Ireland’s livestock markets grapple with a reluctant shift to online auctions during lockdown

Kilcullen livestock Mart in Co Kildare which has reopened with reduced numbers and increased sanitation procedures as Ireland moves into the second phase of easing its Covid-19 lockdown measures.

Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images

DUBLIN — In July, Eimear McGuinness set up an online auction system in the livestock market she manages in Donegal town in northwest Ireland. 

Markets (known as marts in Ireland) around the country where cattle, sheep and other livestock are bought and sold were largely curtailed as coronavirus restrictions limited the number of people that could gather around auction rings to place bids.

Since then, the coronavirus crisis has deepened and Ireland re-entered lockdown last month. This has seen the traditional mart industry rely solely on online auctioning for sales to continue.

McGuinness said that online auctions have been a double-edged sword. While sales can continue, it’s not ideal for potential buyers when sizing up a purchase.

“If you’re buying livestock, you have to be able to see the livestock before you purchase them. It’s not a piece of clothing,” McGuinness said. “You buy animals based on how they walk and the carcass shape, the flesh that’s on the animal, that’s what you’re buying an animal for, for meat. You have to be able to see the confirmation of an animal. Cameras do not show you that.”

Some marts have been able to allow farmers to view an animal by appointment before bidding remotely. 

McGuinness said poor broadband access in rural and remote areas “was a major flaw straight away” that made it difficult for buyers to partake in bids.

In another case, an IT glitch in late October caused the online system for dozens of marts to collapse, leading to significant disruption.

Livestock marts are a key avenue for farmers to buy and sell animals, mostly for meat. More than 160,000 people are employed in Ireland’s agri-food sector with exports worth 14.5 billion euros ($17.1 billion) in 2019.

Online bidding

Other companies have raced in with their own solutions to address the challenges.

Mark McGann and his co-founders at Galway start-up HerdEye, which develops artificial intelligence for livestock health monitoring, re-purposed their tech in March for a new venture called MartEye, providing cameras and software for online auctions.

“It’s an app for the farmers where they can bid. They watch the video of the cattle coming in and they can hear the auctioneer and they can bid. On the auctioneer’s side there’s a dashboard we had to build for them to operate the sale,” McGann said.

While the system was built as a temporary measure, McGann said it has become much a bigger focus for the company now, having seen 170 million euros ($201 million) worth of sales made through its system. It has now expanded into the U.K.

The Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA), a group that represents the interests of all sectors of farming nationwide, said that online bidding has only worked as a “supplementary system.”

“There are huge concerns about marts operating exclusively under this system, and in particular at this time of year when throughput is at peak numbers,” an IFA spokesperson said.

“The platforms being used to run sales have been working well, but what happened recently when one of the online systems went down shows the risk of operating using this system alone.”

Opening the marts

McGuinness, who is also chairperson of Mart Managers of Ireland, said marts, farmers and the agriculture industry had been hit hard this year. Spring and fall were typically the busiest times of the year for sales and both periods have been struck by lockdowns.

During the summer months, when restrictions eased partially, McGuinness said marts developed procedures to safely allow farmers back around the rings with physical distancing, mask wearing and logging details for contact tracing.

“None of us liked it but we did it and we actually settled into a routine through the summer and we just got on with it. While we found it strange, we had to employ loads of extra staff to do this,” she said.

Mart managers and the IFA are arguing their case to Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to allow a limited number of buyers back on site with strict protocols.

A spokesperson for the department said that it will “continue to monitor the situation” as the weeks progress.

“There is no facility to permit buyers to congregate and attend in the sales ring while the country remains at Level 5,” they added, referring to the highest level of coronavirus measures.

The current restrictions are due to be eased on Dec. 1, depending on case numbers, and mart managers like McGuinness will be hoping for some reprieve. “We know what works and what doesn’t work.”

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