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Steady As She Goes At Stettler

Stettler Auction Mart is able to lay claim to being one of the first in a wave of country auction markets that sprung up during the early 1950s outside of Calgary and Edmonton. Until then the two public stockyards had served the whole of Alberta for more than half a century with livestock of all descriptions coming and going by rail. As roads and vehicles continued to improve after the Second World War farmers came to appreciate the convenience of selling their stock at markets closer to home.

Just as Stettler Auction Mart founders, Charlie McKay and Ace Pratt, were party to the major shift in the livestock auction sector from the cities to the rural areas and rails to roads, the second generation of the McKay family and current owners, Jim and Marilyn Abel and Greg and Karen Hayden, have been part of a new era that has seen many small auction markets disappear from the countryside. The survivors have had to be nimble to adjust to ever-changing technology, increasing regulation and escalating operating costs while the cattle trade has become increasingly mobile in a global marketplace that is sparking consolidation throughout the meat industry.

Abel speaks highly of the resilience of the entire Canadian beef industry in its response to meeting a string of significant challenges during the past decade. Most recently, it’s the downswing in the number of cow-calf producers and overall cattle numbers that’s on everyone’s mind.

Cattle numbers are fairly steady in the Stettler area, Abel says, though there are getting to be fewer producers with the trend away from mixed farms as operations grow larger and more specialized.

Stettler Auction Mart has introduced a number of changes in recent years to meet the fast-paced changes in the cattle trade, while managing to retain a hometown charm of days gone by. Any day of the week you’ll find people in the concession area lingering over coffee, conversation and a game of cards, while just outside the door is the latest in traceability technology.

The market gave mixed-owner presort sales a try about 10 years ago — around the time when weaner hogs all but disappeared from auction rings. It happened quickly, too, Hayden recalls. Within a couple of years they went from selling hogs twice a week to none at all.

While they quickly discovered that mixed-owner presort sales weren’t for them, the show-alley style of presort sales, with individual ownership of cattle sorted by sex, weight and quality, were well received by ranchers and buyers alike. For eight years now, show-alley pens have been selling at the end of regular sales.

They also run a type of video sale that’s gone over well for trading cattle directly from ranch to ranch or feedlot. A field representative describes and videotapes cattle on the farm, and the video is shown on a screen in the ring at the end of the regular sale. Bids are accepted ringside, online and by phone for the video sales at the mart, and off-site sales where there is high-speed Internet service.

Sheep and goats have made a comeback in the area and regular monthly sales were added to the schedule last January. Horse sales remain steady with about 1,000 moving through the ring each year. Cattle numbers tally around 70,000 a year.

Regular cattle sales run Tuesdays throughout the year with a second weekly sale on Fridays during the fall run from September through December. Then, they’re into the spring run of backgrounded calves from January through May. Bred cow and heifer sales are scheduled weekly from mid- November through to Christmas and monthly in the spring, with herd dispersals and bull/production sales arranged as booked, either at the market or on the farm.

Between Abel and Hayden and four field representatives, farms across a wide belt of the region will receive a visit from Stettler Auction Mart to look at the cattle, offer pricing advice, discuss market trends, and assist with a marketing plan.

They also offer an in-house order buying service. The main facility, constructed in 1953, is still in use

today, however the outside area has been revamped with steel pens on concrete and a closed-in working and holding area annexed to the back of the main building. The catwalk runs straight from the bleacher area, through the annex and across the outdoor pens in a T shape for easy viewing of the cattle. The feed and water pens will accommodate 3,000 head and they can hold about 4,500 head in total.

The ring is designed for easy flow of cattle as they enter from the annex through a gate at the side of the ring, turn around at the far end, and return to exit from a second gate beside the entry gate.

As a participant in Alberta Agriculture’s auction market traceability pilot project, they’ve already installed equipment to read radio frequency identification tags. With large groups tag numbers are picked up by panel readers as cattle pass through a high-flow chute situated between the unloading and penning areas. Small groups are scanned with a three-metre wand from a catwalk over the unloading area. Another high-flow panel system is mounted on the load-out ramp.

Hayden says some changes to the infrastructure and flow of cattle (especially for animals that had to be sorted and retagged) were necessary to accommodate the trial. Further changes will be needed to accommodate a permanent setup once they know what is required, if the scanning of animals at auction markets becomes mandatory.

The Stettler Auction Mart is a member of the Alberta Auction Markets Association and Livestock Markets Association of Canada. As vice-president and now president of the LMAC Abel and his counterparts across Canada have been negotiating with the federal government for a few years now to ensure that traceability requirements are workable and fair to the auction markets.

Hayden and Abel are cautiously optimistic about the current market for cattle. Canadian feedlots are current, and once the contracted cattle are through the system, they expect to see strong demand for calves this fall. In the long term, if the normal cycle holds, there should be enough prosperity in the market to ensure some rebuilding of the national herd.

For more information, contact Stettler Auction Mart at 403-742-2368, or visit www.stettlerauction.ab.ca.

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