2020 was ground zero for online cattle marketing, say producers

How two purebred cattle operations used social media to weather the COVID-19 pandemic storm

Aaron Birch and Joe Barnett — co-owners of Twin View Livestock near the southern Saskatchewan hamlet of Parkbeg — have been helping clients adjust to buying and selling cattle online since the COVID-19 pandemic hit early in 2020.

As long as most people can remember, live cattle shows and auctions have been essential to the cattle industry. They’re not only a key way for cattle producers to market their product, but they also offer plenty of opportunities to socialize with other cattlemen and women, trade production secrets and — maybe just occasionally — enjoy a cold adult beverage or two.

But a glance at the list of shows and live auctions cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic can easily create the sense that lifeblood is being drained right out of the industry. However, that fails to acknowledge just how quickly cattle producers have been adapting to higher-tech marketing methods.

Although there will probably still be room for live cattle shows, live auctions and in-person meet-and-greets long after COVID-19 (hopefully) becomes history, managers of two purebred operations believe social media and online auctions are playing — and will continue to play — a major role in cattle marketing. To them, 2020 has been ground zero for proving their usefulness. From what Aaron Birch has seen, producers have been adapting quickly.

“The really interesting thing that I’ve found is how many people have become comfortable with online bidding,” says Birch, co-owner of Twin View Livestock in Parkbeg, Sask.

“I would say the number of people bidding over the phone actually went down in the last couple of years because more people are comfortable bidding online.”

Retaining the personal touch online

Birch and Joe Barnett of Twin View Livestock have always prided themselves on developing personal relationships with their customers. You might even say it’s part of their brand.

“People need to feel like they are doing business with other people — not an entity. It’s really about having that personal relationship with the person you’re buying from,” says Barnett.

Building personal sales relationships in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, when personal meetings are few and far between, might be considered a tall order. That’s not the case for Twin View Livestock, however. Consistently keeping in touch with regular customers through phone and email — whether they have something to sell or not — helps fill the void left by in-person meetings, they say.

It helps that even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Birch and Barnett were set up with just about every relevant online communications platform and were actively using them to market their purebred Gelb­vieh bulls and heifers.

In some ways, the pandemic has been an incentive for technology-resistant customers to jump aboard the high-tech marketing train, says Birch.

“Our bull sale this spring happened just when COVID was starting to come to light. It was like a light switch went off and all of a sudden there were people who would normally come to the (live) bull sale instead deciding to buy online,” he says.

Twin View Livestock consider themselves service providers. They try to direct customers towards seedstock that best fit their operations, they say, even if it costs them a sale. Over the past year they applied this same sense of service to customers struggling with online buying.

“We tried to educate our customers so they felt safe using the technology,” says Birch. “Those who weren’t accustomed to it were able to switch over and get comfortable in a hurry.”

Birch and Barnett believe this swing towards online viewing and sales of animals will not go away post-pandemic, instead it will become the new normal. Along with that will come a need for producers to present their cattle online as professionally as possible.

“The importance of high-quality photography and videos is really becoming more and more critical. We have said to the cattle industry for years that a bad picture will do you more harm than it will ever do you any good,” says Barnett.

“That’s becoming more and more true as people are increasingly relying on only seeing an animal through media. The vast majority of the bulls we sold this spring were to customers who had never laid eyes on those bulls personally.”

Because they feel no one knows their cattle better than they do, Birch and Barnett have learned to take and edit high-quality photos and video which wind up on their website, YouTube channel and — most recently — Facebook live feeds.

“Luckily, we’ve been at it long enough that we’ve kind of learned by trial and error what works and what doesn’t,” says Birch.

“Producers should try and get out there and learn these skills because they can go a long way. I think they’re skills that purebred breeders are going to be able to utilize more and more in the future.”

However, there’s no shame in using professional services for a farm’s media activity, says Barnett.

“There are phenomenally talented photographers in our industry and they are an awesome phone call to make if you don’t feel like taking those pictures yourself or if it’s just not in your wheelhouse. We’re fortunate that we are able to do those things ourselves, but we know and fully understand that it’s not for everyone.”

Alberta breeder bullish on social media

Dave Kamelchuk, owner of Little Creek Agroforestry, is one of a handful of purebred Blonde d’Aquitaine breeders remaining in Western Canada and it doesn’t take long to pick up on his enthusiasm for the breed. Most years the Athabasca, Alberta-area producer takes almost every opportunity he can to show off his Blondes in a live setting, often inviting interested customers out to his farm (the majority of his sales are direct).

Dave Kamelchuk, a Blonde d’Acquitaine producer from Athabasca, Alta., already had a strong foothold in social media before the pandemic caused the cancellation of several cattle shows and sales. photo: Supplied by Dave Kamelchuk

Cattle shows — particularly Edmonton’s Farmfair International — also play a big role in his marketing efforts. Not surprisingly, 2020 changed all that. The COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on farm visits and Farmfair was cancelled (plans are in the works for it to return next year).

However, Kamelchuk was set up for the challenges of 2020 thanks to an extensive and growing collection of photos and videos of his cattle on Facebook. That, combined with active participation in cattle groups on the social media platform, has continued to drive interest in his purebred Blondes.

“With video and pictures it’s so easy,” he says. “Now I just take my cell phone out on a nice sunny day, grab a few pictures and have them posted to Facebook in a few seconds. People start asking some questions and it kind of goes from there. The ease of it is incredible.”

And the price is right. “Facebook is good because it’s free. We don’t do any paper or print advertising at all. With the electronic stuff, you can reach thousands of people with the click of a button and share stuff that way.”

Kamelchuk’s future social media plans include ramping up the flow of his photos and videos onto Facebook (and possibly Instagram, considered by many to be a more visually intensive site). The bottom line, he says, is you have to keep your product out there or risk losing customer interest.

“One of my goals is to be more diligent in posting so you can catch followers throughout the year so when it comes to be marketing time, they’re already there. It’s a matter of getting your follower numbers up and keeping them. You have to have something fresh for them to keep their appetite going.”

As enthusiastic as he is about marketing through social media, Kamelchuk looks forward to participating in live cattle shows (especially Farmfair) again and hopes the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic won’t cause trouble for them in the future.

“I’m just really hoping that some of the shows survive so that we can actually get together as breeders and have cattle out to show people in person,” he says.

This past year also marked Kamelchuk’s first foray into the world of online auctions. The Canadian Blonde d’Aquitaine Association show and sale in Ontario shifted its auction component to online-only in 2020, giving him a taste of virtual bidding and selling.

Although other cattle breeds have been sold extensively through online auction platforms for years, Kamelchuk says the relatively small number of Blondes in Canada have generally not made online auctions feasible until now.

Experiencing this auction — which is usually held concurrently with the association’s AGM — in a virtual setting was unusual for Kamelchuk.

“I’ve attended it every year since probably 2009 or 2010 — every year that I possibly could I was there in person. We usually ship cattle out there, too. We load them on a truck, we wave goodbye, we get on an airplane about three or four days later and they’re sitting at the sale waiting for you.”

This year Kamelchuk was sitting in his living room while bidding on cattle. “That was different for sure. I miss going out there, though.”

About the author

Contributor

Jeff Melchior is a central Alberta-based freelance journalist specializing in agricultural topics.

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