For a kid whose grade school teacher advised his parents that nothing short of capital punishment was in order to cure his disinterest in learning arithmetic, earning a place in the Livestock Markets Association of Canada’s (LMAC) Hall of Fame could be considered a remarkable accomplishment.
Fortunately for the cattle industry, the teacher had made a Freudian slip (intending to say corporal) and Roy Rutledge was given a second lease on learning his math. It turned out that all he needed was a few head of cattle in front of him! Not only did he go on to become a master at calling the numbers — winning the 1991 Saskatchewan auctioneering championship — but he learned them inside out as owner of the Assiniboia Auction Market, transforming it from a business he and his wife, Debbie, hoped would see 30,000 head a year into a force in livestock marketing in Canada selling 110,000 head annually prior to BSE.
The Rutledges sold the market to Nilsson Brothers Inc. in 2002, but it continued to be business as usual with Roy and their son, Ryan, managing the operation under their company name of Rutledge Auction Management. In 2006, they took on management of the Weyburn Livestock Exchange under the same arrangement and have given the business the same workover that has made Assiniboia Auction Market the success it is today.
Rutledge says being recognized with the LMAC Hall of Fame honour is quite humbling because it’s like the Emmy of cattle marketing in that it comes from your competitors who make the nominations and vote on it. LMAC established the award last year to recognize one of its own who has shown dedication to improving livestock marketing in Canada.
“There aren’t many moments of glory,” he says, so receiving the Canadian Angus Association market-of-the-year award at the same event made it that much more special. Aside from those honours and receiving a Saskatchewan Livestock Association honour scroll in 2007, he says successful sales with good prices and everyone going home happy is reward in itself.
It did give him cause to look back and reflect on his long-lasting connection to the livestock industry that started back on the home ranch near Monitor, Alta. He worked on the ranch, at other ranches and odd jobs before getting his auctioneering diploma in 1980 and calling sales at the yards in Veteran, Cereal and Hanna, while running their own bulk fuel dealership in Consort. In 1986, they purchased the Assiniboia Auction Market. By 1999, the call of the land was nudging him toward setting up a cow-calf operation and they purchased land at Avonlea. When the time commitment and workload of running the market and the ranch became too much, he sold off the pairs in 2002 and went into grassing yearlings. They continued to expand the land base and added “last calf heifers” to the mix, buying used-up bred cows in the spring, letting them calve on pasture, weaning the calves in August and shipping the cows. With Ryan’s ranch next door, it’s all come together nicely for sharing equipment and labour.
Rutledge has always been proud of his hard-work ethic and self-reliance, but says he has never thought of himself as an innovator deserving of a prestigious award. He never set out to change the industry. He just does what he thinks he needs to do and hopes it works out.
“I guess we did do some innovative things. There were a lot that didn’t work, but those that did, I guess we must have been doing it right because others followed,” he comments.
They started into presort sales in a big way and by 1987 had stopped holding regular calf sales altogether. As they remodelled the pens, they designed the facility so that the calves could be fed and watered before the sale. It was something he had seen Bill Sturm do when he was selling at Cereal in the early 1980s and Rutledge felt it was the right thing to do to look after the health of the calves.
The combination of presort sales and pre-sale feeding and watering set Assiniboia Auction Market apart from the rest. With strong buyer and seller support they went on to fine tune the system and introduced special presort sales for calves of specifibreed influence, pulling more calves and more buyers their way.
He says people just couldn’t believe they would spend time and money to buy good-quality feed and a shredder to feed bawling calves because the common belief — or misunderstanding as it turned out — was that the calves wouldn’t eat it anyway. “Sure, they don’t stand there and eat a lot at one time. They pick a bit, bawl a bit, go to the water, lay down awhile, then start over again. The guys who do the feed- ing can’t believe how much they eat,” he adds.
Buyers have told him it does make a difference because the calves walk off the truck and go straight to the feed and water. “Alberta gets lots of calves, but they don’t get all of them,” he says. “A pile go east. Assiniboia has built a reputation as a place to buy cattle for maintaining health if shipping long distances. In that way, it has helped promote Saskatchewan cattle Down East.”
He notes some of the other changes they made that may be considered innovative in the cattle-marketing sector: pioneering Internet auctions in 2001 by working with a young Moose Jaw company, Live Global Bid, that went on to specialize in car auctions; commissioning Hi-Hog to build the first double-deck loading ramp; and being among the first markets to buy into the Genesys Market Master presort program in 1988. Rutledge is proud of the input he was able to provide the company to meet the needs of presort sales.
