WITH a history of more than 200 years, the auction system may be the longest standing method of livestock marketing, and it may offer the only truly transparent and competitive marketplace for all classes of cattle and sheep available to UK livestock producers. But as we head into a time of extreme uncertainty, with input costs rocketing, support payments falling away, and public perception that livestock farming is the villain when it comes to climate change, what role does the auction mart play in the future of livestock production? asks Scott Donaldson, Managing Director at leading auctioneer’s Harrison & Hetherington.

Every type of agricultural produce, be it grain, fruit, vegetables, dairy, beef, sheep, or pork, relies on supply and demand to determine its value. We have been preached to for many years about our position in the global market and how supply no longer relies solely on what’s happening on our shores and how floods in France, drought in Canada and huge yields in the Ukraine, all have a bearing on our farm gate prices here in the UK. But the defining factor in the successful marketing of any product is competition, and the auction system and every auction mart customer thrives on it.

With the stratified and hugely diverse nature of its make-up, the livestock industry in the UK does not lend itself to the integrated supply chain model. Farm businesses are predominantly family run, with immense variations in scale and types of production systems. Depending on the area and type of farm, from lowland arable to highland fell, there is a huge variety and range of breeds produced.

Much has been made of what the market wants and hitting the specification. The diversity of UK livestock production systems means that hitting the spec is not always straightforward. This is where the auction mart comes into its own. In the auction mart environment where competition is king, the customer determines what’s in spec, and this has been played out in auction markets around the UK over the past months. Age and moves appear irrelevant at the present time, heavy lambs are in great demand and overweight cattle are breaking price barriers every week.

The auction market brings efficiency to the industry by bringing numbers of all categories of stock together in one place, so that the customer has the choice and the volumes they need to maintain the efficiency of their business. This allows for large numbers to be transported to their destination in one lift.

Auction marts have adapted and evolved numerous times during my career in the industry. In the eighties we moved from hand-written ledgers and clerking to a computer system which enabled us to produce computer printed cheques and bills instantly for customers. We embraced the passport system for cattle and the EID tag system for sheep, and introduced digital displays to give more information to our buyers. Primarily for primestock sales direct to abattoirs, in the early nineties, electronic auction systems were introduced by the leading UK auction companies, this was a huge step away from tradition at the time.

Live streaming of auction sales, and live on-line bidding began to emerge in and around 2015 and these have gone from strength to strength. The introduction of on-line timed sales of pedigree livestock was accelerated after lock-down, a medium the machinery specialists had been using for some time.

So, what innovation will auction markets champion next? Well, the modern auction mart is already a well-equipped agri-business centre. Large numbers of livestock are brought together in a facility specifically designed with animal welfare in mind, and state of the art technology works in tandem with the live-ring in an efficient and welcoming environment. The imminent introduction of Bovine EID reduces unnecessary handling and will improve the welfare of the cattle and the safety of customers and market staff. The Livestock Information Program (LIP) designed to replace BCMS will reduce paperwork and the whole package will improve efficiency, while at the same time, uploading health status and other husbandry information. The ringside will soon be a digitally interactive interface, providing buyers with all the information they require to make informed and accurate buying decisions from both the ringside or the farm office.