Stationed amongst green pastures north of the Minnesota border is the largest locally-owned cattle barn in Ontario—Stratton Sales Barn. It was established in 1960 by farmers and volunteers in the community of Stratton located 405 kilometers west of Thunder Bay. The sales barn hosts five sales per year, one in the summer and four in the fall, gathering buyers from across the country who bid for cattle at auctions taking place on Saturdays.
Auction times and dates are announced to followers on Facebook and those subscribed to a mailing list. Auctions are generally held around the same time so frequent buyers can predict when the sales are to prepare ahead. As one of the closest and largest auction facilities to southern Ontario and adjacent areas, a majority of big buyers come from Manitoba or southern Ontario, in addition to local buyers resulting in competitive, high prices for cattle.
In 2020, the association sold 6,335 head of cattle for a total of $7.2 million.
The cattle enter the sales ring, varying from one to twenty cattle depending on the group, announced by the auctioneer who runs numbers with vigilant focus on bidders seated in the stands. Each producer’s cattle is sold separately. The association houses more than 200 cattle producers in northwestern Ontario.
Cattle farmers in Thunder Bay and Dryden often auction at Stratton Sales Barn as well. “They don't have an auction barn or their own sale facility and the closest place for them would be like Winnipeg or Manitoba if they didn't bring animals to us,” said Murry McDonald, president of the Rainy River Cattlemens Association through which the barn is run.
McDonald has been president of the cattlemans association for the past year, but has been on the board for around 15 years.
On September 23, 2019, an accident with a chainsaw caused a fire to spread at the Stratton Sales Barn damaging penning and minor buildings. A local fire department nearby managed to prevent the fire from destroying the main building, which today has been converted into a sorting barn for cattle sales. “But if we would have lost it we would have been completely out of business till we rebuild something completely,” McDonald said.
Instead of going out of business, Stratton Sales Barn received funding of nearly $830,000 from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario (FedNor) and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHHFC) to rebuild a new sales facility. A new watering system was installed and new equipment purchased such as modernized penning and handling facilities to increase efficiency and safety when feeding and sorting cattle. A new and improved main barn was built for buyers to easily and comfortably view the cattle. “We're still doing the finishing touches,” McDonald said.
“The fire was a tragic thing. But from everything bad you usually generate something good. So now because of the funding we ended up with pretty new facilities that should last for generations. I mean, we will look after it. From the ashes something good rose out of it.”
These changes were estimated to boost cattle sales for years to come. The association estimated a 50 per cent in cattle sales for farmers in Rainy River, Kenora, and Thunder Bay Districts.
The first cattle sale in the newly built facilities was booked for August in 2021 but that same week, a pole in the parking lot was struck by lightning and all the computers were destroyed. The team was left scrambling to get things repaired and the first sale was postponed to September 25 instead. That first auction in the new facilities sold 1487 cows.
This year, 1460 cows were sold on April 23, 934 cows sold on September 24, and 1460 sold on October 15. One more sale will occur on November 5.
"Last year we had an extreme drought and the crops were terrible and, then this year, we were wet and struggled to get our crops off the field. You can't control or predict it and it's out of your hands. And it's just definitely something you worry about."
Now that the new and improved sales facility is near finished, McDonald said that the Rainy River Cattlemans Association hopes to focus on organizing training and farming education for staff and volunteers, such as a tour of local farms to learn more approaches to cattle handling and see what other farmers do. “Just to do a few more things that’s kind of fun or informational rather than strictly the sales barns,” McDonald said.
“I'd say the farming community as a whole [is tight knit]. There’s different aspects, like the green or the dairy, or the beef or whatever type of farming you're into. But we still kind of understand the same things like having to work off farms to make ends meet, or we all have the same fuel expenses and different things like that. We understand what each other's going through for sure.”
“We all have to deal with the weather. It affects us in different ways. It's something that we can’t control or predict. It just seems like we get more extreme weather patterns or volatile weather patterns. It's these extremes that keep happening, you never know what the future holds,” he said.
“We can't control the pricing of what we get for our animals or what we pay for the products we need to farm, so it's definitely very stressful between weather and what we sell our animals for and will be asked to pay for in terms of fertilizer, fuel, et cetera.”
When asked what farmers can control, McDonald shared that farmers could plan calving around harsher weather conditions or consider equipment sharing with other local farms to cut back on expenses. “There’s things you’re going to have to look at in these times of high prices.”
While the workers for sales are hired, McDonald also noted that the business relies heavily on volunteers. In general, the cattle barn doesn’t have trouble finding extra hands to help. “We generally seem to get enough people through the farming community itself, you know, like younger people to work the sales and then some older ones mixed in,” he said.
“We have a great core of people who come on to volunteer to help in the scene to always be there and then there's the ones that show up throughout the year and help when they can too. Because we are such a small area and have a limited amount of sales for revenue, we just depend on volunteers for repairs and maintenance and stuff like that too.”
“If farmers weren't resilient, I don't think you could be a farmer.”
Elisa Nguyen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times