The rhythmic auction chant echoed through the small arena-like stands under a corrugated-iron roof. It might have sounded like double Dutch to those not familiar with it, making sense only when the auctioneer announced the bidding prices.
Gibberish it might be to some ears but the auction cry – as the chant is sometimes referred to – determines the business of the day. It could make sellers’ hearts palpitate – some even confessed to saying silent prayers for the bid to keep shooting up. For the buyers, though, no one wanted to be outbid on any stock.
Auction in action
City Press attended a livestock auction at Buhrmansdrif just outside Mahikeng, North West, last week, where the majority of sellers were small-scale farmers.
Staff members led the cattle, goat or sheep into the parade kraal one by one, or more depending on their body sizes. The auctioneer took a good look at the animal, assessed it and then swung into action with the start-up bidding price he deemed fit for what was in front of everyone’s eyes.
With his eyes moving from one corner to the next in search of bidders in rhythm with his chant, he kept on pushing the price higher and higher until no hands were raised, leaving it to go to the highest bidder.
It was easy to spot the buyers – mainly commercial farmers dressed in khakis.
They normally occupy one side of the stands and it was much the same this time around. There were not too many of them, but they sat together, laughing and chatting in between bids.
They might have been sitting together but they were also competing against one another. Almost all of the visible 10 or more buyers gave their undivided attention to every animal that was ushered into the kraal.
But not all the buyers or commercial farmers were alike.
Casually clad in a jacket over a kurta – a collarless long shirt usually worn by cultural groups in Asia – with socks and sandals, one man cut a forlorn figure as he stood at the back of the steel stands.
He could have been any bystander. But that was until he raised his bright yellow bidder’s card. It was clear then that he was bidding to buy one of the biggest bulls at the auction.
This man was one of the big buyers of the day and even the auctioneer would not let the bid die until he had at least turned his head to his side twice – or even more – to ensure the man was not attempting to outbid anyone.
When approached, buyers showed no interest in discussing the prices they paid for the stock.
Only one of them said he had got a “good buy, especially for the small stock” – the goats and sheep.
It was mostly small-scale farmers who were the sellers at an auction like this. Buyers were mostly commercial farmers who bought the animal, fed and fattened it, before selling it to the meat market or breeders.
Among the small-scale farmers was Kgosietsile Leepile from Loporung village, about 90km away. To prepare for the auction he had driven about 70km the day before to Mahikeng, where he hired a trailer for R500 a day and then drove back to Loporung. He loaded his three cattle in the morning with “not so much enthusiasm because I knew already they were not going to fetch much”.
“Things have been really bad since the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown was imposed … Our stock is being bought at very low prices and there is nothing we can do about it; we can’t return home with those cattle in trailers.
“We’re told restaurants and other bigger customers in the red meat market are still closed and that is why the meat is not selling for much. The commercial farmers are just stockpiling as the demand has lowered drastically,” Leepile said.
He was not eager to disclose how many of his cattle he sold or what he was paid. “It’s like your wanting me to disclose my salary … Small-scale farmers would not do that. Just know that, on average, cattle sell for between R8 000 and R7 000, or less. Small stock, such as sheep, are even cheaper and it is sad to leave them like that – but do we have a choice?”
Another small-scale farmer and traditional leader, chief Sandylands Motseoakhumo, from Makgobistad village, agreed with Leepile.
“It has been really bad lately and it was worsened by the sudden change in the socioeconomic pattern, with many people staying home and not getting paid, leaving it to fathers and other breadwinning farmers who have to take care of their families.
“These poor farmers cannot at any time say no, even if their stock is bought at the lowest prices … They need that money more than ever now,” Motseoakhumo said.
“Small-scale farmers were hoping for things to improve after auctions were banned for months because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the country. Then, just as the end of the tunnel was beginning to light up, Covid-19 hit our shores.
“I guess things will improve once this virus outbreak is contained and the market demand goes back to normal.”
One good result of the lockdown, said Leepile, was that it had greatly reduced the number of stock thefts.
“Animals are still being stolen, but the number of thefts is not as high because people do not want to risk loading a herd of cattle and transporting them to another area because they are bound to drive into a roadblock. This visible policing aimed at enforcing lockdown regulations is good – but the virus outbreak is killing us financially,” he said.
Low bidding prices
Not every small-scale farmer goes to the auction to sell.
“I am new to stock farming and in the past few months I have been buying whatever I can at the auction. I can attest that, having studied the bidding prices for a long time, even before the lockdown, the stock is selling at very low prices, which is bad for sellers but good for those like me,” said farmer Edison Motlhono from Mahikeng.
“I know someone whose bull was taken for about R18 000 when he had been expecting it to go for more, for about R30 000, and having turned down offers for R20 000 in the black market … on top of what he makes at the auction he still has to pay taxes.”