Armchair auctions set to replace market day: Simon Hollington looks at a system of selling livestock by satellite which reduces the stress suffered by the animals

SATELLITE technology is to change the spectacle of the British market town livestock auction. Its supporters say that a video of grazing cattle beamed from seller to buyer will reduce animal stress and cut down on transportation and labour costs for farmers and wholesalers.

The image of a country livestock market may seem picturesque, but to the cow or sheep it can be rather traumatic. Farmers also suffer the uncertainty of sales in the auction ring and have increasingly found themselves taking unsold stock back to the farm.

Besides transportation, there are the labour costs and time out from the farm. The animals may also suffer a loss of condition after the stress of market day. To buyers the market represents a day hanging around waiting for lots to come up and with no guarantees of finding what they want.

'Stress-free beef is better beef,' John Walsh, a Shropshire meat processor, said of the system developed by Central Livestock Auction Satellite Sales, (CLASS), in Newton Abbot, Devon.

'With this system we get to see a visual catalogue of animals in their farm surroundings and make a judgement as to their quality the day before the sale. That means I can buy direct from the farm, thus, for the animal, there is minimum movement and damage such as bruising.'

Electronic auctions on computer networks have been in operation for 18 months, but have provided only written-on-screen information, with limited appeal. With this new system, a video of the animals taken on the farm will be constantly edited providing a filmed preview of the lots the day before the sale, so the buyer can look at the animal in detail. Buyers will also be able to select specialised requests.

The traditional auctioneers will act as brokers and will be the only people in the saleroom during the auction, which is carried out in the time-honoured fashion, but taking telephone bids from buyers watching via satellite.

David Gore, who farms 500 acres in Shropshire and specialises in beef, said: 'Without doubt, for me, CLASS is the most exciting development in livestock buying and selling that our industry has ever seen. I find the videos give me a clear picture of the animal, and this saves me a lot of time running around the countryside.

'The traditional markets will still have a place perhaps for the small farm with the odd two or three animals, and for breeding stock, but whether they can keep going with smaller numbers of animals is in question.'

There is no membership fee and the technology will cost the user about pounds 500, including satellite dish - which can also be used to pick up commercial television stations. It is expected to be fully operational by October.

'At an auction buyers only see the animals for five seconds so there are obvious advantages in a more detailed appraisal,' David Jones, managing director of CLASS, which developed the system with the help of the University of Plymouth, said. 'We provide a 10-second shot of each animal, the buyers get a colour preview the day before and can run it back and forwards as much as they like.'

The CLASS electronic auction has been developed from a similar system in Texas's cattle heartland and is already linked to 12 auctioneers in Britain. While the system applies mainly for animals going to slaughter, it is envisaged by the operators that, as confidence grows, buyers will bid for pedigree animals as well.

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