‘Online sales is one of the best things to happen’

9 Feb , 2023  

This September marks a decade-and-a-half since Ray Doyle assumed the position of Livestock and Environmental Policy Director at Irish Cooperative Organisation Society (ICOS) and Irish Tractor Agri & Plant caught up with the Kildare native to get his views on the country’s livestock market today.

Originally formed in 1894, the Irish Cooperative Organisation Society (ICOS) is a co-operative umbrella organisation which promotes commercial co-operative businesses and enterprise across multiple sections of the economy.

Together, member co-operatives and their associated companies make up more than 150,000 individual members and employ in excess of 12,000 people in Ireland alone.

The ICOS has evolved over the decades to the point where it now serves the co-operative sector in seven core categories, those being multipurpose dairy co-ops; livestock sector co-ops; store, trade and wholesale co-ops; service-related co-ops; community-oriented, culture and leisure co-ops; food, fishing and beverage co-ops; and advisory and education-related co-ops.

A tillage and cattle farmer from Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare, Ray Doyle also works as the Livestock and Environmental Policy Director at the ICOS and spoke with Irish Tractor Agri & Plant to discuss his thoughts on the Irish livestock market at present and his opinion on the overall positive impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the sector.

“Covid-19 in many was has transformed the mart network and the change has actually been nothing but a positive to us,” he stated.

“We’re selling a 12-month rolling average now at the moment of about 1.84m cattle and almost two million sheep. Pre-Covid, we were doing well to be about 1.65m cattle and about 1.2m sheep.

“Online trading, because of Covid, has actually been a major benefit to us and one of the best things to happen to the sector since the sector was started.”

The fact that online trading is now embedded in trading across the county means that it is not set to go away.

In fact, the way Ray sees it, is that it’s very much here to stay and set to increase further after becoming the new normal for the Irish livestock market.

“If anything, it’s going to gather and grow more because the requirement for more and more data for animals to be sold lends itself perfects to online trading,” he said, “and, obviously, display boards etc, because the animals in the future with the way climate change and everything is going forward at a pace.

“It means increased prices will be paid for animals from a beef point of view; finished quicker, finished leaner and have a lower carbon footprint.

“On the dairy side, you have the same situation. It’ll be yield but it’ll also maybe lead itself to individual cow and breed data that will predispose itself to lower carbon emitting or lower retail emissions on these animals.

“There’s going to be more and more data associated with animal trading in the years ahead and the mart, through the mart display boards and our links with the online trading, is going to be the obvious place for farmers to reliably get that information before they buy animals.”

Since the easing of government restrictions, which were implemented during the height of the pandemic to battle the spread of the virus, marts have seen a return to normal across the country by being able to reopen for customers to pass through their gates.

Of course, internet sales through the mart remain convenient as they help busy farmers that don’t have the time to attend the mart in person ensure they can still carry out their livestock dealings.

As for challenges currently facing the Irish livestock market, the ICOS Livestock and Environmental Policy Director sees a few for the coming years ahead.

“I just spoke about the opportunity for our marts and the biggest challenge is our numbers,” Ray opined.

“Are numbers going to decrease significantly with the recent climate challenge agreement on a 25 per cent cut?

“With the nitrates, derogation now with a question mark under it, marts are a numbers game and with most marts it’s the last 10 per cent of animals traded that actually give them a profit – everything else is going to cover fixed costs.

“So, if your numbers drop significantly, you will have serious financial pressure on some of the operations that have higher costs.

“That, I think, has got to be the major challenge to the mart network over the next five to 10 years – actually just retaining the numbers.”

For Ray, the overall feeling is optimistic though and even positive going forward.

Even in the midst of what were unprecedented times during the Covid-19 pandemic, marts today remain a resounding success story.

Since the inception of auction marts in this country around Cork, Waterford and Kilkenny more than six decades ago, they continue to be of massive importance to towns across Ireland by generating money and employment.

Livestock marts and dairy co-ops also make up the bulk of the membership at the ICOS and its Livestock and Environmental Policy Director is hoping to see a significant increase in animal trades in them over the next 12 months.

“Again, I’d like to see more continuance of what has been laid down in place with the advent of online trading,” said Ray.

“We’re hopeful for more and more dairy livestock to come back to the livestock marts because marts are mainly underpinned with the suckler farmers and sheep farmers. Dairy farmers traditionally had used less of the mart services over the last 20 years, but the online trading piece has actually brought back an awful lot of those dairy farmers that now see the value of trading animals in the market.

“They see that the true value of an animal is only ever realised with the auction that takes place in the mart.

“My hope for the next 12 months is that we could try to aim for two million animals traded in the marts in the next one to two years.  Again though, I have to put the question mark beside that.

“In five years’ time, will numbers be reduced? Only time will tell.”

First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 10 No 6, November/December 2022