A long while ago I remember having a conversation with John Thorley, secretary of the National Sheep Association about more and more animals being sold on the dead weight. At the time, an advocate direct sales, I defended the birth of the new on-farm stock selection system and ‘buying groups’ trading direct with slaughterhouses. John’s argument was that we should always maintain the use of the livestock auction system and that auction was the only true way of setting a market price. He also went on to wax on about how great the auction mart system was in UK and that we were the only country in Europe to have this benefit. At the time I argued that the auction system was outdated, with too many middlemen taking a financial cut out of the end product.
Some 20 years later I find myself living on a smallholding in rural France where they do not have the luxury of a local mart and I have to say that it one of the few things I miss about the UK. At the very least, it is a social gathering of like minded souls. Having been a pedigree sheep breeder all my life, I spent over year looking for our first sheep purchases. Eventually, through contact from friend of a friend we visited an old boy who had been breeding Charmoise sheep, some 50 kms away. He had little understanding of English and my schoolboy French, although improving year on year, was not up to translating the intimate details of gigot, muscle depth and bone ratios. We did a deal, me doing my best to keep the price down, but I have to say I had absolutely no idea what these animals were worth and am sure I paid over the odds.
Sadly, the sheep were killed a year later by stray dogs, a day we would rather forget. After a while, I was on the lookout again for more stock, but how? If I was back in UK, I would pop down to the mart once a week for a few weeks, to get an idea of prices, make some contacts and possibly pick up what I required. I cannot do that here and have ended up buying a mishmash of 3 ewes and a charollais ram from a friend who was struggling to look after them.
I am also on the lookout for a heifer, just something plainly bred but with a bit of shape. The farms around here are all stocked with Blonde d’Aquitaine and, at the risk of upsetting a few people, I don’t like them, with their long legs and bad attitude. I would prefer to pick up a Limousin from the region 3 hours up the road, which I intend to cross with imported angus semen to breed an annual cross calf for the freezer. I am finding this task virtually impossible. Yes I could go to their annual pedigree sale and buy one for a few thousand but that is not within my budget. My only chance is to go knocking on doors to see if they have stock for sale. As you can well imagine, an Englishman doing this on a French farm is not the most cost effective way of trading.
So, in reflection, John Thorley, you absolutely are correct when you say that the auction mart is the backbone of the UK livestock industry. From time to time, farmers in UK may need to be reminded of this.