Back to basics: ‘Selling one animal at a time’
The COVID-19 virus has affected many people, and cattle farmers aren’t immune. Lisa Zirkle, owner of Shenandoah Valley Simmentals in Quicksburg, Va., just north of Harrisonburg, typically conducts on-farm auctions twice each year; however, just before her spring sale in April 2020, large gatherings across the commonwealth were discouraged by the state’s leaders. Result: no on-farm sale for her Shenandoah’s Shining Stars.
“It knocked us for a loop,” Zirkle said. “Sale preparations begin months in advance. We thought perhaps the virus would subside, and we’d be able to hold an open house and offer cattle via private treaty later this spring. But it’s too late now.”
Typically, she holds auctions in a large, Civil-War-era barn along with an auctioneer, ringmen, sale management, internet auction personnel, photographers, caterers, on-site buyers and the farm crew. For buyers all over the United States, the sale is set up with three large television screens showing video and audio of the cattle offered. On her website www.shenandoahvalleysimmentals.com, buyers can view videos of the cattle prior to bidding as well.
Regular customers know the quality of cattle offered by Shenandoah Valley Simmentals. With about 300 brood cows, Zirkle offers purebred and SimAngus genetics, females and bulls. “Our forte is raising predictable, productive and profitable cattle that excel on fescue and are backed by a breeding program of more than 40 years,” she said.
She likes to call her cattle the “keepin’ kind” because of their calm dispositions, longevity, and excellent Expected Progeny Differences, or EPDs, which is a measure of the genetic merit of the animal.
Zirkle said the auctions are expensive to hold and require a lot of behind the scene work, “but it’s how you get the best prices. It’s the best way to showcase my operation.”
Allied Genetic Resources in Normal, Ill., has a sales management team who handles auctioneer procurement, ring services, catalog preparation, cattle videos, and helps build a customer base for Zirkle. LiveAuctions TV in Oklahoma City, Okla., handles internet bidding.
To make up for the loss of a spring auction, Zirkle has been selling cattle privately where she shows and offers them to potential buyers by appointment only. “They haven’t bought what they would have at auction simply because it’s hard to beat competitive bidding,” she said. But I’ve been very happy with what we’ve been getting. Our main repeat customers are testament to the quality of cattle we produce, and even in these uncertain times, folks are willing to pay for top-quality genetics. The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ holds true in the cattle business.
“We’ve gained many life-long friends over the years through private sales. That’s how I got started, selling one animal at a time,” she continues, “but holding an auction has raised our exposure to a national level.”
She has other ways of marketing as well. For several years, Zirkle has been offering bulls at Springlake Stockyard in Moneta, Va., and this year participated in its first Southwest Virginia Seedstock Bull sale. From participating in this arena, she has developed loyal, repeat customers for her bulls.
In addition to cattle, Zirkle raises goats, sheep and heritage breed hogs. She grows fresh heirloom vegetables and fruits in a large garden too.
She used to market her products at a farmer’s market, but it was too time-consuming. To add value to her farming operation, Zirkle purchased an old country store built in the 1950s that stands about one-quarter of a mile from her family’s homeplace. She bought it in December 2019, and in January 2020, began the retail venture.
“The idea is to create a one-room country store where homemade sandwiches and soups, and other country fares are offered, for example, salt fish, lard, root beer floats, etc., as well as modern staples,” Zirkle says.
In addition to pork and beef, she plans to slowly add seasonal farm products such as brown eggs, pears, peaches, apples, blackberries, plums, and a variety of vegetables. “But shortly after opening, COVID-19 hit,” Zirkle says. “The plans to move forward with our offerings continue, but at a slower pace. We don’t know what to expect from our leaders, so we’re taking one day at a time.”
COVID-19 restrictions were expanded on Friday, May 29, 2020, when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all people in public places had to wear masks for protection, which meant her store employees would need to wear them as well. Patrons were required to wear masks, too, and she said many refused.
If gathering restrictions are loosened by Northam, the optimistic Zirkle plans to hold her fall sale in November 2020, and she hopes that happens.
“The quality of the cattle is as good as it’s ever been,” she said. “When making genetic progress, each generation of cattle should be better than the prior. I look forward to a bigger and better sale this fall.
“The farm is my bread and butter,” she added.
In her 15 years of holding on-farm auctions, Zirkle shares the following tips to other producers considering holding one:
• Do your homework! Holding an on-farm sale isn’t easy. “It takes a lot of coordination and preparation to get the sale catalog, promotional material and website ready, to get the cattle in sale condition, perform necessary health tests, and prepare health papers so cattle can be shipped across state lines,” Zirkle says;
• Line up basic amenities for a large crowd including parking, a sale facility, seating, restrooms, a public address system, lighting, load-out facility, decorations, and food;
• Contact sales management including clerks, auctioneering staff, ringmen, photographers, videographers, cattle clippers, veterinarians and others; and
• “You can’t do this alone. Without the help of dedicated folks eager to do whatever it takes, holding a sale isn’t possible,” she says. “Conducting a sale is a team effort from start to finish.”
Holding an on-farm auction requires patience and organization. “It takes a lot of foresight and planning to get everything just right,” Zirkle said. “If the cattle and/or the sale facility are outdoors, pray for good weather, for once committed to a particular day and the wheels are set in motion, it’s nearly impossible to change plans.”
Even with all the extra effort required, she says it’s worth it. Not only can on-farm auctions increase the seller’s profits, and geographic customer base, but they can offer a few other benefits too. “I really enjoy talking ‘cow’ with cattlemen and women,” Zirkle said, “and I’ve met some remarkable people in this industry. I’ve also learned tips from other breeders who hold their own auctions and have increased my marketing arena dramatically. Networking is a very important part of this business.
“It’s all about raising a top-quality product, knowing who is looking for similar genetics, and reaching common ground regarding the deal,” she said. “With all the craziness in the world these days, it’s rewarding to be a part of an industry where folks, for the most part, are honest, have high integrity and aren’t afraid of hard work.”
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