Auction marts are bidding to keep going in times of change

It’s not only farms that have become fewer and bigger over the past half-century. Livestock auction marts have followed the same route. Dozens of small-town and seasonal marts have gone.

Transport and effluent disposal problems have also closed city marts at, for instance, Ayr, Perth and notably Gorgie in Edinburgh where at one time three big marts operated cheek by jowl – Swan, Oliver and Bosomworth.

Perth and Ayr relocated to sites with easy road access, Gorgie vanished.

Borderway Marts at Carlisle and Aberdeen and Northern at Turriff are examples of custom-built, large-scale agricultural centres that replaced many small marts. St Boswells and Wooler keep busy in the Borders and north Northumberland.

What actually goes on at marts has exercised the minds of business analysts and economists for generations. The economic argument is that surely it makes more sense to agree a price with a buyer on-farm. A lorry collects the animals and they travel directly to the slaughterhouse of, if store or breeding stock, to another farm. It has also become more difficult for a farmer to justify a day at the mart as a useful way to spend time or to treat it as a social occasion.

With the auction system there is an extra journey to the mart with added stress for the animals. Animal welfare rules and common sense have ended the days of the bullock-walloper and sheep-whacker – as a routine means of getting animals to move in the required direction – but large numbers of animals in the same place still means stress. Large numbers in one place also allows easier and faster spread of infection as farmers found to their horrifying cost with the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic.

That epidemic, when marts were closed for months, might have ended livestock auctions, not least because many countries seem to manage perfectly well without them.

Jokes about auctioneers taking bids ‘off the wall’ to raise prices and keep things moving are not new. Nor are claims of buyers’ cartels setting price limits. But the appeal of live auctions remains. Jokes with a hint of truth apart Farmers believe that an auction to sell to the highest bidder generally gives a fair reflection of an animal’s value on the day. Averages at auction marts also set a negotiating level for on-farm deals.

Yet there is concern among auctioneers at the steady decline in finished animals being sold through marts. Instead, more farmers are selling more finished animals on-farm to go directly for slaughter. That also makes it easier to comply with food chain safety rules that increasingly restrict the number of moves cattle and sheep can make before reaching the slaughterhouse.

Fewer sales naturally reduces auctioneers’ commission and, for some, it is questionable whether sales of store animals and seasonal pedigree sales will provide enough income to keep them going.

That also makes it easier to comply with food chain safety rules that increasingly restrict movement before reaching the slaughterhouse.

Fewer sales naturally reduces auctioneers’ commission and, for some, it is questionable whether sales of store animals and seasonal pedigree sales will provide enough income to keep them going.

Although restrictions and rules have changed how marts operate in the past 50 years, especially since 2001, they are unlikely to disappear. The lure of auction selling is hard-wired into too many farming psyches for that.