Farmers must be longing for a return to the old ways after being forced to conduct an important part of their business in a high tech world that has largely failed them.

With no saleyards operating under Covid-19 lockdown, gauging the livestock market has been nigh on impossible with an online auction system one of only a few options open to trade stock, a system farmers have largely not subscribed to.

Independent Whanganui livestock agent, farmer and farm commentator David Cotton said from what he can glean, sheep markets are flat, although ewes and lambs were moving if the price was right.

"The buyers are adding a risk factor to their decision-making," Cotton said.

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"The prices are well back on this time last year by over a $1/kg liveweight, with the killing price back around 40 cents/kg on last year. A positive has to be how well the lamb and mutton prices have held up at $4.70/kg for mutton and $6.50/kg (deadweight) for lambs. I thought the lamb schedule would have been below $6/kg with killing space so short.

"The cattle market in summary is a train wreck. It's a buyers' market. With the lack of feed around the country, especially in the Hawke's Bay where farmers have become sellers rather than buyers, it is a matter of finding a buyer at any price and matching them with a vendor that wants the cattle off the farm at any price.

"There have been a number of different companies trying to crack the online auction market. With most saleyards shut down this is their best shot at getting a foothold, but from what I have observed, with very limited success."

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Despite the system struggling under the global pandemic, Cotton heaped praise on industry players making it work.

"I have to give a shout out to all the truck drivers, meat company employees and administration staff, who have helped keep our industry ticking over. Also to the stock agents and buyers who have worked hard under extreme pressure with no saleyards, a lack of killing space and a lack of buyers [including some pulling out of deals at the last minute]. There have been long nights on the telephone, often with little to show for their efforts."

And he had some thoughts on why the online auction system was not working.

"I think farmers move to a different psyche when they load livestock on to a truck for a trip to the saleyards. At that point the deal is 90 per cent done whether the price is good or bad. At the saleyard they can see other livestock sold and get a feel for the market. They don't want two invoices, one for the freight to the saleyard and another for the freight back and they still own the livestock.

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"They'd probably already planned what's going to be in their paddock that was freed up that day.

"Listing livestock for sale on the website and watching the auction from their favourite chair does not seem to give the vendors the same motivation to sell. If they don't like the price, they just leave them in the paddock and put the sale off for another week or three.

"From what I have observed a number of auctions on the web-based system are overpriced with vendors having a wish price versus a market price in mind. Another important factor is the farmer's relationship with his stock agent often years in the making. It's not always about the price of selling livestock on the day, but the advice on when to sell and how to draft them that can make the biggest difference in the sale process.

"The other part of saleyards that is impossible to replicate is the atmosphere, the buzz that goes with sale day. The chitter chatter and the banter between fellow farmers, agents, truck drivers and bankers. Meeting friends, talking over the market, farming, family, and, most importantly, the weather.

"Some farmer who attends the sale with no intention of buying but sees his mate's livestock selling at a cheap price and puts in a bid or two to help him along in the process hoping to trigger a sale.

"On a down market I have always been amazed how 20,000 sheep and 2000 cattle on one day can be sold at the likes of Feilding with few passings and moved through the live auction system to new homes. This seems an almost impossible task for a web-based auction systems to replicate. And then there's the beer at the pub on the way home from the saleyard to celebrate or commiserate."