21 December 2001

Livestock markets braced for change

What will the role of livestock markets in Cumbria be in the

years to come? Different from in the past, almost certainly

THE figures are mind-boggling, but they put the financial impact of the foot-and-mouth crisis in Cumbria into sharp perspective.

Official calculations now show that the disease drained £130m out of the countys agricultural economy; the 2000-plus farmers whose stock was slaughtered received £226m in compensation and movement restrictions suffered by non-culled livestock farmers added £4.5m to their variable production costs.

Its against this background of such a direct hit on the financial infrastructure of Cumbrian agriculture that farmers and allied businesses are working to re-build their future.

But at the core of the re-modelling is the issue of livestock marketing. On the back of Cumbrias reputation as a livestock-producing county had grown a long-established auctioneering tradition which not only provided weekly trading in prime and store stock at several markets but also played a pivotal role in the movement south of vast numbers of breeding cattle and sheep each autumn.

At the heart of Cumbrias stock industry are the big markets like Carlisle, Penrith and Longtown but the small town marts at Kirkby Stephen, Sedbergh and Wigton are equally important as local trading centres adjacent to high populations of livestock.

Despite the suggestion by DEFRA that the auction mart system played a significant part in the spread of F&M there is a dogged desire among Cumbrian farmers to retain their livestock markets.

They consider them to be the only true way of assessing the value of their stock and the most effective method of gathering, selling and distributing hundreds of thousands of breeding and store sheep produced in Cumbria every year.

But there are whispers of change. Some auctioneers are saying privately that selling primestock through the ring is no longer financially viable. They believe that even a modest increase in their commission rates – which they desperately need – would still be inadequate for them to make a profit and farmers would find it difficult to absorb any increases set against current primestock values.

In effect selling primestock through the ring could soon be a luxury neither farmers nor auctioneers can afford.

Question remains

The question remains: Will auction marts re-open as before or will they take on a new role? Will they re-position themselves as collection centres based on deadweight trading with mart staff acting as agents and sorting stock to meet buyers needs?

Whatever the future holds there will be change. Already Cocker-mouth Auction Mart on the northern edge of the Lake District is building a state-of-the-art complex.

When it opens next spring its not inconceivable that instead of seeing farmers tucking into bacon and eggs after unloading a trailer full of lambs they could be sitting at a computer terminal extracting marketing data from the internet, checking up on world commodity prices or ordering feed and fertiliser.

Penrith Farmers and Kidds managing director Richard Morris is also gearing up his business at Penrith Auction Mart to cope with the new role auction marts will inevitably have to play. The market sits on the edge of the M6, drawing stock from the Lake District fells and the fertile Eden valley which suffered the brunt of the F&M disaster.

PF&K, founded in 1876 by a small group of Cumbrian farmers, is working on a host of new ideas and developments aimed at re-shaping livestock marketing in Cumbria.

The company has been a prime mover in the successful Cumbrian Fellbred meat marketing scheme which, despite the F&M crisis, has managed to maintain supplies to its regional supermarket buyer.

It has just bought Winders abattoir plant in Blackpool for £1m. Beef, lamb and pork produced in Cumbria and marketed under the Cumbrian Fellbred brand is bound to benefit from this investment which will develop a new meat processing business known as North West Food Products.

PF&K has also been the driving force in setting up a detailed feasibility study into the creation of a Cumbrian Farmers Co-operative that will, it says, completely re-shape food production and marketing in Cumbria.

"The auction mart sector is going to be very different in the future. We can expect DEFRA to impose a new regulatory framework on livestock selling and we will have to adapt," says Mr Morris.

He acknowledges that in the 50 years of post-war agricultural development the plethora of auction marts in Cumbria was a great benefit to farmers. But he doubts that situation can continue without some rationalisation of the way they operate.

"There has to be more co-operation between markets and a greater sharing of resources.

"For instance, I dont believe that we can continue to trade the same type of stock on the same day at two markets barely 30 miles apart."

Positive steps

The North West Development Agency has awarded £50,000 towards a study into the future of livestock marketing in Cumbria. It has brought all Cumbrias auction marts around the table for discussion.

Although the coming months will hopefully see farms in Cumbria re-stocking, auctioneers believe it will be four or possibly five years before the volume of livestock being marketed in the county returns to normal.

Mr Morris continued: "We know what the government is prepared to do for the county but we also know that it will not continue to shovel money at us. We have got to sort out a lot of this for ourselves."

Right and far right: Richard Morris says auction marts will have a new role to play in the future.