By Simon Wragg

MANY livestock auctions must face the inevitability of closure if predictions for the future number of producers aired at this weeks Royal Show prove accurate.

The figures suggest that farmer numbers will decline from 245,000 registered landowners currently supporting a core of 40,000 farmers to just 5000 producers who will supply 80% of the sectors output by 2020, said Charles Runge of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.

However, estimates also point out that a large number of part-time farmers will also exist.

Auctioneers were surprised by the figures, but agreed that it would force many markets to close.

“If true, it does call into question the economic viability of operating many small, one-day markets in towns,” says Jeremy Eaton of Skipton market, which recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of opening its out-of-town site.

“The decline in farmers has already started, but I cant help but think the figures are somewhat savage.

“Certainly, the only way forward for many units is to merge or expand to achieve economies of scale and the same will have to be seen, to a degree, in livestock auctions as well.

“Breeding stock numbers appear to be in decline and that can only mean less stock to be sold through the auction ring or other routes, eventually. That will be the reality,” adds Mr Eaton.

If the rationalisation does lead to bigger farms feeding stock on strict programmes to achieve the uniformity large meat plants demand, the variety of animals coming off other units could meet a very difficult trade, agree mart officials.

In that situation, all farm incomes will suffer, believes Brian Ross of Lanark market.

“The live auction still remains the broker for all stock and is the price setter even for the deadweight centres. It cannot be allowed to be used as a dumping ground for plainer stock.”

Auctioneers are also concerned that rationalisation in the meat trade will also impact heavily on their future.

Buyers bring competition and with the squeeze on abattoir costs with the current furore over meat inspection charges the need to retain a viable infrastructure of small and large plants is also paramount, adds Malton, North Yorkshire-based Michael Harrison.

With the recent slip in the bull trade as one example, the need to have a number of buyers for each class of stock is the only way to guarantee consistent demand for vendors, he adds.

“If it does get into fewer hands we already know that stock gets harder to place at the right price.”

The only salvation for livestock markets from the Royal Show figures is the recognition that many small units will remain, even if only as part-time occupations.

“I would say it has already started to happen. But it is these producers who tend to be staunch supports of the live auction system,” adds Malgwyn Evans, Cardigan-based auctioneer and former Welsh Livestock Auctioneers Association chairman.