Tips for putting on the best bull sale yet
January 22, 2016
Being ready for a bull sale involves a lot more than sorting bulls and sending out a catalog. Sale preparations generally take all year, according to Buddy Westphal, a Charolais breeder near Polson, Montana.
"We have a one-day bull sale that takes the other 364 days to prepare for."
Brent Thiel (Lindskov-Thiel Ranch, near Isabel, South Dakota, agrees.
"(After one sale,) you start thinking about the next one, and the services you provide," says Thiel.
“We have a one-day bull sale that takes the other 364 days to prepare for. Those 364 days are actually more important than sale day, particularly for customer contact.” Buddy Westphal, Charolais breeder
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"Those 364 days are actually more important than sale day, particularly for customer contact," says Westphal. "I deliver the bulls personally, so I am going to all the ranches after the sale, meeting their cow herd, as well as their family. That enables me to communicate with them about everything — from their breeding program to their marketing program — because I want them to be successful all the way through," he says.
"We provide delivery of bulls and try to visit most of our customers during the summer or fall," says Thiel. "We also provide a feeder calf marketing assistance program for customers' calves and also for breeding females. I feel that being candid and honest with our customers is absolutely necessary for any seedstock breeder. We want to have their trust," he says.
Jon and Breezy Millar of Millar Angus Ranch, near Sturgis, South Dakota, recently started having their bull sale at their ranch. "In previous years we held our sale at Philip Livestock Auction, but for our sale last February we built our own sale facility. It was nice having it right here, rather than hauling the bulls 120 miles," says Breezy.
The Millar sale is the third Wednesday in February each year, with their second home sale coming up. "Last year we had a lot of extra things to do because we were still finishing the new sale barn, so it will be a little easier the second time around," she says.
"I want customers to be able to come and see our cow herd and where the bulls are produced, and know what our program is," says Westphal. "We're coming up to my 48th bull sale. The first four years I hauled bulls to a livestock auction for our sale, until we built our own sale barn. But for over 40 years the customers come here, to see the ranch that they built! They can see our progress. I have some long-time customers, including Husted Ranches from the Big Hole who bought bulls from me all but one year during the 47 sales I've had. They are into the second generation now," says Westphal.
"I have many second and third generation customers; I meet little Johnny when I am delivering bulls and he is 8 years old, then pretty soon he's in college and I'm visiting with him about what he's planning to study; and then pretty soon he's the one on the seats buying the bulls. I feel it is important to go meet the customers and visit with them all year long," he explains.
The Lindskov-Thiel Ranch is in the northwest central part of South Dakota. "This is big grass country, and we run cattle on the Cheyenne and the Standing Rock Indian Reservations. Many of our customers are within a 120-mile radius of our ranch, and we have some far-away customers as well," says Thiel.
The next sale, in April 2016, will be their 35th annual sale. "We are blessed with a lot of repeat buyers and have a very strong local and regional market. We've had up to 11 ranches near Isabel buy bulls at the sale. We sell Charolais and Angus bulls, usually a total of 200 bulls at the sale and we keep additional bulls around to provide to customers during the summer as needed," says Thiel. About 2/3 of the bulls sold are Charolais, and 1/3 of them are Angus.
FEEDING/GROWING THE BULLS
"We don't sell our bulls until the third Saturday in April each year, so this gives us a longer period of time to develop them," says Thiel. "We grow them out in 20-acre pastures or lots. We feed a lower mega-cal energy ration than many people do, with the ration based on a ground corn cob pellet that's about 13.5 to 14 percent protein and 43 to 46 mega-cal energy. There's a 200 to 300 foot difference in elevation from the top of the lot to the bottom, so the young bulls get some exercise moving up and down those hills. This enhances their longevity," he says.
On the Millar Ranch, Jon takes care of developing the bulls. "We try to grow them, rather than get them too fleshy, too fast. We want them to gain to meet their genetic potential without being fat. People don't like to buy fat bulls but they also don't want a lean one. Our customers tell us that the bulls go out and do their job and hold together well, and come back in the fall in good condition. I think this is due to the fact that we develop them properly," he says.
"We sell 2-year-old bulls, so I don't talk about how we feed them, I like to talk about how we grow them," says Westphal. "We don't calve early because we don't want frozen ears or tails. Since we don't try to sell yearlings, we don't need to push them. We wean these calves and have them in a drylot situation until they quit bawling, feeding a roughage ration. We don't pump a bunch of hot feed into these young bulls (that might founder them or get them so fat they can't waddle up the hills). Early spring we turn them out to pasture instead," says Westphal.
"These bulls have learned about life in the real world, climbing mountains and walking a mile to water, through the rocks. When we're trailing them many miles to pasture we can see which ones can travel well enough to be bulls, and which ones won't make the grade. The ones that are dragging along at the tail end, we cut them off and haul them to the slaughter sale," he says.
