In January 2020, if you were to tell farmers standing around a mart ring that a few months later they would be buying cattle on their smartphone from the comfort of their own living room, you may have received a funny look, or two.

The COVID-19 pandemic is sure to leave a lasting legacy for livestock marts across the country. This legacy, of course, is the introduction and widespread usage of online bidding platforms.

In some ways, COVID-19 provided the perfect opportunity to introduce the technology that otherwise would never have taken off within the industry.

When then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the closure of marts from 13 March 2020, it came as a huge shock to both farmers and livestock marts alike.

While many marts were able to offer brokered sales facilities between buyers and sellers, the public auction had to come to a standstill.

Quite quickly, however, marts adopted the use of online bidding platforms which meant the investment in IT, software and in many cases upgrading of internet capabilities in mart premises.

The closure of marts during the first lockdown and the adjustment period required to get online sales up and running reduced cattle throughput by 60,315 head in March and hit peak trade in April, resulting in a massive reduction of 168,573 head. Throughput in May was also curtailed, reducing by 64,425 head.

Mart sales recovered strongly and enjoyed a much busier period of trading throughout the summer as many farmers waited for marts to reopen before trading their stock.

Mart numbers matched peak October trading despite ongoing restrictions to sales.

However, by the end of 2020, cattle throughput in marts totalled 1,530,751 head, back some 138,387 head compared to 2019 levels.

Sheep throughput

In comparison, sheep marts recorded growth in sales in 2020 despite coronavirus restrictions with throughput of 1,487,956 head, increasing by 34,900 on 2019 levels.

However, this growth stemmed from a higher availability of lambs in the market and producers opting to show sheep in the mart to take advantage of a solid trade for breeding sheep and store lambs and greater demand for slaughter-fit sheep.

2021 cattle recovery

Provisional figures from the Department of Agriculture show cattle throughput in livestock marts from January to June 2021 return to pre-pandemic levels at 931,075 head.

This is up significantly on the same period in 2020 at 672,960 and almost identical to the same period in 2019.

Eric Driver – Associated Livestock Marts

“COVID-19 brought many difficulties to the day-to-day running of livestock marts but it has also been a game-changer for the sector.

“I was worried that we were becoming dated and being left behind as farmers sought quicker and more modern ways to trade stock. These alternative methods may have been quicker but still relied on the live auction ring to determine the value of stock. This is why online bidding has given marts their teeth back. Farmers can now drop their cattle in the morning, head off to do a day’s work and watch the sale online.

“The return of buyers ringside has further improved the system as it gives the perfect blend of the atmosphere of the live auction and the added benefit of a larger number of buyers viewing online.

“Our primary function is to allow farm businesses to trade in a safe and controlled environment. We have worked hard with both the Department of Agriculture and our customers to ensure this has been, and will continue to be, the case.”

Ray Doyle – ICOS Livestock and Environment Services Executive

“Marts have remained true to their core business model of providing a financially secure, transparent and local service to all their shareholders and customers over the last 18 months of the COVID-19 restrictions.

“The livestock mart trading platform has been changed in the main positively during the pandemic. Nationwide adoption of online trading has been a fantastic development for the national mart sector and has facilitated the influx of many new farmer clients.

“The mental wellbeing of rural communities is underpinned by the local mart and marts were the original ‘men-shed’ where farmers interacted and spoke to their neighbours, friends and complete strangers to everyone’s benefit.

“While we can’t put a financial figure on this invaluable service that the local livestock mart provides, hopefully with the reopening of most canteens this part of daily mart activity can now return.”