Agribition hiatus disrupts marketing

Dennis Serhienko, seen here in the ring at Canadian Western Agribition 10 years ago, says the cattle show provides exposure to international customers that can’t be achieved any other way.  |  File photo

Producers say they are in ‘uncharted territory’ now that the livestock show won’t be going ahead this fall due to COVID

Typically, Trent and Janelle Liebreich would be gearing up for the fall cattle show circuit right about now.

The Radville, Sask., family operates Merit Cattle Co. and participates in the major shows in Western Canada to promote their Black Angus genetics.

“Agribition is the one show that carries more international clout than any in the country,” said Trent.

But COVID-19 has put Canadian Western Agribition and other shows on hold for 2020 and that leaves a marketing gap for the Liebreichs and hundreds of other breeders who count on those shows to meet potential customers.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Charolais breeder Dennis Serhienko from Maymont, Sask. “Having that one very, very large piece of the puzzle not there this year, until we’ve gone through that totally we won’t know the effect.”

Showcases like Agribition and the Royal Winter Fair draw the world, he said, as well as domestic customers.

Usually international visitors attend the shows and then return to their home countries to talk to others about what they saw.

“Platforms like Agribition just have such a large audience,” Serhienko said. “In this day and age there’s some tools that help us. We can all have a real good presence online, but a lot of times those kind of platforms work in conjunction with Agribition.”

Most breeders are boosting their social media presence, said Helge By, publisher of the Charolais Banner and co-owner of By Livestock Sales Management.

He expects more websites and advertising as producers try to compensate for not being able to put their cattle in front of people.

By said shows still have a strong role to play in the purchase process, even with advances in genomics, because there still isn’t a number for eye appeal or visual appraisal.

For those who win, the championship banner is a strong marketing tool that won’t be available this year.

“The Supreme banner meant a lot of dollars and a lot of prestige that’s not going to be there this year,” he said.

That said, breeders should focus show efforts on potential customers in the barns, not ribbons, he said.

“Meeting those people is more important than whether you’re first or second in a show ring,” he said.

The Liebreichs agree.

Trent said they will use the time they normally invested in show preparation to look at another side of their business.

“Honestly, the plan at this point in time really revolves around sort of a refocus for this fall and most likely spending more time with some of our commercial customers so that we can maybe pick up some of that slack that we had from the seedstock side,” he said.

Janelle said she is using social media to encourage people to visit the farm and see their cattle in their natural ranch environment. She is already missing having show cattle in the yard.

“Usually by the time August rolls around that’s a 24-7 commitment until Agribition is over,” she said.

People they would normally hire to help out are missing paycheques, and they won’t be needed at the shows, either.

The change this year also means the Liebreichs won’t have a week to work together as a family. With their three kids away at post-secondary schools, the week in Regina was often the first chance they had to spend time together after school started.

Janelle said shows are good learning opportunities for everyone.

Trent observed that through junior shows and 4-H their kids learned how to win and lose. For many youth exhibitors this is a lost year, he said.

“A lot of the seedstock industry on the female side of the equation is driven by juniors and this spring there was not a single junior show held anywhere,” he said.

Serhienko also said this year might end up being harder on youth than many realize. They rely on 4-H animals to finance school or to start out on their own and it may be hard for them to maintain their enthusiasm.

“The amount of work that they put in to get to these shows is unbelievable and then when they don’t have that to get to it’s tough,” he said. “They learned a hard marketing lesson really fast.”

Like the Liebreichs, Serhienko believes many purebred breeders will spend more time connecting with their commercial customers this year. Usually, they see those customers in spring when delivering bulls but then are too busy to follow up in fall.

“You might be able to be present at more of the sales when they go to sell their calves,” he suggested.

At Agribition, chief executive officer Chris Lane said show staff are working through ideas to develop a platform to help exhibitors, particularly with international efforts. It should be rolled out soon.

“We know that this has a pretty big impact on the annual marketing efforts for these producers and exhibitors,” he said of the decision to cancel for this fall. “One of the greatest advantages that Agribition has is its pretty robust international program. Even though there’s no in-person travel, we still think there’s a role we can play to connect those international buyers with these exhibitors.”

The show also has agreements with others around the world to advance international trade. Lane said he has been in touch with many of them about how COVID-19 is affecting the industry.

“I think that everybody sees that as long as we’re communicating and working toward a common goal of not letting our foot off the gas as much as we can in a year when we can’t actually be at each other’s shows there’s still good work to do.”

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