Price transparency and setting a value for livestock specification are two areas in which marts provide a critical function.
With only about 350 prime cattle going through auction rings in Scotland each week, the proportion might seem quite small but the price setting function can be significant.
About 4 per cent of Scotland’s prime cattle are sold by auction but, as one industry commentator noted, the price transparency is important.
“To illustrate the importance, during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, live markets were suspended and farmgate prices were set by the processors. They did not recover again until live markets resumed,” he said.
“The auction system is also important in setting a value for all specifications of cattle and sheep from all localities.”
John Kyle, managing director of Caledonian Marts in Stirling, said the company sees a good ringside of buyers every week for the 90-120 prime cattle on offer.
“Most buyers are either butchers or wholesalers from across central Scotland and they are looking for a good range of cattle,” said Mr Kyle.
“Most are R and U grade with the occasional O grade. We are also selling some heavyweight bullocks which would be penalised at the processors, but sell well here.”
The company can also sell more than 100 cull cows weekly, as well as between 1,500 and 2,000 prime lambs and 800 or more ewes.
Co Down farmer and Ulster Farmers’ Union beef and sheep chairman Sam Chesney believes the auction system is important in Northern Ireland.
He estimates about one-third of prime cattle are sold through the ring – a far higher proportion than in Scotland, with processors often buying to meet their requirements.
“It puts a base in the market and gives farmers a choice,” he said.
“This is especially the case for smaller or part-time farmers with a few cows. They cannot build up a relationship with an abattoir as a regular supplier, so having the auction available as an outlet is very important.”
Daryl McLaughlin, beef and sheep policy director at Ulster Farmers’ Union, said he saw official reporting of live and deadweight prices in the press as being important for allowing farmers to compare prices and explore the market available.
“About 48 per cent of our lamb is exported, so the auction markets are very important in that respect,” he added.
Scottish marts in facts and figures
■ The Scottish livestock market sector has an annual throughput of just over £500 million
■ In 2017, the last year for which IAAS figures are available, markets the length and breadth of the country handled 2.7m head of stock, including 2.3m sheep and 383,000 cattle
■ Primestock was valued at £172.7m, store stock at £347.4m
■ 81,158 cattle were sold for slaughter including cull cows and bulls
■ 1.3m sheep were sold for slaughter
■ 294,000 store and breeding cattle were sold at a value of £271m
■ 923,900 store sheep were sold at a value of £54m
■ 18,456 rams sold for a total of £11.3m
■ 2,295 bulls sold for a total of £8.3m