The biggest day of the year: Ins and outs of production-sale planning

A production sale is the biggest day of the year for seedstock producers. To capture full potential of their program, ranch owners must develop a solid plan of action.

Morning breaks while dust fills the air as a steady line of traffic flows down the normally silent road. Trucks pulling trailers varying distances, from crossing a county line to several state borders, slowly pull through the ranch gate and park. Cattle pens at the back of the barn begin to fill with an assortment of cattlemen and women as they meticulously sort through lots. Some are after a bull to responsibly mate with a set of heifers while others look for a powerhouse to pair with large-framed crossbred veterans for a feedyard king.

The day ticks on and the barn begins to fill as seats are claimed around the sale ring. Once-shiny sale catalogs are now clinched and dog-eared in knowledgeable hands, marked with notes and filled with personal observations on individual cattle. Then it begins. The low-rumble bass of the auctioneer's voice fills the barn as sharp cries from ringmen cut the air and bids are placed. Lot after lot, cattle are sold, and lot after lot, the ranch owners hold their breath until the final hammer falls. Hands are shook and laughs are shared as lines form at the settlement table and trucks wait in turn to load out new purchases.

Evening takes over the afternoon sky as the ranch owners slowly breathe a sigh of relief when the last trailer pulls across the bumpy road and exits the ranch gate. They made it through sale day; they made it through another year.

Plan of action

"Sale-day preparation begins for the next year the day after a sale ends," says Ben Spitzer of Spitzer Agri Business. The cattleman is no stranger to the production-sale business, with deep roots in his family's Brangus seedstock operation in northwest South Carolina and a resume that includes marketing beef genetics of multiple breeds in different segments of the industry. 

According to Spitzer, the first step to having a successful production sale is to develop a solid plan and stick to it.

"Developing a plan with set deadlines is going to help the year run more smoothly," he says. "Start by making a checklist of things that need to be accomplished by a certain time, whether it be ad development or data collection."

One of the primary things needed on a plan of action is data management. Actual weights to turn into breed associations for expected progeny differences (EPDs), ultra sounds, scrotal circumferences and semen tests are just a brief look at the list of data seedstock producers need to collect to market their cattle.

"Having these tasks laid out to accomplish throughout the year is going to help producers make progress and not wait until the last minute," Spitzer says. "It's also going to help with budgeting."

When it comes to budgeting for a herd, he recommends breaking down costs to a per-head basis. This allows producers to see more clearly what type of investments they are making.

"Look at it as cost per head for promotion when it comes to budgeting things such as catalog production, videos, photos and the year's publication advertising program," Spitzer recommends. "Leave a little wiggle room in case an overlooked opportunity presents itself or prices change, but for the most part, it is best to sit down and make an advertising budget for the year and stick to it. Generally, after a few years of doing this, a producer can get very accurate on budget planning."

Once that is done, come up with a marketing plan specific to who your customers are and who you want to reach. According to Spitzer, the bulk of a producer's customer base is typically going to be in a localized area, making it wise to spend advertising dollars on region-specific outlets. However, if a producer wants to expand the program's reach, national outlets must be utilized.

"The challenge of targeting customers will never end," Spitzer says. "Because of that, money needs to be focused on the known customer basis as well as a specific new desired target."

The key to successful marketing is being consistent in the image of your program. For example, if an operation has built its herd around calving ease, it shouldn't be utilizing its resources on a carcass or growth marketing plan one year and  calving-ease genetics the next.

"It is important producers realize they can't be all things to all people and stick to what they're good at for a consistent plan from year to year," Spitzer claims. "Also, if a seedstock producer is going to utilize an online auction service, it's important to have that information on all advertising materials to create recognition with the audience."

In the people business

There's a common saying that goes along the lines of, "Seedstock producers are in the people business before they're in the genetics business." Reputation, honesty, quality and sincerity are essential in building loyal customers. This means placing an emphasis on customer service to earn respect and trust for a long-term successful relationship.

"Developing and backing a warranty program is a good place to start, but sometimes it's necessary to go above and beyond documented agreements to do right by your customer," Spitzer says. "Do what you can to provide solutions for them."

While it's common for customers to come to seedstock producers with questions about which cattle would best benefit their program, some even go the extra step and consult with their customers about other factors, Spitzer says. This can range from a marketing program for their calves to developing vaccine and mineral supplementation programs.

Above all, it's the personal connection that has the most impact. Spitzer recommends breeders take time to make personal notes about customers throughout the year so when speaking to them, the producers can jog their memory on the customers" program focus and set them apart individually.

"This is how friendships with customers are formed," he says. "Because at the end of the day, caring about your customers" program is more than caring about their cattle."

Getting the timing down

The ever-growing ability of technology has been a huge game changer for the beef industry, and producers willing to keep up with it can expand their marketing greatly. One key trend has been videoing individual sale lots.

"Having individual video footage on sale cattle can be a huge benefit if done correctly," Spitzer says. "It allows customers to get a more realistic view of cattle prior to sale day and is especially beneficial for sight-unseen orders."

According to him, it's best to consult a professional for video work so that cattle can be presented in a way that best represents the program. Because of the editing process and the need to be current, he recommends filming no later than two weeks prior to the sale, preferably a month.

Once the videos are complete, the most efficient way to get footage to customers is through the operation's website. Developing a good, professional website is a simple way to give customers easy access to a vast amount of relevant information. However, keeping the website updated and fresh must be done on a regular basis to keep customers coming back, he says. This can be as simple as making sure new pictures are uploaded to even streaming in news from online beef-industry publications.

"Websites need to be unique and standout," Spitzer explains. "They also need to focus on your program and personality of your operation."

Another element that requires proper timing is the mailing of sale catalogs. Hitting mailboxes in a time window that allows for adequate review time while keeping the information fresh in customers" heads is a fine dance.

"Shoot for three weeks out; two to four works well. Any earlier, customers can forget about it, but any later and they don't get it in time to make good decisions," he says.  "They need the opportunity to be educated about the offering before they come to the sale."

Bringing it all together

With so many elements needed to simultaneously come together for a successful sale day, it's easy to let things slip through the cracks.

"No matter how much preparation goes into putting on a production sale, I don't think anyone is ever fully prepared. But if producers take time to develop a plan and keep perfecting it over the years, their biggest day of the year is going to come together more smoothly," Spitzer concludes. "Being strategic and systematic in all factors from the smallest to biggest details that impact the sale will help maximize success."