My Generation
Illinois to Aberdeen: Sale Barns Smell the Same

Illinois to Aberdeen: Sale Barns Smell the Same

Observations from a Scottish sale barn: smells are the same, sheep are prolific, ring men wear white, auctioneers don't call "sold" and more.

One of our first stops after we arrived in Scotland was the ANM Group's Thainstone Market. I've described it to my farm friends as a cross between a sale barn and a mall for farmers, with lots of sheep thrown in for good measure. I'm sure that makes perfect sense.

When you first walk in, it's a sort of courtyard area, surrounded by small farm shops, a lender and the settlement office. Off to one side are two sale rings – one for cattle and one for sheep. Beyond that: holding pens, where we did a rough count of approximately 3,000 sheep. Think about that one for a minute. 3,000 sheep. All to sell in one day. Sheep…as far as the eye could see.

Cattle file in and out of the cattle sale ring; the auctioneer is at top in white, at the podium.

ANM Group is one of the largest farmer cooperatives in the UK, owned by 7,000 farmer shareholders who help direct the business. They specialize in livestock auctions in two locations and online, but they're also involved in land markets, non-ag auctions, events and catering – to the tune of nearly $309 million annually.

Random observations: they dress up on sale day. The farmers and buyers were, in general, in tweed sports coats, wool vests and smart caps. There were very few scroungy coveralls.

The ring men wore white lab coats, as did the auctioneer. And they were still white. Out back, the sale barn guys wore navy lab coats. They did not look like your average sale barn help, which is to say, they weren't covered in manure.

The entire building was clean as a pin.

A panorama of the holding pens. Three thousand sheep were on hand to sell that day.

We spent some time watching several head sell and observed Simmental-influenced cattle selling at 24 to 27 months, and still not finished (age was posted on every animal sold). We learned that in the UK, animals are sold only on weight; there's no premium for quality, no quality or yield grade on the meat. Where in the U.S., some cattlemen will sell on the grid – where every carcass is graded and the producer is paid according to carcass – that doesn't happen in the UK. That bit of information goes a long way to explain why the Simmental breed became so popular: bigger is better, and these Simmentals looked like the Simmentals the U.S. was raising 20 years ago: big, rangey, slow to finish.

It's a similar story in sheep, and one of our tour guides confirmed that the Scotch meat industry would like to see more uniformity in steaks and various cuts, but the producers have no incentive to do so.

I'll be sharing more on Scottish agriculture this week and next, including lots more pictures! Check back here in the coming days and take a look at previous posts in the series here:

10 Things We Learned About Scotland

A Taste of Scottish Agriculture

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