The software is interfaced with the scale and calculates the pencil shrink, so all Rutledge has to do is assess the cattle and assign the sorting code. He has codes for four types of calves based on how they should feed and grow. Pens for each code, sex and weight class are set up in the computer. He calls out the sex and the code and the clerk enters it in the computer. The computer assigns a pen number, and the guys take the calf to that pen. At the end of the sale, the system retrieves all of the information required for the settlement statements.
There’s no playing favourites because the buyers have to be able to bid with confidence on the way the cattle are sorted, Rutledge explains. The highest bidder can take his choice of like pens or all of them at the same bid price. If a buyer needs that type of cattle to fill an order, there’s no sitting out. He has to get going.
The southwest is big ranching country itself and with the draw from other areas, the market could see as many as half its yearly calf numbers fall into a six-week fall run. “We may have been the first in the province to put through 3,000 head a day and I know we were the first to hit a 4,000-, then 5,000-, then 6,000-head sale. Now we try to keep it to 4,500 head, which works pretty slick to get the sale wrapped up in under four hours,” Rutledge adds.
That’s not to say recent years haven’t brought their share of challenges and tough management decisions, but the business itself has to remain profitable in order to provide quality service.
Some 120,000 head go through two rings each year.
“If the things we have done get an extra five or 10 cents a pound for producers, then collectively we have put a lot of extra money into producers’ pockets,” Rutledge adds. “It’s good business for producers, good business for the buyers, and we got more business because of it.” The bonus is knowing that his counterparts feel that his dedication and innovations have improved livestock marketing in Canada.
RUTLEDGE’S TOP 10
Rutledge is well known for his “Roy’s Bullpen” commentaries on industry issues and timely tips to help producers get the most from the marketplace. Here are 10 of his most timeless tips:
1. Castrate and dehorn properly. Bull calves are always discounted because someone somewhere down the line will have to do it and the stress of castrating older calves costs buyers money. Quality being equal, buyers who are willing to pay top dollar will choose hornless over horned cattle.
2. Parasite control is important. This is especially true for cows and backgrounded calves, but don’t do it just before you take them to the market. Give the product time to do its work. Cattle with healthy, thick hair coats catch the eye of the buyer.
3. Vaccinate diligently. The ongoing cost of BVD continues to be immense, but vaccinating your cow herd will help to stop the spread of the disease by preventing the birth of persistently infected calves that perpetuate the disease cycle. Vaccinations also help prevent abortions, stillborn and weak calves that don’t grow well and get discounted at sale time.
4. Proper nutrition pays. Nutritionists can work off your feed tests to design winter feeding programs for cows and backgrounders around the feedstuffs you have available and suggest least-cost ways to fill any shortfalls in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Having your cows in the right condition at calving improves live calf percentage rates, calf vigour and milking ability.
5. Creep feed cautiously. If you want to creep feed calves on pasture, be sure to provide a high-protein ration so they grow rather than fatten.
6. Plan ahead. In the fall, buyers still prefer calves fresh off the cow, but a lot of the shrink can happen at home if you have to be rounding up cattle just before loading. Bring them in from the pasture a couple of days ahead of time. Give your corrals a good look over to make sure the loading chute and gates are in good repair because the last thing you need is escapees to chase around. Designing a facility that makes it easy to separate pairs and load out is well worth the money spent.
7. Wean wisely. If you decide to wean, do it at least eight weeks in advance of selling the calves (six weeks might do if you’re an expert at it) and make absolutely sure that the calves have the best nutrition. If not, they will likely end up weighing less than they did at weaning and all of your work will be for naught. Buyers are wary of calves that haven’t had time to recover from weaning and start gaining because, not only do they look stale, but they are more apt to get sick. A good practice is to start feeding grain right away to get things off to a good start. If you have a limited amount of grain, feed it at the start of weaning rather than weaning them on hay and adding grain later.
8. Look them over before loading. Don’t ship animals that are sick. Be prepared to take less if you send animals with lumps, bumps or lameness.
9. Good marketing starts before the calf is born. Reputation herds have built their names on selecting genetics that yield calves with good length, hip and growth ability, following recommended vaccination practices and providing quality nutrition.
10. Auctions add value. Always, always sell by auction… or some lesser form of competitive bid!