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Collins has kept her finger on the pulse of the chow cattle industry from behind the camera, behind the scenes and in the ring. (Photo by Morgan Meisenheimer)

Collins navigates the changing club calf market

When Christy Collins of Frederick, Okla., found herself in what she calls the right place at the right time in the 1990s, she didn't imagine the industry-establishing bulls she would photograph, the growth of the show cattle industry or that she would be marketing over a million dollars of embryos in a single sale.

Collins, an Oklahoma native who is Oklahoma State University educated, began photographing cattle in the 1990s. Her first gig was for the OSU Beef Unit, and her first show calf bull was a Chianina bull that was a full brother to Sugar Ray.

"Back when I started it was different," she says. "There weren't that many people who took pictures. I used a different camera and got started on some of the very best cattle. That was 90 percent of the battle."

Collins graduated when club calf breeding was becoming popular, especially Maines and composite cattle. Collins' goal was always to work with her family, a farm and ranch family trying to make a living in the cattle industry at the time.

"The club calf deal looked like it had a lot of life to it," she says. "I thought I could have a bred heifer sale and market it. We did, and it took off. It was just a turning of the times."

It was at that point producers in the purebred industry and those who had been trying to market bulls were tempted by the rise of the club calf market. The Chianinas, Maines and composites began to dominate the northern states like Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, and she says it translated to the southern state's desire for bred heifers to raise steers.

The pictures were, and remain, key to the club calf industry, and Collins says she was intrigued by the chance to photograph quality cattle and make them look their best. She helped develop Exposure, a photography business, and later expanded into the sale management business.

Heat Wave, Double Stuff, Irish Whiskey, Meyer and Full Flush are among the bulls she photographed that have had a lasting impact on the club calf industry. These bulls marked a high point in the industry, she says, and that height was also marked by the growing pains of an industry learning to navigate challenges as they arose. Genetic defects landed "like a bomb," she says, and was what Collins called a game changer as the industry moved forward.

"We learned that we were breeding cattle so tight in one direction, nature wasn't going to let us do that," she says. "Some of the big bulls I was involved in the marketing was a turning point for the entire industry."

Among the sales she manages is the Embryos on Snow sale in Denver during the National Western Stock Show. She has also helped market the Bases Loaded sale, which takes place at Coors Field. The Embryos on Snow Sale grossed $1.67 million this year, with embryos selling for an average of $2,252, a contrast to the days of selling embryos for between $300 and $1,000.

The days of a less digital world, in which announcing a sale meant waiting 20 days for a catalog to arrive, have changed the game for Collins. While she recognizes people's desire to look at a print ad, digital catalogs and ads and the ability to email have sped up what is now a less expensive task. Due in part to limited technology when Collins began photographing cattle in earnest after college, she was limited to remaining close to Oklahoma City and a close proximity to the airport.

"When we were doing ads and catalogs, we took big, clunky drives called zip drives," she says. "You would have a stack of discs and we would go to the FedEx desk at the airport and go counter to counter to Lubbock, Texas, to the printer."

As the club calf business grew, so did the online cattle sale business. Many online sale services use a racehorse format but Collins recognized the need for a full-service platform. As she managed more sales, she recognized the need for a sale day service and created CCI.Live, which handles the clerking, contact management, invoicing and bidding.

As her business turns more toward sales management, she says the one thing she's certain of is change within the industry, something she's seen plenty of. Adapting and a willingness to do something different have been keys for Collins.

"To change with the times, you have to think ahead," she says. "You can't get set in your ways the way you do something or the cattle. Things are going to change and if you don't think they will, wait until tomorrow."