"The nice thing about 2-year-old bulls is that what you see is what you'll get. If they don't have muscle/stoutness by then, you know they won't be a bull. If they are too short and squatty, you know they aren't going to grow enough later to change that. It's easy to judge them. If they don't have good feet and legs, or enough scrotal size by then, we cull them, before we create the sale catalog."
"The nice thing about keeping them the extra year is that if one of them is not going to make a bull, I want him to show that to me before he leaves my place, rather than find it out after the fact. I don't want my customer to call and tell me that a bull is not going to work out," says Westphal.
For the Millar Angus sale, Breezy takes care of all the advertising.
"I graduated from South Dakota State University with an advertising major. When I place my advertising I like to utilize a variety of different media — local radio stations that are geared toward the ag sector, and regional ag papers like Tri-State Livestock news and a couple others," she says. This way there's more chance to reach potential customers.
"In college I was taught to never buy advertising based on our own personal tendencies and preferences, but to think more in terms of what our customers might see or hear. Just going by my own tendencies would not be sufficient, so I try to think about the customers when I place the ads," she says.
"We use other avenues, as wel, like our website, social media and our quarterly Millar Angus Bull-e-tin. This is a fun newsletter that features customers, photos and things that have been happening around the ranch. I also handle the graphic design and layout of all of our ads and sale catalog," Breezy says. Prior to the annual advertising there is also a lot of time involved inputting cattle records with the Angus Association, and getting all the information compiled for the sale catalog.
The best advertising is always a satisfied customer.
"If you can keep your old customers happy, you don't have to go hunting for new customers," says Westphal. "I believe in advertising well ahead of the bull sale. Today, with the cost of bulls and the investment to be made, ranchers are not going to just pick up a newspaper and notice that there's a bull sale this weekend, and decide then to go spend $50,000 for bulls. They want to do some homework first," says Westphal.
So he tries to send them a catalog and talk with them about what they need and what will work best for them.
"Early advertising is important, to have that time to communicate and get a catalog to them—or even photos and videos. Many people are interested in the numbers. But many of the numbers in my opinion need a lot of explanation. We have volumes of records, numbers and statistics for each bull, but I feel that how the bull ranks in our herd is more important than hypothetical estimates. It pays to check them out, and talk to the breeder. A good seedstock producer will be honest with you and wants you to have success with his bulls. The breeder will know more about each individual animal than the numbers can tell you," he says.
Communication with customers is part of "advertising" and an ongoing process. "The best way to keep customers from year to year is to have the merchandise they want, a solid bull that will do the job. It also helps to know what each customer needs, because each operation is different. "I have customers whose calving pasture is 5000 acres, and other customers who calve in a 100 foot barn. I have some customers who run 25 cows, and some that run 10,000 cows. This is where communication helps–looking at their ranch and their operation, and figuring out which bloodlines will work best for them."
PREPARING THE BULLS
About 6 weeks before the sale, Millar bulls are clipped. "At that time we also take pictures of about 20% of the bulls for our sale catalog. We like to have a lot photos, to give a good representation of the bulls," Jon says.
Then a couple days before the sale the bulls are brought in and cleaned up. "We get all the mud and dirt off them, and do any touchups necessary on the clipping, so they can be presented well. It's like buying a new car; people want to buy a clean one! It makes a difference if they look nice," says Jon.
"That way, the morning of the sale all we have to do is run them in and blow out their hair real quick and they are good to go," Breezy says.
"When we pen and display bulls the day of the sale, we like to pen them by sire group and size," Jon says. "We not only have the various sire groups together, but they are also grouped according to size. Weight of these bulls on sale day will usually average anywhere from 1000 pounds (for the younger ones) up to 1350 (for a calf that's 2 months older). We don't put a smaller one in with larger bulls. If you have a 1000-pound bull in a pen of six 1300-pound bulls, the small one looks out of place and is at a disadvantage when people are looking at them," he explains.
"We try to have about 6 to 8 bulls to a pen, so people can get a good look at them, and not be crowded. There's room to see the bulls move, and people can walk around amongst them and get a good look at them," Jon says.
FACILITIES AND EFFICIENCY
It helps to have good facilities where cattle can be handled safely, quickly, and quietly.
"You want to get the bulls through the sale ring efficiently," says Westphal. "We sell 90 bulls per hour. You need good facilities, to get them in and out. We aren't dragging our sale out by telling stories about the grandmother or ancestors of a bull. We want the bulls to sell themselves; we want our customers to be able to look at them and make up their minds before the sale," he says.
"If buyers have had a chance to look at the catalog and at the bulls themselves, and talk to me about certain bulls, those selection decisions have already been made and the bulls can go through a sale very quickly. This is a busy world today. No one wants to spend 5 hours at a bull sale when they can get it done in two hours," Westphal says.
