With more than 200 years of history, auction marts have stood the test of time.
Alex Black takes a look at the value of marts in the modern farming industry
Auction markets’ contribution to the rural economy goes well beyond the value of the livestock traded, according to a new report by independent economic analyst Sean Rickard.
Marts continue to be a valuable business and social hub, with the benefits having a knock-on effect across agricultural businesses.
The report, commissioned by the Livestock Auctioneers Association (LAA), found buyers and sellers benefited from fair prices and high animal welfare standards. Markets also acted as a ‘hub’ for exchanging knowledge.
As small businesses, livestock farms had little power against large processors and supermarkets in private sales, but a live market helped them achieve a fair price.
Mr Rickard said: “Auction markets are not only intuitive and transparent, but as neither buyer nor seller can unfairly influence the price, they ensure the price is ‘fair’. It accurately reflects current demand based on available information.”
This was important to farmers, whether or not they sold through the auction rings, according to Cheshire sheep, dairy and pig farmer Richard Sidebottom. This was because the live market influenced deadweight pricing.
At the auction market, producers have the opportunity to take stock back home.
Mr Sidebottom said: “When you take them for killing, once they are dead you have to accept what you are given.”
Speaking with other farmers was also a benefit to his business.
He said: “It is very important in how you run your business. You pick up problems people are having, so you can look into them or you are aware they are about.”
Farmers Guardian In Your Field writer and Cumbrian sheep farmer Will Case said he believed it was important farmers supported their marts, and they could help farmers to broker the best prices for stock.
Many farmers, including Mr Case, said they remembered the marts closing during foot-and-mouth, meaning they had to sell everything through the abattoir.
He said: “That stays in my memory. We definitely felt the benefit when marts opened back up.”
Benchmarking has become a buzzword as farmers looked to improve their businesses, but LAA chief executive Chris Dodds said farmers had been benchmarking at markets for years.
He said: “They can see the difference in stock, condition and quality. They can ask buyers questions if their stock is not achieving the best prices.
“If lambs are not getting the best price, if they cannot see why, they can ask why directly.”
Staffordshire farmer Frank Speed said marts meant farmers got a true reflection of the trade and built a relationship with auctioneers and buyers.
He said: “You know what buyers are looking for. You can then have a go at upping your game, so you can sell what people want to buy.”
And with multiple buyers around the ring looking for a range of specifications, auction market staff could help farmers achieve the best returns when sorting stock into lots.
AHDB Beef and Lamb knowledge exchange manager Liz Ford said marts had become a learning environment and the levy board was working with marts to help farmers better understand what buyers were looking for.
She said the industry needed to produce an animal the end customer wanted.
She said: “Unfortunately, livestock do not just fit in a nice little mould. We work with markets across England to put on events where we get market customers to talk about selection and what they are looking for.
“We have things such as butcher’s demonstrations, so farmers can see the other side of the coin.”
Mr Dodds added the next generation was coming through and seeing the value of livestock marts as they appreciated the breadth of services available.
“When we come out of the EU, everything will change so dramatically, so sharing information is going to become very important,” he added.
Children were also often brought along during school holidays, which was a good opportunity to get them excited about the industry and teach them about market values.
Buyers at auction marts also saw the benefits of a transparent price and flexibility, with Wright Marshall Beeston auctioneer Gwyn Williams highlighting much of the trade went to regional wholesalers and butchers.
Mr Williams said: “If we are not here, they do not have that supply. Markets are essential for keeping that sector going.”
Head of policy at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers Norman Bagley said businesses valued flexibility.
Mr Bagley highlighted after foot-and-mouth in 2001, the independent sector went straight back into buying from marts when they reopened.
He said: “For halal meat and export markets in particular, they have to respond very rapidly to fresh orders. The auctions are the lifeblood of that sort of trade.
“Our guys would miss that flexibility. They are generally big supporters.”
Agricultural businesses also operated in and around auction marts, with farmers using marts as a one-stop shop.
Many companies behind the marts also ran services such as land agencies through the sites.
Mr Dodds said he believed they would see marts becoming more diverse going forward.
He said: “It demonstrates the fact marts are at the heart of rural communities. Everything we do is geared up to the rural communities which surround us.”
David Pritchard, joint managing director of Harrison and Hetherington (H&H), said the business was not just auction marts, but now included services such as land and property and insurance.
He said: “It is a very complex business. If you take our Carlisle site, all the businesses in the area around us are all connected with farmers and their livelihoods.”
Businesses surrounding auction sites meant farmers could do everything from buying wellies to pharmaceutical supplies on the same day.
Highlighting the firm’s St Boswells site, Mr Pritchard said the town had originally grown and evolved around the railway and its mart.
H&H recently applied for planning permission to upgrade the facility, as well as creating a new town centre by releasing underutilised mart land.
The company was looking to bring retail and leisure facilities in, as well as residential developments to benefit the wider community.
Mr Pritchard said: “It is quite a big site. There is an opportunity to develop part of the site to allow us to focus on investing in terms of a better and newer auction mart facility.
“We have had interest from all sorts of businesses.”
Farming could be a ‘lonely life’ and the markets offered farmers a place to socialise with friends and access vital services for their welfare and mental health.
Mr Williams said farms had become increasingly isolated.
He said: “When I first started, you would do valuations, and there was the farmer, the farmer’s wife and some labour. There would be seven or eight people. Now, it is usually just the farmer.”
Some marts now included services such as nurses on-site or chaplains, allowing a farmer to access services they might otherwise not.
At Beeston, Cheshire Agricultural Chaplaincy had a presence, building relationships with farmers and offering a listening ear.
Helen Rutter, media and events co-ordinator, said: “They may signpost other people to us. In the building trade, they suggest to keep an eye on your mates and we work on that point here. If they go quiet, ask if they are okay.
“By saying that to people, you also put it in their heads that they might need you themselves.”
Phil Stocker, National Sheep Association chief executive, added many sheep farmers could go days on end without seeing anybody and the marts offered an opportunity to socialise and access services.
He said: “There are health checks for farmers where they can see a doctor or a nurse. It might be something they would not dream of doing on a daily basis.”