Friday, December 15, 2017

Switch to Stoneleigh puts livestock mart on firm footing

May 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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A new facility and location has meant success for Rugby Farmers Mart. Simon Wragg reports.

It’s almost ten years since Rugby Farmers Mart (RFM) opened its gates at Stoneleigh during Defra-imposed restrictions on animal movements. But farmer support has led to success, says mart chairman Richard Heckford.

“If it wasn’t for the support of farmers we wouldn’t be here today,” says Mr Heckford, frankly, amid a busy Monday sheep market.

After the closure of the old town centre mart was announced, 250 shareholders put up £500,000 capital to help establish a new mart facility at the National Agricultural Centre, Warwickshire.

The mart’s gates opened eventually in 2008 amid restrictive trading. “It was the era of Blue Tongue and Defra restrictions meant many of Rugby’s original customers couldn’t bring stock to the new site,” he explains. “About 70% of our trade was effected but we just had to get on with it.”

It’s an approach levitra canadian pharmacy that has helped establish RFM a firm footing in the sheep sector principally – and to a lesser extent in the cattle arena – attracting both vendors and wholesale buyers to the ringside, he suggests.

“We have a good team with auctioneer Tom Wrench and fieldsman Steve Martin helping draw in stock from across the Midlands, southern counties and down into Kent.

Critical mass

“But you also have to have buyers. Now we’ve got what I’d call a critical mass – throughput on sheep has increased 30% year-on-year recently – we have a good compliment of direct and wholesale companies represented for prime lamb and sheep along with two of the largest ewe buyers in the country.”

Mr Heckford suggests a big step forward for vendors, in particular, has been an improvement is sorting sheep ahead of sale. This ensures buyers get uniformity in prime lambs and hoggs and lighter sorts are separated for store buyers.

From an initial annual throughput of 44,000 prime sheep in 2008, RFM has topped 112,000 in the last two years. Likewise, cast sheep numbers have made significant progress equally. Store sheep have migrated from almost 8000 at inception to almost 31,000 today.

Cattle numbers are a different story, he admits. Clean or prime cattle have not matched progress elsewhere (for the past two years throughputs have been around 1300 head/year) but remain a key service for clientele.

Instead, RFM has establish itself a reputation as a ‘true’ store market with farmers rather than dealers at the ringside of its fortnightly sales, he adds. Around 4500 head are traded annually, according to the company’s latest figures.

Challenges

But any business faces challenges. At a national level almost all livestock marts are reeling at the government Valuation Office Agency’s proposed changes to business rates which – according to industry body the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association – could see an average uplift in 86% across marts countrywide.

“It’s certainly going to add to operating costs,” reflects Mr Heckford. “The other challenge for us is water costs, or rather disposal charges (currently 15% of net commissions, he suggests). That could be reduced by spreading water on 10ac of grassland if we could get agreement to rent locally.”

And then there is the unavoidable issue of credit management. It is, he agrees, an area most vendors do not see or consider. A buyer taking 1000 sheep at £80/head each week has to be serviced at £80,000. A week’s delay in payment increases the amount to £160,000 adding considerable strain to cash-flow.

Fortunate

“There have been changes to the provision of credit insurance which has helped but as a business we still rely on making sure money comes in. In that respect we are very fortunate in having Sandra Thacker as our accounts manager. But the risk of a debt going bad is always there as we all know to our cost.”

After well over a decade at the helm Mr Heckford still says the challenge of operating the mart still provides a buzz. But it is a team effort and attracting good staff is a core concern. Recently, Martin Lloyd has joined as an apprentice auctioneer. Finding drovers and other mart staff from a less populated farming community than, say, northern marts remains a challenge.

The proposed introduction of electronic identification (EID) for cattle will be an improvement, he suggests, helping reduce risk of human error in recording data and improving traceability for the sector as a whole. “I think it will only be a good thing,” he adds.

The business remains largely farmer-funded. Some shares (originally sold at £2000 each) are available with investors using the mart’s facilities drawing down a rebate of £100 from annual sales accumulating commission charges topping £400.

“We are still committed to one vote per shareholder to safeguard the mart for its farmer members and other users,” he says.

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