Friday, October 19, 2018

A life at the ringside

March 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles

Auctions are still the best way to sell livestock, says David Ball of Norwich market. Judith Tooth reports.

Strong trade was reported for last month’s mid-February sale at Norwich Livestock Market. “It was our best trade ever,” says David Ball, officially operations director, but best described as the voice and face of the market.

Several lots of 11-12 month old cattle made nearly £1000, and a few made more. Calf trade was very healthy for ‘the better end of quality’, while sheep prices were up 8-10 pence per kg.

When Mr Ball first came to East Anglia from the West Country 24 years ago, there was a Monday market in Campsea Ashe; a Tuesday fat stock market in Colchester – still going; a big pig market in Bury St Edmunds on a Wednesday; no local market on a Thursday (so he would go to Banbury) and Diss pig auction on a Friday.

“Before that there were markets in Halesworth, King’s Lynn, Acle, Chelmsford… gone, all gone, all the sites have gone, and Norwich is the last one.”

Most buyers and sellers come in a broad swathe from the Orwell bridge to King’s Lynn to what is now the only market in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire selling store and breeding stock.

East Anglia is the traditional home of the suckler cow, says Mr Ball, and with a huge area of environmentally sensitive grassland there are large numbers of spring and autumn calving herds with calves ready to sell at six to eight months old for breeding or finishing.

“And the livestock market is the traditional place to sell, as you get a true reflection of value – people can see it. The stock is in front of more than one customer, and no two farmers’ stock is ever the same: there is always one better, and always someone there to buy the best, and someone to buy the worst…it’s the nature of an auction.

“It’s transparent, too, and the money is as secure as you can get. We have no bank borrowing, payment is on the day and with fortnightly sales there is time for cheques to be cleared before the next one.”

Another attraction of trading livestock in East Anglia is its TB-free status: from Nottingham down to Cornwall and across to West Sussex livestock are TB1 and all cattle have to be pre-movement tested, says Mr Ball, while here they are on TB4 – tested every four years – with no pre-movement testing.

The market moved from its central location – where Castle Mall shopping centre now stands – in 1960, south of the city to Harford Bridge. Following the closure of all livestock markets during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, its auctioneers decided not to re-open and a meeting to discuss its future was advertised. Mr Ball, then farming in Southwold, went along.

“The room was packed and there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing…and I spoke up,” he says. “We had to look at what we could do, rather than what we couldn’t, I said – with post-foot and mouth precautions it was very difficult. We needed to make a team…I was told I was the first person to speak any sense. I’ve never missed a sale since.”

From that meeting evolved Norwich Livestock Market Ltd, owned and run by farmers, for farmers. A commission of 15 per cent of sales is paid to the council as rent and the company is responsible for all repairs and expenses.

There are 40 shareholders and on the board of directors with David are chair, Steven Lutkin, from Langley and Mike Beckett of Norfolk Liquid Feeds – based behind the livestock market. Company secretary is Anita Padfield from Potter Heigham. There is no physical office between market days, so Mr Ball is first point of contact from his home near Diss.

For a few years market day was Monday, but in 2008, when it was due to fall on Easter Monday, the sale was moved to Saturday instead, and proved much more popular. Within a few months the market had been moved permanently to a Saturday – always Norwich’s traditional market day – boosting sales of sheep in particular.

“There are a lot of part-time sheep farmers in the area who have other jobs during the week. Saturday is lovely for them.”

A typical Saturday at Norwich Livestock Market sees 400 head of finished, breeding and store sheep, 150 head of store and breeding cattle – plus a few fat cattle and cull cows – and 45 calves sold.

On the three acre site is a sale ring with tiered stepping for 300 people, cattle and sheep pens, lorry wash-out facility and car parking. A tea van and rest room keep buyers and sellers refreshed.

The fortnightly market opens at 6.30am, and livestock are sorted into lots ready for auctioneer Keith Rose to start the sale at 10.30am. Sheep are first, then calves, and cattle come into the sale ring from 12noon. By 2pm the market’s finished – but that’s not when everyone goes home.

“The market is a social hub: 250 people or more turn up for the sale and some won’t have seen anyone since the last sale…you don’t realise just how rural some areas are. When we’ve finished selling not all the cars have gone and they’ll still be there an hour later – people catch up and look out for each other.

“Most come to every single sale and we’re a happy family – most of the time! I’ve put my life into the market and I’m very passionate and proud of it. Some days I wonder why ever did I go to that meeting, but really it saved my life – I had been very ill, but determination and dedication to the market gave me a focus and I came through.”

The market is growing, too: the first Sunday Fur and Feather sale on 24 February brought all manner of hens from Legbars and Lavender Pekins to Welsummers and Wyandottes, as well as ducks, rabbits and guinea pigs. Monthly sales continue from May, with the next deadstock sale on 23 March and Red Poll Sale alongside the regular livestock market on 27 April.


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