried-and-true mechanism for price discovery. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement on the animal management side, he said.

“(The cattle industry) talks a lot about biosecurity but we’re the worst at that,” he said. “We mix and match and haul them down the road from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’ while industries like poultry and swine have become direct.”

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