Cattle and sheep sales have long been the lifeblood of livestock markets but the days when pigs were sold in large quantities through them are long gone.
Today the proportion of pigs traded direct through marts is miniscule compared to the numbers bought off-farm on-contract with the likes of Yorkshire-based operators such as Malton Bacon Factory and Cranswick Foods.
Selby Farmers Auction Mart is one of the leading live pig markets in England with an average throughput during the year of around 400-500 a week. It is one of only a handful in Yorkshire that sells live pigs and one of only just over 20 out of England’s 80 remaining livestock markets.
Auctioneer and managing director Richard Haigh is philosophical over the state of play.
“We’ll be the biggest of the ones that are left in Yorkshire but when you consider that some large consumers of fat pigs can kill anywhere between 3,000-5,000 in a day it puts our numbers into context.”
It would be wrong to assume there has been a mass exodus in recent times. In a report in 2010 by the Meat & Livestock Commission, only 21 per cent of fat pigs were sold through livestock markets in 1963 and by 1990, just eight per cent.
“It’s definitely still quite a lot under the 10 per cent of all fat pigs traded that come through the livestock market system but we’re as strong an outlet as any for liveweight fat pigs and we have a loyal and committed number of producers and buyers every week.
“Where we’re situated helps us considerably as we’re close to the heart of a major pig producing area in the East Riding where approximately one-third of the country’s pig population is concentrated.
“The kind of pigs we get are predominantly very commercial breeds such as Landrace and Large White but you’ll also see some rare breeds here too.
“Our buyers include major players in the industry as well as a number of large and medium-sized wholesalers and local butchers and farm shops.
“Butcher Donald Binks has been a regular here for many years as well as Alec Traves from Escrick. Haigh’s Farm Shop in Mirfield and several other farm shops make a point of being here.
“We also hold a well-supported store pigs sale every other Saturday where we average 200-300. Quite a lot of what we sell on that day usually end up back here as fattened pigs. There are actually limited opportunities for people to buy store pigs so again that makes us one of the better markets to come to.”
The pig price has generally suffered more than either sheep or cattle prices, and at present producers are having to cope with a downturn.
“Against this time last year pig prices are about 10-15p less per kg, which means they are currently averaging around 104-105p per kg. The pigs we get here weigh between 90-110kg and that can mean the producer is getting something between £10-£20 less per pig than he or she was this time last year.
“There was a bit of a pre-Christmas hike in price as there normally is but that wasn’t as dramatic as it had been the year previously. European imported meat often at knockdown prices can also sometimes be another mitigating factor. “The best time we had in recent years came in the second half of 2013 when they were trading at around 150-160p per kg. There won’t have been many times when Chris Clubley, my fellow auctioneer and director, will have sold at that price so there’s always hope.”
Richard tells of better news for both sheep and cattle.
“In the second half of last summer our fat lamb prices dipped lower than they have for a while but they then rallied and we’ve kicked off 2015 in good shape.
“We also had a lull in the store price for a short while in the last back end but that didn’t last too long either. We’re round about 190-200p per kg and with fat lambs at between 40-45kg we’re bringing about a price of around £80-£90 a head.
“Ours is a good early market for lambs which means we’re generally ahead of those markets to the west and north of the county. May, June and July sees a good flush of smart, early lambs. That’s mainly down to our location once again with a lot of lowland sheep around here.
“Last summer there was a dip in the cattle trade too, something that we haven’t had for three or four years. It was the bull market that suffered the most. Our best bulls had been making 220-230p per kg and they were down to 200-210p. But in late September the trade hardened and the price started coming back. The very best of our bulls last week were making 225-230p and our average was just under 200p. Heavy bulls were making 206p where this time last year they were around 180p.
“Our cattle producers are a lot happier than they were in the summer.
“We have a tremendous team here that includes a number of directors who all take an active role in the business including our current chairman Ralph Coward; my fellow auctioneer Chris (Clubley); Liz Barton and Brian Bartle.”
Richard hails from Corpach near Fort William but spent most of his school days in Northumberland. He’s married to Fionna and the couple have a daughter Verity, seven.
Picture on the wall
Richard Haigh started at Selby Mart nine years ago when popular auctioneer Robin Screeton retired.
Robin passed away in July 2013 but at Wednesday’s fatstock market a framed photograph was presented for display in the livestock market café, with Robin’s partner Valerie Ellerington present.
“What really came across when I first came here was the respect everybody had for Robin,” said Richard.
“The staff and customers were all Robin fans and quite rightly so. He had taken the mart forward leaps and bounds and had been very instrumental in establishing it as the centre it now is including the move to this site in 1989.
“He’s still looking down on us now from the café wall.”