As part of this week’s Mart Focus, That’s Farming profiles Stephen Hannon, general manager at Aurivo Marts and current manager at Balla Mart.
In 2020, Sligo beef farmer, Stephen Hannon, became general manager of Aurivo Marts and was appointed manager of Balla Mart, Mayo.
The Coolfadda, Ballymote native, took over the general manager position from Martin Walsh, who filled these shoes for over four decades.
Stephen joined Aurivo Marts, which operates four livestock mart centres in the west, in 2006, securing two managerial appointments.
“In 2013, I took over the management of Ballymote Mart and Mohill Mart. My career progressed then to its present situation, which is general manager of Aurivo Marts and manager of Balla Mart,” Stephen Hannon told That’s Farming.
“The Aurivo Co-operative own four livestock marts. Balla Mart is the big mart with a Saturday sale and three rings in operation. In addition, there are three smaller marts, namely Ballymote, Mohill, and Ballinrobe.”
Before joining Aurivo, Stephen studied dairy farm management at Kildalton Agricultural College and Clonakilty Agricultural College in 1987. He stated that he gained vast experience managing large dairy farms as part of his studies.
“Before working in the marts, I worked in Dawn Meats factories. So I have vast experience in the cattle business coming from the factory point of view.”
Purchased in 1990 by the North Connaught Farmers, Balla Mart is one of Ireland’s largest livestock marts. Today, the Aurivo-owned mart can facilitate over 1,300 cattle weekly, welcoming an annual throughput of some 40,000 head of cattle.
“There are quite a number of cattle bought in Balla Mart for the export business. So if there is export required, we do it out of Balla Mart.”
“From the backend of the year, in September to December, we would be running the mart at 1,000 to 1,100 cattle weekly, and like any mart, it is the seasonality of it then.”
“Some of the best cattle in the west comes to Balla Mart. The buyers come from all over the country for good store cattle in this mart. A lot of the store cattle here goto the east of the country.”
Furthermore, Balla Mart has a general cattle sale each Saturday, with weanling sales seasonally on Tuesdays.
The manager noted that sales attract suckler-bred cattle predominately, but some dairy-bred entries also. “It is renowned for its entry of continental suckler cows every Saturday.”
“On a Saturday, we sell every category of cattle in the summertime of the year. We start intake at 7:30 am. Then we start bullock sales at 10:30 am, heifer sales at 10:45 am and cull cow sales at 11:00 am.”
“Balla Mart covers a huge area of Westport, Achill, parts of Sligo, and Roscommon. At the peak time, the mart would have a staff of 35 people working, with three full-time and the rest part-time.”
“We have a range of very experienced auctioneers who do an excellent job for us in selling the cattle. We have one full-time auctioneer, Ray Clarke, with others subcontracted in.”
‘Mart management is a challenge’
According to the manager, “2020 was a difficult year with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
“We did manage to sell a record number of cattle since we were closed last December all online, with nobody around the mart.”
“Covid-19 has made it a challenging year. But, I think we did fantastic work around these places to keep them open and keep them moving along.”
According to Stephen, the primary challenge as a mart manager is “to get cattle sold at a good price and keep repeat business with sellers”.
“Mart management is a challenge, and no two days are the same. Every day is a challenge around the mart. It is good for me, and that is it. The marts will be the marts, but I am sure computerisation might change a bit more. It has done its changes.”
“The satisfaction of the job would be dealing with the superb quality cattle that go through this mart and dealing with the public. Cattle are all finding homes in different parts of the country.”
Furthermore, Stephen noted that his predecessor left Balla Mart to him “well-invested and in good shape for the future”.
“The big change was the online selling. We had to change the way we have done business years before that with the new online system. That has bedded in and has been very successful.”
Commenting on customer feedback using the MartBids online system in Balla Mart, Stephen said, “sellers like it and buyers like it”.
“They can do it [business] from the comfort of their own home. They do not have to be around these places [livestock marts] anymore.”
“The online system worked very well and very quickly except for a few very minor teething problems at the start. After that, it settled in very well and has been very successful.”
“It is a new way of doing business, and that is the big change that has taken place since I took over. But, online trading is here to stay, and it will definitely be part of the future.”
“At this point, we are back with the buyers around the ring; 80% of the cattle are bought around the ring, with 20% bought online.”
Reflecting on changes he has seen throughout his managerial roles, he said, “there have always been changes in the mart industry”.
“Technology has moved on massively over the last twenty years, and it has become very computerised. There is a great mart system in place here, and it led into the newest part of it, which is the online system.”
When commenting on the future of marts, the Sligo native highlighted the importance of youth involvement. “If you do not have the youth involved, you are going to run into a problem with age.”
“We see Balla Mart has a lot of young people in the business now. This is because the online system has attracted a lot more younger farmers in the business compared to when there was no online system.”
“There will always be a future for marts; they [livestock marts] will always be wanted. It is where sellers will get the most accurate price for their livestock, going through the live auctions system.”
Additionally, he noted that Balla Mart is critical to the local economy and a source of income for many. “It brings part-time employment to the area, and the local mart is very important in any local area.”
“It gives part-time farmers that would be working at home an extra source of income coming working for us on mart day,” Hannon concluded.