Hundreds of new and returning customers have headed to livestock marts across Scotland since the Covid pandemic began in March last year, say auctioneers.

A strong trade, buoyed by increased retail demand for red meat during lockdown, has been a major factor in drawing buyers and sellers, and all marts have seen increased customers.

Other factors drawing customers include; the flexibility of selling live, a desire to support marts, and technology making it easier to buy remotely.

Throughputs at Scottish marts hit a year-to-date high in the week to March 3, although have since dipped back, according to QMS.

Strong prices have continued though, and in the week ending March 13, the GB all prime average cattle price was 45.4p/kg above the same week last year, while GB liveweight lamb prices were still 80p above the five-year average in the week ending March 17, according to AHDB.

George Purves

George Purves

George Purves, United Auctions, Stirling

Farmers have a lot of trust in live auction marts, and it’s one reason they’ve been returning in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, says George Purves, managing director at United Auctions, Stirling.

“The main thing in this business is trust,” says Mr Purves. “Many farmers have lived through BSE and Foot and Mouth, and know that during a time of crisis marts will look after them. If they’ve got an established relationship with an auctioneer, then they’ve been even more likely to return.

“We’ve had about 600 new and returning sheep and cattle customers since the Covid pandemic began – we’ve got about 10,000 regular customers, so 600 is not an insignificant number.

“We’ve also seen high throughputs since last year and marts have been busier than usual because sellers know marts will represent them well.”

Many farmers who normally sell deadweight have switched or returned to live marts, adds Mr Purves, encouraged back by strong prices.

“We’ve got one customer, for example, who sold all deadweight before, but now sells in the live ring – he’s putting his trust in live marts again.”

Judith Cowie

Judith Cowie

Judith Cowie, Wallets Marts, Castle Douglas

Covid restrictions have forced a lot of buyers to use marts’ online live cameras and bidding systems – with the added benefit of widening the pool of bidders, says Judith Cowie, who works for Wallets Marts, in Castle Douglas.

“We estimate that about 10% of the total purchasers at each online bidding facility sale have been new customers,” says Ms Cowie. “The sellers love it because it means extra bidders, and it’s also widened the pool geographically – we’ve had people coming from Somerset after buying online.”

Online sales have also widened the marts’ outreach to new customers, says Ms Cowie, and she believes many farmers will continue to use online bidding platforms after the pandemic ends.

“You can go on to farm and say that you’ll get a good price until you’re blue in the face, but until people see it, they won’t change,” she says. “With the webcams though, a lot of farmers have watched sales from home while having their lunch – then they’ve seen how strong the prices are.”

Wallets also have a deadweight division, Galloway Primestock, and Ms Cowie says they’ve noticed the throughput there down slightly, with more stock being sold through the ring, be it store or prime.

“It’s probably been one of the best seasons in terms of throughputs for a long time, it’s been brilliant,” she says.

Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston and Chris Orr, Lawrie and Symington, Lanark and Forfar

Many new and returning customers have switched from selling deadweight to the live ring, says Daniel Johnston, mart manager and auctioneer at Lawrie and Symington in Forfar.

“People have been switching to selling live-weight for a multitude of reasons,” says Mr Johnston.

“Prices have been better in the ring and it also gives producers the option to sell stock of different weights and specifications on one day to multiple buyers with different requirements. These may include those buying a single animal for the local high street butcher, to large processors or abattoir buyers.”

“We’ve had many converts from deadweight because they’ve seen that the live ring can ensure they get a good price – it’s fair, transparent and competitive, and they can sell to the highest bidder, not the only bidder.”

The live ring also offers an important social aspect, that selling deadweight doesn’t, adds Chris Orr, finance director at Lawrie and Symington in Lanark.

“It’s a break from the farm, where farmers can have a coffee and a chat with their neighbours, so once Covid restrictions lift we hope many people will have been converted to the live ring permanently,” says Mr Orr.

Mark Simpson

Mark Simpson

Mark Simpson, shepherd on Culfargie Estate

Mark Simpson lambs 1250 ewes on the Culfargie Estate, Perth, and sold all lambs through the ring at Forfar and other marts last year, having previously sold some deadweight.

He says he wants to support local supply chains, and prices at the live ring have been strong.

“Forfar is half an hour away and their mid-week sale suits us because we can check prices on the Monday,” says Mr Simpson. “Selling live has been working well for us and we’ve been getting 10-12p above the average.

“I want to support local – we’ve had a few lambs bought by butchers direct from the mart and with local food you know where everything has come from,” adds Mr Simpson.

“The marts have stayed open through Covid, everything has still been working and it’s been fine to drop fat stock off, although when it comes to breeding stock I would like to watch the sale when we’re able to again.

“The social side of marts are also important – as a farmer you’re working on your own a lot, so it’s nice to go and see everyone. So I like to support the marts because we’d miss them if they weren’t there.”