(Chairman, Livestock Auctioneers Association of England and Wales)
Last year, against all the odds, total livestock auction throughput of cattle, sheep, pigs and calves increased by 2.5% to 16.7 million head worth £1.2bn. However, decreases in stock values resulted in a turnover reduction of 1.6%. That the increase in total numbers offered has come at a time when the UK livestock industry is still beset by pressures, restrictions and costs beyond its control is a great credit to farmers and to those who own and run markets.
Figures from auction markets for the first quarter of this year suggest that the positive over-all trend is continuing, although with a slight decline in slaughter ewe figures in line with national slaughterings.
But throughput recorded by the Livestock Auctioneers Association reveals a market of two halves. A leap in the number of store cattle and store and slaughter sheep has only just countered falls in the prime stock sector, most notably of finished pigs.
Meanwhile, the prime beef sector is under pressure from all quarters. The demise of local retail butchers and small abattoirs means fewer customers around the sale ring, and export, once the only real competition for multiple retailers, is no longer available. Indeed, the competition is running the other way, with imports of cheap beef to replace the home-produced cow beef that was once processed.
A total of 70,000 more store cattle were sold in markets in 1999 than in the previous year, an 8.8% increase. But slaughter cattle numbers continued to decline, with 62,000 fewer sold (5.7% down). Total GB slaughterings fell in number by 2.4% over the same period, so some inroad into livestock market sales of prime cattle has resulted from an increase in direct selling and supermarket producers clubs.
The pattern is reversed with slaughter sheep, which show an increase of 6% in slaughter animals (clean sheep and culls) sold through markets, as against a smaller increase in GB slaughterings of 3.8%.
The pig sector has been hardest hit. UK slaughterings were down 9% on the year. It appears that a high proportion of small producers who would normally use auction markets have gone out of business.
Similarly with calves, a decline of 11.1% in offerings reflects the high number of on-farm slaughterings and knacker collections since the ending of the Calf Processing Aid Scheme at the end of July last year.
Meanwhile, some of the problems faced by markets are, hopefully, short-term, and are broadly the result of the BSE crisis, which has been the catalyst for a huge rationalisation of farming in Britain. Others reveal the impact of fundamental changes in consumer lifestyles and preferences, and the supermarkets grip on meat retailing. Not least of these is the much smaller part played by domestic science in the school curriculum, which is leading to a new generation ignorant of the basics of buying and cooking meat.
While a number of town-centre markets are still under threat from councils who prefer development cash to the benefits of a livestock market, there are some encouraging signs. Typical is the response from farmers keen to see continuing transparent competition when Thame market was threatened with closure in March. The target £500,000 of capital was raised in just ten days, and it was expected to hold its first market under the Thame Farmers Auction Mart banner today. *
Auctioneers have suffered with farmers as livestock returns have plummeted. But market throughputs are up, and farmers in some areas are putting up cash to keep their market going. "Open competition at the ringside is the only transparent way to set a market price," says Bakewell auctioneer Ian Lawton.