The cattle market, Bakewell, Derbyshire.

After six months of mild, mostly dry, sunny weather–so dry that there’s been a 19-month drought–it’s been god-awful for the past couple of months, with much cooler than usual temperatures and what’s seemed like constant rain ranging from mizzle to what’s called “stair rods.”

It’s been so wet that farmers have been unable to do hay-making or silaging.  It’s even too wet to shear the sheep, so they’re hanging around looking sad and shaggy (the sheep that is, not the farmers, though the farmers are definitely fed up and frustrated).  Because of the bad weather that prevents much outside farmwork, Gordon’s been going to market more than usual to buy young bulls.

This morning we got in his Land Rover and headed for the weekly sheep and cattle market. Until a year or so ago, Gordon had a herd of dairy cattle, but the large milk cooperatives have been giving farmers less money for milk than it costs farmers to produce it, so he’s given up dairy and instead switched to raising beef cattle.

The town of Bakewell from the River.  Copyright Ed Rokita

The market is in the historic town of Bakewell, Derbyshire, very close to Chatsworth House which is owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and Haddon Hall, a 12th-Century manor house that was the setting of the movie, The Princess Bride.

The building in which the market is housed is low and modern. As you go in, there are some farming exhibits to the left;  to the right there’s a cafeteria offering English breakfast consisting of eggs, rashers (bacon), sausages, tomatoes, baked beans, toast, and tea.  Straight ahead is a room in which there’s a National Health Service nurse.  Farmers are traditionally loathe to go to doctors, so here the NHS comes to them.

The auction is done through the High Peak Livestock Society, an organization of over 600 farmers, by the auctioneers Bagshaws.  As the program says, the line-up is:

  • 9:30         OTM and Barren Cows
  • 10:30       Prime Lambs followed by Ewes
  • 11:00       Store Cattle
  •                 Feeding Bulls followed by
  •                 Breeding cattle concluding with Steers and Heifers
  • 12 noon    Finished Cattle
  •                Young Bulls followed by Prime
  •                Steers & Heifers
  • 12 noon   Calves

“OTM” stands for “over thirty months.” My cousin Sue tells me that thirty months was the cut-off age during the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis) scare when any animal over thirty months old was prohibited from entering the food chain (i.e., being eaten).  The restrictions have changed, but the term is still in use.  Between 1988 and 2010, nearly 180,000 cattle on 36,108 farms in England, Scotland and Wales were found to have BSE and were slaughtered.

As we near the pens where the cattle and sheep are kept, we have to wade through a bath of several inches of disinfectant to prevent us from bringing diseases in on our boots.  We’re here for the cattle, but first we come to the sheep, which are crowded closely into pens according to which farm they come from.

The auctioneer stands on an elevated platform along the pens;  as you can see, he makes short work of a farmer dressed as a Peruvian sheep-herder.  Farming is hard work, and there’s very little tolerance for poseurs.

Gordon directs me into the area for the cattle auction, a smallish amphitheatre-in-the-round, about half-filled with local farmers.

Watch as he buys a bull.  See if you can figure out which one he is and how he signals his bids.

(In case you haven’t figured out which one he is, he’s the one accepting the “luck money” sent to him from the auctioneer’s assistant.)

When I last went to Derby cattle market many years ago with my grandfather, cows were around 100 pounds each.  In the intervening years, they have become ten-to-twelve times that, but of course everything–feed, pastureland, equipment–has gone up, sometimes even more.

Here’s the auctioneer’s report of last week: “With the weather remaining very unsettled so that grass harvesting and sheep shearing cannot be properly planned at least Bakewell Market remains as a reliable option.

“As a consequence of the changeable weather 510 cattle and well over 2,000 sheep were forward and yet again trade held fast.

“This week’s highlights came in the OTM section with a cull bull at 2,080 GBP [Great British pounds] and a cow at 1,746, but the overall average entry of 132p was also very creditable. . . . trade was exceptional with steers to 1,240, heifers 1,250, and bulls 1,000.  Cows and Calves seem to be flavour of the month with the best outfit at 1,740.  The 82 calves produced remarkable results with Bulls to 428 and heifers 342.

“. . . A vendor had a big bull that was too wide for the scales and sold in the lump for 2,080.”

Gordon has bought four bulls this time. When we’re ready to go, his backs his trailer up to the loading dock, then ushers them in.

From Bakewell market the four bulls go to a new life on Gordon and Sue’s farm, where they’ll graze in the fields, eat grass, hay, silage, and grain, and get fattened up so that they’ll go off to market again, this time to be selected by a butcher.