Stockyard offers regional market opportunities for Atlantic producers

The new owners of Atlantic Stockyards, one of the few remaining auction marts in the region, are determined to grow their business by attracting more buyers and putting more cattle through the ring

For more than 60 years, the auction market at Murray Siding, N.S., near Truro, has been a mainstay of the livestock business in Atlantic Canada.

Atlantic Stockyards Ltd. changed ownership in 2019 and although operating through the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges, new owners Scott and Natalie Dixon have plans to grow the business and keep a viable regional market option available for farmers in the four Atlantic provinces.

Dixon farms with his dad near Mates Corner, New Brunswick, about 30 minutes from the Nova Scotia border. Their operation includes 40 to 50 cow-calf pairs. They also background 300 to 400 feeder cattle and grow forages for their livestock. His wife, in addition to serving as office manager at the auction market, works for Public Health in Amherst, Nova Scotia — and also just gave birth to their son, Layton, on June 27.

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For several years, Dixon had been working for Atlantic Stockyards’ previous owner, Sean Firth, as auctioneer on the small animal sale that ran ahead of the cattle sale when a chance comment got the wheels turning.

“I made a comment to him one day, ‘Do I have to buy this place to start the sale on time?’ because I just wanted to get done with my job and then get in and buy cattle,” Dixon recalls. “He called me three months later to meet in Amherst for coffee and about 14 months later, we bought it and here we are — but the sale still starts late sometimes.”

Atlantic Stockyards had its start in 1959 as the Truro Livestock Auction and was renamed Maritime Cattle Market in 1974. It was under Firth’s tenure, which started in 2008, that the business became Atlantic Stockyards.

Sale day includes sheep, lambs, goats, bob calves, dairy cattle, feeders and cull cows, as well as any hay or straw that might be on offer. Various special feeder sales are held in the spring and fall, along with spring and fall equipment auctions.

Atlantic Stockyards also used to sell small animals like rabbits, water fowl and poultry, but that ended when the pandemic meant having to limit the number of people at the facility. They’ve also streamlined operations so instead of two rings with two auctioneers, all livestock go through one ring with a single auctioneer.

Dixon notes that Atlantic Stockyards is one of the few remaining livestock markets in the region and their auctions attract people from all the Atlantic provinces.

“It’s a great opportunity for local farmers to bring livestock here to be sold as opposed to a drover coming door-to-door because they don’t have to pay trucking and take the risk of shipping cattle to Ontario or Quebec,” he says.

The biggest ongoing challenge is keeping cattle numbers at the weekly sale high enough to attract buyers from farther away; that means a steady offering of 400 to 600 head. Quebec and Ontario buyers won’t come to a feeder sale with only 250 head on offer, he notes, because they usually want to buy at least a pot load at a time.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, though; in order to have more buyers, he has to have the cattle and in order to attract the cattle, he needs to make sure he’s got enough buyers. Since taking over the business he has already picked up several new buyers, including two who started coming when he switched the feeder sale day away from Saturday.

“That’s been a real positive change; if people know there are more buyers, you’ll get more cattle,” he says.

His long-term goal is to grow the volume of feeder cattle from Atlantic Canada that go through the sale barn. Cattle and farmer numbers are lower here than in other parts of the country, so livestock pricing tends to be driven by larger regions such as Quebec and Ontario, but Dixon believes he can help make a difference if he can give area farmers a viable market opportunity.

“If I can gain people’s trust and show that after shrink and trucking, they can just get as much here — and the more numbers come through here, the less commission we can charge,” he says. “If farmers can work together, we’re all in it together or we’re going to be getting what someone in Quebec or Ontario wants to give us (for our cattle).”

Also important, he adds, is ensuring farmers know their cattle will be fed, watered and housed properly and handled in ways that won’t stress the animals. Atlantic Stockyards hosted an animal handling workshop several years ago and all staff are certified in proper animal handling.

And farmers have a role to play in market success too, which means vaccinating calves, looking after them well and paying attention to breeding.

“Buy a good bull, it doesn’t matter the breed, and you’ll be rewarded,” he advises. “The days of the Heinz 57 bull in the pasture are over.”

For Dixon himself, a key element of his business success also lies with efficiency and staff who know their jobs well to ensure everything runs smoothly and there are no mix-ups at the end of the sale.

As an essential service, they were allowed to keep operating through the shutdown, but the pandemic meant at first limiting sale days to buyers, only to respect physical distancing. Business has been brisk from what Dixon calls “unbelievable demand” from the local market. Local abattoirs that normally processed 10 to 15 head a week were suddenly doing 20 to 40 to keep up with consumer demand for local food products.

The Balamore Farms Thickness Sells Bull Sale, which Atlantic Stockyards runs every spring, successfully went online this year as a result of the pandemic, with the cattle staying at the farm and the Dixons running the sale and handling the administration and invoicing.

Traffic has picked up again as restrictions have eased and small groups are once again allowed, but it’s not yet business as usual and physical distancing measures remain in place.

Overall, though, Dixon is optimistic about the future of his business. His goal is to keep adding both buyers and sellers, and moving ahead with continuous improvements to the facility. That includes new gates and new lighting, as well as an RFID tag-based system that will automate many of the sale barn processes that are currently still done manually, like manifesting and individually sale-tagging cattle as they arrive.

“In two to five years, I still want to be doing what I’m doing now — doing the best job I can working for farmers and the buyers,” he says. “There are no guarantees (in this business) and everything is a challenge, but you have to stay positive and make the best of it. If it was easy, everybody would try to do it.”

Originally from a dairy and beef farm in southern Ontario, Lilian Schaer is a freelance agricultural journalist and communications professional based near Guelph, Ont. You can follow her on Twitter @foodandfarming.

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