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Selling ChristmasCalves Online – for Aug. 9, 2010

Billy and Juanita Elmhirst of Indian River, Ont., describe the Christmas online auction of their Simmental animals in the past two years as an eBay like selling plan for purebred cattle.

It started out as a way to market top-end genetics from their growing Indian River Cattle Company’s Simmental herd to a broader clientele. More recently it has won them recognition for innovation in the form of a $5,000 prize from their provincial government.

The online auction, says an Ontario agriculture ministry press release, “has opened one more door for the marketing of Ontario’s quality livestock.”

The Elmhirsts and their Christmas Internet sale were among the 2010 regional prize winners in the annual premier’s award for agricultural innovation.

Billy and Juanita with his parents Grant and Mary Elmhirst are primarily known for the family’s Elm-Lodge Herefords; a well known quality herd of, low-birthweight animals which gain well, show well and finish well.

For the past 14 years though, since Billy and Juanita were married, Simmentals have been expanding the numbers on the farm and the Elmhirst’s bottom line under the Indian River Cattle Company name.

When Canadian Cattlemen visited them at the farm southeast of Peterborough, Billy and Juanita allowed that the online auction was a natural fit for them since they could utilize the expertise built up through their own sales management and marketing business to create a wider market for these cattle without leaving the farm.

The auction template is provided by Doug Howe of Pennsylvannia and the YourNextCalf website at The first time Billy and Juanita selected 14 of their finest youngsters and offered them for eight days in December 2008. Twelve were offered in 2009, and another group will be put on the online marketplace this Christmas.

Registered bidders can check out still photos, pedigree information and a YouTube video of each animal. To pre-register they must provided contact and banking information, supplying the Elmhirsts with future marketing contacts. This type of auction capitalizes on the growing reputation of their herd within breeding stock circles. Indian River Cattle Company won the Simmental Premier Breeder banner at the Royal Agriculture Winter Fair in Toronto for the past three years and the North American Beef Congress in London from 2005 to 2007. It also makes full use of Juanita’s computer, video and photography skills, and Billy’s marketing ability.

The cover of their eight-page full-colour catalogue featured not a calf, nor even a winning ribbon, but a photo of Santa and a laptop featuring the website address. “We tried to make it like the Christmas Wishbook,” Juanita says.

The full story is found inside with a synopsis of show-winnings, photos, pedigree information and a complete description of each animal, including EPDs, done up with red ribbons and Christmas lights.

Bidders were advised to visit on the Internet and given contact information for Billy and Juanita and, of course, the link to the YourNext- Calf website.

The cattle were videotaped in the fall “when they’re all haired up,” against a backdrop of late autumn sunshine.

“People were still enthusiastic from the Royal and the timing allowed them to get a calf for a Christmas present,” Billy says.

Both years the bidding wrapped up in a flurry of phone calls, emails and faxes on the final day of the auction. “It all came together in the last two hours,” recalls Billy. Ten of 14 sold the first year, seven of 12 the second year.

Each one was sold with a reserve price. “The ones I want to keep I set high,” Juanita says.

The Christmas gift idea appears to have been a hit. “We had a real ball,” says buyer Bill Elford, who found himself bidding on a calf during a Christmas party as the auction drew to a close.

“It was quite exciting.” Elford, surrounded by 20 hooting, cheering Christmas partiers, was fielding consortium offers as he bid. “It kind of made our evening,” he says from his Kimberley farm in southwestern Ontario.

Though he didn’t get the calf (“If I was going to go more I would like to see her walking myself,”) Elford said the format worked great because he was able to bid and attend the Christmas party.

From Prince Edward Island, Brent Matheson said the online auction offered exposure to high-quality genetics.

“It saved us travelling,” he says.

The treasurer for PEI 4-H said the “fast response,” to his bids “made it exciting.”

“You’re able to do other stuff, and this gives you access to the bloodlines.”

Juanita’s video enhanced the offering, he said. “The video gave us a sense of what they looked like; seeing how they moved is better than a picture.”

A hobby farmer, Matheson said the auction is “a very good way of accessing quality cattle.”

That’s just exactly what developer Doug Howe had in mind when he and son Austin created the website.

“We created it three years ago for marketing embryos and calves,” says Howe from his Pennsylvannia farm. While they own the YourNextCalf website, they offer the template for people to use. They’re seeing a huge, varied interest, from those with a few embryos to sell, to the Wyoming sheep farmer considering the site to market 1,000 sheep.

Howe, who grew up in Red Lake in northern Ontario and has a purebred Hereford operation to complement his business of selling and developing commercial and industrial lands, said people can list as few or as many animals as they want, for as long as they want.

The Howes brainstormed the idea, then used a software company to format and design it, customizing it to their specifications. Austin built the pages. They estimate development costs at $10,000 and are still exploring the website’s potential.

Howe is working with some states to do full sales, adapting it to use on farm, so that bidders could actually be visiting a farm and enter their bid online, assuring all bidders are on equal footing.

“It’s still in its infancy,” Howe says, acknowledging that “Billy and Juanita were in the forefront for using the site.

“They had confidence the thing would work.” It’s targeted to the Brent Mathesons in the industry.

“What I really see is it giving opportunity for those who live off the beaten track; it gives them the opportunity to market further than their local farm community.”

It’s already opened marketing doors for him.

“Our traffic has picked up. People we have never heard of before are contacting us.”

He mentions the French agriculture student who “ran

into YourNextCalf one night. She wanted to come to America and intern with us. She arrived last week and she’s great.

“She found us on line. You wonder, how many other people are looking at us? You don’t know,” says Howe.

The Howes too had started out needing a venue to market small numbers of animals, and wanting to expose them to the largest audience possible.

“I usually put up 30-60 animals,” he says explaining that with a data base of “a couple of thousand names, I can hit one button and away it goes. It takes 1/10th of a second for an update.”

Howe was “blown away” when he heard about the government recognition.

The Elmhirsts say hits were high and bidding was slow at the beginning of the auction. But as the 7 p. m. Dec. 14 deadline approached, the action began to heat up. Eventually one animal drew 1,000 hits.

As it concluded they were using both cell phones and the landline as they finalized bids.

It was a totally new feeling for the farm which hosts a ‘Source for Success’ Hereford production sale in September, annually, often selling more than 40 head and drawing hundreds of bidders and spectators.

“People dropped in and after it was over we just looked at each other,” Juanita says. “You can’t capture quite the atmosphere,” she says. But neither do you have all the expense and the work of an on-farm sale.

Successful online bidders get some added perks. “When they come to pick up their heifer we make them supper. That’s when you really connect with them.”

December is an ideal for this type of sale, they explain, but weather and seasonal celebrations would limit the numbers you could draw to the farm. The online format cancels out those variables.

“It was kind of a funny feeling,” Juanita says of the experience. “No one really bids. It’s almost exactly like a cow eBay.”

They admit they didn’t know how the sale would go and praise Howe for adapting his program for their sale.

“We weren’t sure how many farmers would be interested.” Billy says setting the base price was a real challenge. “You

still don’t want to give them away.”

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