Millars have their bulls on display right outside their sale barn in a large lot that's used for various things throughout the year. On sale day, however, it becomes multiple pens. "We use free-standing continuous fence panels, with gates, to create our bull pens. People can go right outside the door and view the bulls, walk among them, and make evaluations. During the sale, it's a video auction. We started doing this when we moved the sale here to our ranch," Breezy says.
"A couple weeks prior to the sale, the bulls are all videoed by DV Auction. Then we upload the videos to our website so people can view any bull they want to look at online. This went very well for last year's sale. Video auctions have become popular; people can view the bulls online ahead of the sale," Breezy explains.
"The video sale saves a lot of labor and leg work on sale day. We don't need a crew bringing the bulls in, taking them back out and re-penning them. The bulls just stay in their pens and the audience watches video screens in the sale barn. DV Auction supplies us with three large-screen TVs that we set up in front of the auction block and I put a mock sale ring around them," she says.
The bulls can be viewed outside, then during the sale the customers watch them on the video screen as each bull comes up for bidding. "After the sale we just remove all the panels and use that space again as a spare lot for many purposes," she says.
Having the video auction, rather than putting each bull through the ring saves a lot of time and effort and reduces the amount of help needed. "We have a couple guys who work for us full time, and last year they were able to watch the sale rather than having to be out in the pen or pushing bulls through. It's a lot easier on the help and on the bulls," says Breezy.
"Over the past several years, we went to a lot of video sales, to see how it worked and how the customers received them. The only question people had when we decided to do ours this way was, 'Can we see the bulls?' and we told them the bulls would be right outside the door."
"It helps having our sale at the ranch so people can see how we handle our cattle, and the facilities we have, for working the bulls through," says Westphal. "We have a Silencer chute with scale underneath, and all the data goes directly into the computer. Modernization is essential, to handle 250 2-year-old bulls. It's quite a process and a person needs good facilities to do it. Over the past 48 years we've developed something that is easily workable for us and our bulls," he says.
The Lindskov-Thiel sale is held on the ranch, and has had the same auctioneer, Lynn Weishaar, for all 34 years. "Now his son, Seth Weishaar is also involved in our sale. The bulls are run through the ring. We don't do a video sale; we like to have the buyers see the bulls in the ring to look at their conformation, how they move, and their temperament," says Thiel. Video sales have become popular but there is still a lot of value in being able to see the bulls themselves.
Their ranch has one full-time employee, Blake Connor (and his wife Kate) and hires extra help for a few days before and during the sale. "Blake and Kate Connor have been with us more than a decade and they are really good help—the backbone of the operation. My wife Nancy does the records and accounting, and also clerks the sale. I couldn't do this without my crew!" Thiel says.
Bertolotto Real Estate and Auction, a local company that Jon auctioneers for, helps clerk the Millar sale and provides some office help. "This is really nice, too. We try to not give Jon or I a specific job on sale day because we are busy enough that day with all the little details that come up," Breezy says. "The main thing for creating a successful sale is paying attention to all the little details. This makes it all goes smoothly, and helps us present the bulls."
SALE DAY AND CUSTOMER APPRECIATION
Part of having a successful sale is catering to the customers who come. "We offer donuts and coffee in the morning prior to the sale, while people are viewing the bulls, and then serve a complimentary ribeye steak sandwich lunch for anyone who attends," Breezy says.
"After lunch you can enjoy a piece of homemade pie, made by one of the local women's auxiliaries. I have a good friend who owns a catering business, and she handles the lunch. It seems like I'm busy enough on sale day; I don't want to have to tackle cooking the lunch, too," Breezy says. Putting on a sale is a team effort, and if some of the tasks can be delegated to good team members it makes things much easier.
"After our sale, we have a Bar-BQ and social affair at our house," says Westphal. "We want all the customers to come and meet with buyers who are contracting calves; and visit with the other customers who are using our bulls. Ranchers like to talk about what works and which bloodlines they are using. People who come to our sale make lasting friends. It's interesting how someone from South Dakota can meet someone from Oregon and can't wait to see each other here again every year," he says. A good social time after the bull sale can be another key to having a successful sale and building a lasting relationship with customers.
Brent Thiel's ranch partner Les Lindskov and his family are a big part of their operation. Both families go all-out to create an enjoyable, successful sale atmosphere. On sale day Les's wife Marcia serves lunch, and then hors d'oeuvres after the sale.
"Then we have a steak dinner at Isabel that evening giving our customers a chance to interact with each other and take a short break from their calving," Thiel says.
"Some people come a long distance and stay here the night before. Because we are in a remote area, we sometimes house up to 100 people the night before the sale. The Lindskov family has two beautiful guest hunting lodges and we have people stay there, as well as in our homes, and in the local motel," he says.
The biggest tip he has for putting on a successful sale is the importance of earning trust and respect. F