How agritech entrepreneurs are helping cows in the mood for love

Playing cupid to cows isn’t what you’d call a traditional agricultural job, but agri-tech company SellMyLivestock aren’t ones for doing things the conventional way.

The UK-based start-up made headlines around the world last Valentine’s Day after they launched ‘Tudder’, a Tinder-inspired dating app designed to help farmers match potential partners for their cattle.

By swiping right on cows they liked the look of, farmers were taken through to the SellMyLivestock website, where they were able to look at more photos and information about the animal, before deciding if they might like to bring them home to meet their bull.

It might have been a tongue-in-cheek stunt to grab media attention, but there was a point to it: while livestock trading might have gone on for centuries, there is a modern way to do it.

And by making use of the huge amounts of data which are collected about breeding animals, SellMyLivestock wanted to prove that finding and buying the right animals can be easier and more efficient than ever before.

Market closures

The idea for the website came in 2014 when beef farmer Dan Luff was faced with his local livestock market closing down. With his next nearest market in Somerset, he realised he’d have to drive almost 100 miles from his farm in Petersfield to sell and buy cattle.

“It wasn’t an efficient use of his time, and it wasn’t good for the animals’ welfare either,” says Dave Rose, SellMyLivestock’s chief operating officer.

“Journeys of that length cause stress for animals, and Dan was also having to travel from a low to a high-risk TB area.

“It was a trend that was happening across the country as more and more livestock markets closed down, and Dan thought there had to be a better way of doing things.”

A conversation in the pub with his friend Jamie McInnes, a web developer, planted the idea of an online livestock market, and for the next six months the pair worked feverishly alongside their day jobs to get the business off the ground.

Fast forward to today and over 62,000 farmers are using SellMyLivestock and its sister platform, Graindex, which Dan and Jamie set up when they realised there was a similar gap in the grain trading market.

The two websites operate under a single company, Hectare, which has a staff of 16, while Jamie and Dan have been joined by Dave, who came on board as chief executive in November 2019 from a background in commodity trading consultancy.

Growing profiles

It may sound like overnight success, but getting SellMyLivestock to where it is today has, Dave says, taken a lot of time and hard work — and resulted in a lot grey hairs for all of them.

“It’s never a smooth road for any start up: You always have initial rushes followed by troughs of despair, and that can be hard,” he says.

“It always was and still is a very involved business. We have spent a lot of time talking to farmers to make sure we’re offering them the service they need.

“From day one, it’s been a very customer-driven business so that we can help people trade efficiently and create a good place for buyers and sellers. Our number one source of business is word-of-mouth, and we’re very proud of that.”

The service works by sellers setting up online profiles which they populate with as much information about their stock as possible, including pedigree information, vaccination history, health accreditation, pictures, and videos.

Once it’s approved by the SellMyLivestock team, the listing goes live and can be viewed by other members of the website.

“We get about 2000 views on any one listing, which is comparable to going to 15–20 marts to get that many buyers to look at the stock,” Dave says.

“The buyer contacts the seller and they organise going to see the stock and trading face to face. Sometimes, if we get enough information on the listing, we understand that some people will do the whole sale without ever meeting, and we have a secure payments service so they can do that.”

Adding value

While setting up profiles and trades is entirely free for users, it’s these additional services like secure payments, as well as competitive finance deals and haulage, where SellMyLivestock makes a profit.

“It’s about providing value-added services, and over time we will add more optional subscription services,” Dave adds.

Initially the team focused on pockets of farmers across the country to ensure there were cattle and sheep available — “There’s no point having buyers in Aberdeen and sellers in Cornwall; we had to build local markets.” — but today they work with customers and auction markets across the country.

“At first some people thought we were trying to take over the livestock market, but that’s definitely not the case,” Dave adds.

“There’s a fallacy that farmers don’t adopt new technology; if they can see something is useful, they’ll use it.”

“We’re trying to provide people with other options, whether that’s online or offline, and we actually work with auction markets to help them with their stock and find the right buyers.

“Any traditional marketplace seeing an online entrant will be nervous about how it will affect them, and I’m sure there are still a few people who think that it’s the end of a traditional system, but it’s modern life that’s changing.”

And of livestock farmers have felt worried about the new way of selling their cattle and sheep, they certainly haven’t shown it.

To date more than £117m-worth of stock has gone through the SellMyLivestock system, and the services has expanded to include feed and bedding, working dogs and genetics.

“There’s a fallacy that farmers don’t adopt new technology; if they can see something is useful, they’ll use it,” Dave says.

“Our job has been to show that SellMyLivestock is valuable to them, and we are always asking if something is simple enough, whether we’re helping farmers, and whether there are any barriers we need to remove.

“The numbers bear out: Over 62,000 farmers shows we’re making a pretty good job of making it easy for them to use. We just need to keep that ethos as we continue to build our services and help farmers buy and sell their livestock.”

This article first appeared on the NatWest AgriHub

UK journalist currently in the US • Writes about food, agriculture and the environment • Ag policy nerd •

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