Online auction surges amid COVID-19 to change culture of physical sale yards in Australia

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Sheep in South Australian yard (Photo by Charlotte Pruett)

Sale yards are a cornerstone of Australian agriculture and rural tourism — the smell of lanolin-coated wool and the chipper “hut-hut, hey-hey” of livestock agents are experiences familiar to locals and novel to visitors. The auctions have been a staple in the industry for generations, a place for both socializing and business, but their prevalence and ways of operation may have to change as a result of a COVID-19 push online.

“Looking at the computer and clicking a button isn’t as exciting, is it?” asks Graham Coleman, a farmer and a former sheep yard employee from Jamestown, South Australia.

Coleman hasn’t purchased sheep from a sale yard in four years because he says there’s more variety in the online market, but he misses the days when he would travel across Australia to attend auctions.

“You used to get to see the country and meet people,” he said. “These days, you sit at a computer.”

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Example of Auctions Plus online auction

In addition to reduced socialization at sale yards, some express concerns that fewer physical auctions could hurt the sale yards financially.

“The biggest impact I can think of would be committee funding for the sale yards,” said Ruth Robinson, a grazier from Mannanarie. “The canteen provides lunch to people at the sale yards, so less people physically at the sale yards will reduce their ability to make money.”

These concerns come after a boom in online auction usership during COVID-19. AuctionsPlus, Australia’s largest online auction platform, is reporting 6,000 new users per month, a growth rate Marketing Manager Lukas Postlethwaite says is six times higher than it was before the pandemic.

“At the moment, there’s 3 million hits per month on the site–that’s staggering,” Postlethwaite said. “The platform usage stats are very much a COVID thing.”

New users are both private buyers and sellers, and physical sale yards. Sale yards have been gradually moving portions of their sales online through live streaming for years, but Meat and Livestock Australia attributes the recent surge to social distancing and entry restrictions on physical markets.

“Some people had no choice because of lockdown, so it forced [their] hand a bit in terms of moving online,” said Jock Gosse, national sales and livestock manager at FarmGate, an online auction app. He thinks physical sale yards will continue moving online.

“The physical sale yards will always be there,” Gosse said, “but now that people are looking at putting physical sale yards online, it’ll bring everyone together.”

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Jock Gosse of FarmGate (Photo provided by Gosse)

“I think the blend of online and internet is the best of both worlds because I’m offered a greater field of potential buyers,” said Robinson, who sells merinos primarily at physical markets with online sales. “But if everything were simply online and not at the sale yards as well, it would cut out the social interaction that happens around the sale yard.”

However, some sale yards remain completely offline. The South Australian Livestock Exchange, for example, has no online communication, and unlike the recent booms for online auction platforms, the sale yard has seen reduced numbers. Andrew Lepley, the sale yard manager, says the exchange sold cattle online a few years ago, but it now relies solely on physical sales.

“There was so much work that was involved in [getting online] because back in those days, it wasn’t as easy as it is now,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely we’ll move online again.”

Lepley advocates for physical auctions, but he understands they may not be the future of auctions.

“At the moment, there are benefits of a physical auction: The buyers have their own sets of eyes and can make adjustments in person,” Lepley said, “but I think 20 years on, there won’t be any physical sale yards. Everything will be online.”

Sheep yard at sunset (Photo by Charlotte Pruett)

Officials at AuctionsPlus and FarmGate say although movement online may change the culture of sale yards, they’ll still exist and serve a purpose.

“Sale yards are a wonderful place to meet and discuss interests, and I’m a big fan of that,” Gosse said. “I absolutely see auctions sales going online, but I think physical sale yards will always have a place.”

Postlethwaite agrees and notes that amid a changing culture, a new one could be budding. Now that many sales are online, Postlethwaite says some livestock agents are setting up viewings at local pubs and inviting clients to watch on a big screen.

“You keep that social aspect alive and kicking because it’s so important, but you also open up the sale for the sellers and the buyers to a national audience,” he said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Charlotte Pruett is a reporter currently living in Adelaide, South Australia.

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