Why do we have to sort calves the way we do at presorted sales?

Occasionally our competitors promote the idea that we get too tough or too particular, when grading calves into the top cut pens. They sort for speed we sort for accuracy. Wyatt Earp used to say “Fast is fine, but accuracy is final”. Some of the buyers think we could pay even more attention and be even more accurate.

When I say buyers most people think of order buyers. But what about local buyers? Maybe they do the buying themselves, or have an order buyer buy for them. They may get several loads of calves. How do they view the performance of these calves over the winter?

What happens when they bring those calves back for resale later in the year? Did most of them grow together at the same rate? Or did some get fatter and shorter, some grow tall and slim, and some not grow at all?

One interesting sale last fall was a Black and Black Baldie Bred heifer sale. The majority of these long yearling heifers were bought as calves for top dollar, here in Assiniboia at presorted sales previously. I had graded the heifers into top cut heifer pens, at our special black calf sales. Now over a year later, these heifers came back through the ring to be sold by auction again. Close to eight hundred head of them. Everyone at the sale was amazed at how uniform these heifers still were. Why the amazement? That is what we strive for when we grade the calves at every sale. That is why people buy here with confidence.

If I don’t think they will make good replacement quality heifers, when I am grading them, they get graded into feeding quality pens instead of breeding quality pens. Not everyone sees them exactly as I do of course; grading cattle is not an exact science. I strive for accuracy though, and it is as accurate as I can get it. I keep in mind while grading them that if I would not want to buy that heifer for a replacement heifer she goes into a pen for someone to feed out. I always have orders for them. So if I don’t buy them, I am often a runner up bidder.

Still it was gratifying for me to be reselling these heifers that had grown out at the same rate. It wasn’t exact. There were a few singles that no longer fit the group. But less than ten that don’t fit, out of eight hundred head a year later, is still over 99% accurate. Obviously we did the job right in the first place.

What if we had buried some mediocre calves in with the good ones originally? Some old style short pot bellied ones. Or some narrow butted, cat hammed ones. Or some curly haired, black Saler cross, or Limo cross heifers, or some slick haired heifers, what then? They wouldn’t have fit the next year would they? What if you came to buy, and we had tried to rebury that type in with the ones you wanted? They wouldn’t have stayed buried would they?

The stands were full. Everyone at the sale, as well as the customers reselling these cattle, would have known that we had slid some undesirables into the top cut calf pens in the first place.

Another thing I find interesting about bred heifer sales. I usually have good orders on bred heifers. There are two ways to lose an order. One is to abuse it. The other is to not use it. I use it. Some people who come to buy heifers get P.O’d because I am bidding against them.

Why is it that people want me to bid indiscriminately on their cattle when they are selling, but don’t want me bidding against them on the cattle they are trying to buy? What goes around usually comes around, although lots of these cattle do not come around here again. They may be fed in Ontario or Alberta. We never see those cattle again. However, those people are still repeat buyers. They see the job we do. They look at those cattle everyday until they are finished. Will they have the confidence to pay top dollar for cattle out of here again? Yes they will, if the first group they bought was sorted to grow together. That is one reason why more cattle are shipped to Ontario from here every year. There are some things that a person selling calves may not know. When a cattle feeder is finishing cattle he wants the whole pen to finish at the same time. Even a backgrounder may have them contracted for a specific time period, at a specific weight. How can either of these feeders achieve their goals if the cattle are not uniform for quality and weight going in to their feedlot?

It’s a fact that pens of cattle sorted with a two hundred pound weight difference, and of different frame sizes and varying quality will sell to someone, at some price at every sale. However, buyers definitely pay more for uniformity.

Sellers are usually happy with the sale of their cattle in general. They are happy with their net cheque as a rule. We seldom get any complaints from anyone about what their calves averaged at a sale. But sometimes someone will be irate over what one calf sold for. Why did it bring fifty, sixty or seventy cents? Obviously I didn’t think it fit with the rest or it would have been graded in with the others to begin with. Some calves just don’t fit with anything else. Years ago when cattle were bought on the farm that calf would have been cut out and left at home. The only other option left to the buyer would be to bid low enough on the whole group to include the undesirables. In the auction ring they are cut out and sold separately. The story usually goes like this “If I had known that it was only going to bring sixty cents I would have taken it home (or left it at home)”. We assumed that if it is at the sale, you wanted to sell it. There are always five to seven professional buyers in attendance (even more at the bigger sales) as well as the local buyers. If none of them was willing to bid over sixty or seventy cents, or whatever the case may be, then that is what the calf was worth. What you or I think is irrelevant really. If one of the major buyers did not buy it, which means that none of the major feedlots could use it.

Just because they are singles doesn’t mean they sell for less. At most sales the high selling calf or calves of the day was a single, or group of two or three fancy calves. I won’t buy lower quality cattle at the same price as the good ones. Neither will anyone else. How long would we be able to do that and stay viable? Quality improvement is the responsibility of the raisers of those cattle. It is not my responsibility to see that these types bring as much as the rest.

Sometimes the disgruntled seller decides to sell somewhere else next year because we didn’t get him what he thought this one calf should have brought. Or because he thinks we should have buried that odd calf in a load, even if it didn’t fit.

If he takes his cattle to a yard that will slide his tail enders in where they do not fit, he will find other peoples tail enders buried in with his good ones. The whole sale average will be lower because of the rough sort. So instead of taking a loss on that one or two calves that don’t fit, he will take a loss on his whole consignment. Does this make sense? Stop and think about it. Why get mad over one calf, and go someplace where the whole average or net cheque is less?

One consignor accused me of finding something wrong with at least one calf every time he brought calves in. Why did he load a calf with a lump or a bad leg, or eye, or whatever every year? Did he think I wouldn’t spot it? If he left it at home I wouldn’t see it. Did he think I would try to hide it in with other calves? Would that be fair to the other consignors or buyers?

Roy Rutledge

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