17 August 2001

Videos good, but not like real thing

Many cattle and sheep

producers will be forced to

sell or buy stock using

alternatives to livestock

markets this autumn.

John Burns finds out how to

get the best from one of the

options offered

VIDEO auctions of store and breeding stock are proving extremely useful in the absence of traditional livestock auctions.

But everyone in the industry agrees that neither system can substitute for the real thing.

Some auctioneers are also considering using still photographs taken using digital cameras as a cheaper alternative to videos.

Among the most experienced in video auctions is Aberdeen and Northern Marts. "Video film seems more acceptable to buyers than still photographs because it gives them a better appreciation of the stock on offer," says its marketing manager Eddie Gillanders.

"Many auctioneers are trying video sales because it is the best possible alternative in the circumstances. But it has limitations for those with small numbers of stock and those in remote areas because of the high cost of transport."

The video sale has clearly shown the role of auctions in establishing a price which equates supply and demand, he says, and recalls that the first sale in April produced examples of prices almost £100 a head higher than some sellers had obtained in private deals for similar stock.

Nigel Batts, chairman of the National Sheep Associations sales and trade committee, will support any system which helps move sheep. There are huge numbers of store lambs and breeding sheep which will have to be moved if we are to avoid a major welfare problem.

"Video sales are a stopgap, not the future. They are just an aid to description in catalogues. I would want to see what I was buying in the flesh. I would be wary of buying on a catalogue description and video." Some rams have been sold by video auction. "But they are very small in numbers. It is the huge number of store lambs and breeding sheep that need to be moved."

Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association, says video auctions are easier for cattle than sheep, although are not entirely satisfactory for either species. "They are not a substitute for seeing the live animals.

"The auction element allows strength of demand to be tested against supply and throws up marker prices. But some firms have been more successful than others with video auctions. And things can go wrong," he warns.

He is unwilling to elaborate. But perhaps he is hinting at the possibility of bidding for five smart cattle, but only getting four of them with another not so good. There may also be a worry that you will be disappointed when the lorry arrives, the animals delivered may not be the ones on the film.

Mr Forster feels DEFRA will be disappointed if it thinks video auctions will prove a permanent substitute for live auctions. They do not fill the collection centre role, which is so helpful for producers with small numbers of stock.

The video or still photograph debate continues, largely centring on speed and cost. West Country auctioneer Frank Yeo is discussing with Bodmin Moor Farmers Club in Cornwall which system to use at auctions of moor-raised stores.

"Videos are useful for sale of stock that can be presented well. Sales of stores from farm to farm require level lots in good numbers to make transport cost-effective. To make auctions work you need all buyers there together, all getting the same commentary and all seeing the same video or photograph.

If you take the view that the biggest advantage of videos or stills is that they provide a reason to get the buyers together for the auction, then relative cost of the video is significant."

As well as taking the video, it has to be edited. That is time-consuming, needs expensive equipment and can be costly when outside specialists are used, he says. The alternative of still photographs taken with a digital camera is cheaper, picture quality is better and he feels stills can be just as effective as videos on a big screen.

Mr Gillanders agrees that editing videos can be time-consuming. ANM has its own editing facilities and staff sometimes work late into the night to ensure films are ready in time.

On the eve and morning of sale day, videos run continuously on a big screen at its sale ring. There is also a row of personal computers on which buyers can view videos of individual lots before the sale starts. Or they can view them at home on the internet.

An accurate description of livestock in the catalogue and an honest video showing type, quality and range are considered most important by ANM. "To minimise transport costs, lots are not always as uniform as we would like. But in current circumstances buyers are accepting it, providing the catalogue description is accurate so they can bid accordingly."

VIDEO CONCERNS

&#8226 Poor live auction substitute.

&#8226 Buying rams difficult.

&#8226 Transport logistics difficult.