The village of Brussels in rural southwestern Ontario is known for two things not typically mentioned in the same sentence: its quaint Victorian charm and a bustling auction market.
Brussels Livestock hosts three sales weekly, with fed cattle and butcher bulls and cows selling Tuesdays, an assortment of veal calves, sheep and goats on Thursdays, and stocker calves and yearlings on Fridays. The week ending June 24 saw 1,599 head of cattle and 971 lambs and goats on offer. Another 600 head were already booked in for the regular Friday sale on July 1.
Owners Mark and Cindy Ferraro moved their family from Georgetown to Brussels six years ago to partner with former owner, Len Gamble, and took over the business a year later.
“We had sold our farm machinery business and were looking for something our whole family could be involved in when we saw that Len was looking to retire,” Ferraro says.
Gamble had breathed new life into the market during his years since moving from the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1990 and, true to form, was a great mentor to the Ferraros, making sure clients stuck with them as they learned the livestock business from the ground up.
It proved to be a perfect fit for the Ferraros with more than enough work to go around for them and their five children between the market and their farming operation that has grown to include crops, a cow herd and several feedlots.
“It’s two things we really enjoy, cattle and farming, so it’s not really work for us at all,” Ferraro adds.
With livestock sales running three days a week year-round and special sales spring and fall, farm equipment sales are more of a sideline than part of the regular business schedule. Ferraro still deals in machinery a bit when he’s out and about looking at cattle, and farmers happen to have pieces they want to sell or buy. The Ferraros do hope to have some consignment farm equipment auctions at the market, but that was out of the question this spring because they had committed to hosting the Livestock Markets Association of Canada’s convention and Canadian livestock auctioneering championships in May. The community, county, local businesses, consignors and buyers all stepped up to help them pull it off with flying colours.
That same approach — following through on their word and doing their best — has been behind building trust with clients and ultimately a successful business.
Ferraro credits the market’s strong buyer base of packing plants in Canada and the U.S., volume buyers for feedlots, and lots of loyal local buyer support for the market’s success as well.
“We have a very diversified farming base, predominantly Amish and Mennonite farmers who are sellers and buyers, so we could have 200 to 300 lots going out to different farms after a sale,” Ferraro explains. “Top cattle bring top price, but those second-cut cattle still have to have buyers to bring what they’re worth.”
Sellers have come to know and appreciate that the Ferraros will stand by them to do their best to see that animals bring fair value and represent their interests when dealing with government inspectors.
Ontario’s Livestock Community Sales Act and Regulations covers licensing of community sales of consigned livestock to ensure financial stability of the operation, promote orderly marketing, and provide an inspection system for disease control and monitoring animal handling. Appointed inspectors and veterinarians examine livestock, facilities and handling to ensure compliance with the code of practice for each species and any mandated programs.
Brussels Livestock works with three veterinarians and staff to segregate any suspect animals for inspection. If there is a health problem, the veterinarian could sticker an animal to go directly to slaughter, return home with a prescribed treatment regime, or be euthanized.
“We deal with a lot of cull dairy cows and goats, but most producers are now following the fit-for-transport guidelines and sell animals before problems start. The inspectors take training and most are really trying to do the right thing, so it’s a case of gaining experience and practical expertise. I try to help them understand that we aren’t dealing with pets. Farming is a business and businesses put a value on everything. Just because an animal is older doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or just because it walks differently doesn’t mean it’s lame. People have different gaits to their walks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in pain. Some animals do have to be put down because nobody wants problems at the border or a packing plant, but farmers aren’t bad guys out to pull the wool over their eyes. They’re just hard-working families trying to make a living,” Ferraro explains.
“Canada has strict guidelines for animal health and welfare and sometimes it can be challenging to find a happy medium between government and producer,” he adds. “We have been able to accommodate both parties to move forward by talking to the inspector and veterinarians to try to work out alternative solutions.”
Similarly, he says, one of the problems with direct farm-to-packer sales of fed cattle that has become more common over the past decade is the lack of support for sellers if things don’t go right. At least with cattle buying and selling through the auction process, there’s competition to stay current with market prices. Auction markets have auctioneers and auction staff working for the producer to get the current market value, which allows them to buy replacement cattle and maintain a margin.
Ferraro also takes time to provide information to sellers on the best way to market their animals. The market also provides buyers with a sales list, so sellers have an opportunity to showcase their practices by providing information on vaccinations, dehorning, castration, weaning and whether the calves have been started on feed.
Being a mediator between buyers and sellers isn’t the best part of a day, but dealing with issues up front and quickly brings the best results, he says. The goal, as always, is to have happy customers and if at the end of the day that has been accomplished then Ferraro says it has been well worth his time.
During their time partnering with Gamble, the Ferraros began introducing several changes.
First up was additional unloading and loading areas to accommodate the increasing popularity of gooseneck trailers so that trailers wouldn’t be lined up along the road to town. The market has pen space for 3,000 head of cattle and space for 3,500 head in all.
An upgraded government-inspected scale, computerized sales records, and structural and cosmetic renovations round out the improvements in recent years.
The use of manifests to describe animals on the load, their place of loading and destination is new and still voluntary in Ontario. Ferraro says they have made it easier to put together their sales listings and sped up the office work in general. On the flip side, filling out the manifests does mean more work for truckers.
One of the challenges they expect to face in the near future will be finding skilled livestock transporters. Several of the truckers the market has always counted on are nearing retirement.
“It’s going to be tough to replace them because they’ve been doing it for so long and are so good at it that they can move anything anywhere without issues,” Ferraro says.
The volatile cattle market trending lower is giving everyone the jitters lately. Ferraro expects the value of the Canadian dollar will come into play as usual this fall. Every time the dollar goes up, they see their U.S. buyers cut back on purchases. But he expects the strength of Ontario’s corn-fed beef brand will help maintain sales if new export opportunities materialize.
“Farming is a challenge, but farmers are tough and patient and will weather the ups and downs of the livestock business as they always have,” Ferraro says. “Brussels Livestock has been looking after its customers’ best interests for almost 60 years and our family plans on continuing the tradition.”