Valuing animals set to become ‘a serious challenge’ for marts – ICOS warning

Putting a value on animals is set to become “a significant challenge” for marts over the coming weeks, as operators continue to grapple with new Covid-19 safety restrictions.

The warning comes amidst concern that some marts – particularly some located in the west of the country – may not be in a position to reopen under the new trading protocols.

Last Tuesday, March 31, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine issued guidance on the re-opening of the country’s marts for a limited range of essential services in compliance with the Health Service Executive’s (HSE’s) Covid-19 guidelines.

The move followed clarity from Government that agriculture and food production are classified as ‘essential services’ to the state, meaning the agricultural sector is permitted to continue operating throughout the public health emergency.

The limited measures in place at marts are mostly aimed at facilitating calf sales, weighing livestock, facilitating online services and facilitating the brokerage of services – all subject to the approval of standard operating procedures by the department.

However, after a week of adjusting to the latest changes, Ray Doyle of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) has cautioned that “one size is not fitting all”.

Speaking to AgriLand, Doyle said: “What was agreed is not going to suit every mart in the country – some marts simply won’t, or can’t, open with these new protocols.

“The limited services are probably not that suitable for marts in the west because, where you have animals that are very diverse in breed, size, weight and age, historically those animals are sold in single lots in the old auction system.

“Now they’re coming in on a system that is trying to batch cattle; and trying to line up buyers and sellers really isn’t that simple or that easy.

“Some of the marts in the west, if they offer that service at all, will simply be offering a service whereby ‘farmer a’ will have identified ‘farmer b’ where they can get cattle – and the marts will simply facilitate the trade, rather than being involved in the middle at all,” he said.

The ICOS representative added that marts in the south and the east of the country may find the new measures easier to implement, as traditionally they would have larger lots of cattle of a similar age and breed.

Public auction

While Doyle acknowledged the Government’s decision to lift a complete lock-down on marts, he says other significant complications are also building in terms of demand and price.

“After a number of weeks of the lock-down if we do not get the auction system going fairly quickly, the actual evaluation system will have broken down because you will have no auction to value the animals.

“Currently people are coming in with this new model and expecting animals to make what they made a month ago.

However, a lot has changed in the last month – demand has fallen off a cliff; the meat factory price is down.

“We’re now starting to see meat factories go back to the way they were last summer, where you have to book in cattle. The future demand for beef is struggling.

“All of a sudden the reference price we were using is out of date because it was pre-Covid-19 and the pre-Covid-19 demand.

“So what reference points are we going to use in a month’s time when there are no auctions to give us the heads up?

“The prices that people will expect could be unrealistic or unachievable – and that now is where the major challenge is going to be with the limited services that we are allowed offer.

“When you remove the auction out of it, you have removed the national evaluation service – accurately evaluating animals will become a serious challenge as the weeks go on if we are not allowed to return to the auction-based system,” concluded Doyle.