Disease outbreak or not, people in agriculture still need to do business. Sale barns and auction companies are finding ways to continue operating, even in the midst of limitations to slow the spread of coronavirus that make it hard to do business in a normal manner.

“Agriculture provides critical and essential functions for all Americans. We recognize this and understand that livestock markets and ag auction sales still need to happen,” North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said in a statement on March 18. “There are currently over 100 ag auction sales scheduled for the next two months. We understand the need but ask that certain precautions are taken to mitigate the risk.”

The North Dakota Ag Department asked that auction companies consider the size of their crowds and the density at which they’d be confined during a sale in determining action.

Most livestock sale barns in the region have decided to continue operating, though most have asked that people limit their time in the crowd if they don’t need to be there.

“We’re kind of encouraging that if you don’t have anything to do with selling or buying, we’d just assume you don’t come,” said Steve Hellwig, co-owner of Hub City Livestock in Aberdeen, S.D.

Buyers, of course, are welcome, but Hellwig said even sellers should come, watch their cattle sell, pick up their check and go home.

The number of people at Hub City’s sales will be more than 10, Hellwig said, but there is seating there for many people to attend and still stay 6 feet apart.

“Nobody needs to be sitting on anybody’s laps,” he said.

Hub City’s March 25 sale was expected to have about 6,000 head of cattle, following only 600 the week prior when the cattle market, along with other commodities and the stock market, had been hit hard. But ranchers need to move their older calves as calving gets underway, and Hellwig said they’ve been waiting a few weeks for the market to come back.

“The market has made a sharp turn north here,” he said.

Hellwig said people who want to watch sales to monitor the market or for entertainment can find many auctions, including Hub City’s online. Check sale barns’ website for more details. Many broadcast on dvauction.com. He said people also can call the barn for a market report.

“We’re glad to let you know what’s going on,” he said.

The Steffes Group is one of the auctions in the region that has moved to online-only bidding. (From https://steffesgroup.com)
The Steffes Group is one of the auctions in the region that has moved to online-only bidding. (From https://steffesgroup.com)
While most sale barns have kept operating as close to normal as possible, many machinery and land auction companies have discontinued live, on-site auctions for the time being. Some sales have been postponed, while others have moved more toward online bidding or phone bidding, with few or no people in attendance at a live auction.

The Steffes Group, which last year put on 525 auctions in eight states, has moved its spring auctions entirely to online-only bidding.

“As of Monday the 16th of March, we decided to go exclusively online only with our live on site auctions,” said Max Steffes, West Fargo site leader for Steffes Group. “Certainly a tough decision to make, but in retrospect, the right one.”

Because Steffes Group has been doing online-only auctions for 11 years, Steffes said it was just a logistics issue in setting up what had been supposed to be live, on-site auctions for online bidding.

Steffes said the hardest part has been for farmers who for years had been looking forward to their retirement auction as a short of retirement party, a celebration of their career in farming.

But online-only bidding hasn’t changed the price outlook. Steffes said buyers seem to be embracing the format, with 100 new registrations on the Steffes website per day.

Max Steffes of Steffes Group says machinery prices have stayed strong, even as the auction company has moved to online-only sales amid the coronavirus pandemic. (From https://steffesgroup.com)
Max Steffes of Steffes Group says machinery prices have stayed strong, even as the auction company has moved to online-only sales amid the coronavirus pandemic. (From https://steffesgroup.com)
“As far as prices, things have been hanging in there,” he said, noting that machinery prices remained “hot and robust” even as the stock market fell. “The machinery market has been relatively insulated from all of that.”

The land market, he said, also has been strong, though not as strong as the market for “pedigree” equipment at retirement auctions.

In the long run, Steffes says he believes this period of online-only auctions may accelerate the growth of buyers willing to bid online. Even so, Steffes Group would like to be able to go back to holding live auctions on June 1.

“Our hope and prayer is that this thing quiets down to some degree by then and we’re able to get up and running just like we would have otherwise,” Steffes said.