As part of our Auction Marts – Standing the Test of Time series, supported by the Livestock Auctioneers Association and Shearwell Data, Harrison and Hetherington, managing director, Scott Donaldson, reflects on the past year and looks to the future.
THE last 12 months has proved, that even under difficult conditions, auction marts can operate and be effective for their customers.
Scott Donaldson says: “Having to operate under Covid-19 has cemented the trust and integrity between farmers and the marts, with farmers prepared to ‘drop and go’ leaving their stock for auctioneers to sell without them being there, showing a great deal of faith and confidence in the people and the system.
“Throughout this period livestock values have been strong and most marts have reported that they have sold more stock, particularly prime sheep. At a time when it could have been expected some farmers may have opted to sell deadweight, the opposite has been true as they have increasingly supported the marts.
“This has certainly proved how crucial the marts are in setting prices. If they had been closed, I question whether the values of livestock would be where they are today.”
As well as working under difficult conditions marts have also had to drive new systems and innovation.
Mr Donaldson says: “While we want to welcome people back to the marts as soon as possible, most importantly we want them to be safe, and realistically to do that at the moment we have to limit the number of people attending.
“Auction marts might be thought of as old fashioned but in the last 12 months, H&H as a company, along with other marts, quickly had to put in place new systems to ensure we could keep trading and stay connected to our customers.
“Online bidding has made a huge difference to the numbers of people who can interact. Most markets now have video and live streaming of sales and it is remarkable just how many people are watching and want to know what stock is making.
“The quicker we can get people back round the ring the better. We are all missing the social aspect of markets, which cannot be underestimated, particularly as farming can be such an isolated profession for many people, but even when restrictions are lifted I am sure many farmers will continue to monitor what is happening at the mart remotely.
“Early on during lockdown online timed auctions served a purpose for pedigree livestock sales, but these have been an even bigger success for machinery sales. At H&H we have seen machinery turnover multiply greatly and values have risen by 10-15 per cent.
“It has knocked down geographical barriers. We have had customers from Northern Europe and Ireland bidding on items, which we would not have had under normal circumstances.
“There is nothing like a farm sale with 400 or 500 people attending and, in future, I think we will see a combination of both types of sale. This will be customer led as some farmers will still want to have an on-farm retiral sale.”
The next stage for H&H is to streamline and refine the systems and processes they have put in place in recent months to make them fit for the future.
Mr Donaldson says: “Historically, there has always been a lot of paperwork surrounding sales – passports, entry forms etc.
“But now, particularly the next generation are taking a more digital approach. Everyone has a smart phone, and we need to be able to provide them with as much information as possible digitally and make the whole process much slicker and more instant.
“We have also seen how, especially pedigree and dairy producers, are using social media to promote their stock. Those who are spending time to take really good photos and videos are definitely seeing the benefit when it comes to their animals being sold in the mart.
“While the pandemic has seen some farmers choosing to sell stock privately, the role of markets to value stock should not be underestimated. If two customers are hell bent on buying the same animal, it really does drive the price up.”
Aside from the more recent challenges surrounding Covid-19, for the last four years the industry has been living with the threat of a no-deal Brexit and its potential impact, particularly on the sheep trade.
Mr Donaldson says: “Currently, exporters are creating momentum in the sheep trade. They like the auction mart system because they can buy the type of lambs they want for their customers, rather than having to take what farmers send them, and with values where they are, it is increasingly important for them to purchase sheep that fit their customers specification.
“While there have been some problems at ports for some products, we are not seeing that affect lamb exporters who have been buying in increasing numbers over the last few weeks. It is a relief that the export demand is still there, post Brexit, along with a strong home market and ethnic trade.
“The beef trade has seen something of a resurgence from 18 months ago when there was very little return in finishing cattle, confidence is high, and finishers are enjoying much improved returns as current live market values are in the region of 15-20p/kg better than the same time last year.
“Store cattle values have followed with recent sales showing increases in the region of £70-100 per head.
“Consumer demand appears to be strong as lock-down has forced us into more home cooking. However, the catering trade can be guilty of sourcing non-UK product so when things do open up again and we get to ‘eat out’ again, make sure it is British.”
Mr Donaldson has spent a lifetime within the auction mart industry but is aware it is now in a very different place to when he started out.
He says: “I joined the mart straight from school and was fortunate enough to have a good mentor and work with good people, but the industry is changing. You cannot now just leave school, become a good auctioneer, and expect to get to the top of a business. The next generation of industry leaders will require a broader skill set.”
“My focus for H&H is to give the team every chance to better themselves and evolve into business leaders, not just good auctioneers. I want them to be the best they can be - it is not just about standing in a rostrum.”
In normal circumstances, H&H also runs two major industry events, Dairy Expo and Agri Expo, with Farmers Guardian as media partners, at its Borderway mart, and Mr Donaldson would like to see the company’s events portfolio expanded.
He says: “We are looking forward to the time when we can host these events again and build on their past success by bringing in new ideas to make them even bigger and better.
“Another project we are considering is an educational event to involve local schools. Something on the lines of a children’s countryside day. It is vitally important that we get young people to connect with farming and understand the benefits of locally produced, sustainable food as part of a healthy diet, and the benefits to the environment, wildlife, and countryside in general.
“We have an ideal site here at Borderway to host such an event and the ancillary businesses on the site are also keen to get involved.”
Reflecting on the past year, Mr Donaldson says: “When lockdown was announced last March, I had visions of foot and mouth and markets being forced to close.
“Fortunately, work done by the Livestock Auctioneers Association and the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, in gaining support from governments, allowed us to continue to trade.
“The last year has really demonstrated just how vital auction marts are, not only to the livestock industry, but to the whole food supply chain and their role in providing a fair and transparent marketing system for farmers.”