IT WAS once the event that framed the social calendar and marked the passing of the seasons in every small Australian country town.
Sale day: the day every few weeks that the sheep and cattle auction circuit came to town.
The day when sun-bleached post-and-rail wooden town saleyards with their dust and languid peppercorn trees would spring to life, and ring with the bleating and bellowing of fat lambs, merino wethers and weaner cattle.
The good-humoured yelling of the Elders and Dalgety agents in their pink and blue shirts, moleskins and hats, and the rattle and rumble of the dusty stock trucks were other trademarks of the day.
It was the day when the local graziers, dressed in their Sunday best, came to town in their utes and polished boots, ready to watch their stock being sold and share a beer, a chat and a counter lunch with their farming mates at the local Royal or Victoria Hotel.
The day their wives would shop, collect the mail and gather in the nearby Country Women's Association rooms, kids at foot, knitting and scones in hand.
But that bustling heyday of the country sales is long gone. Trips to town are now not so rare, distances so long or roads so bad. Drink-driving rules have put an end to the sales-day pub lunches, while Facebook has replaced the CWA bush telegraph.
But the final nail in the coffin for the traditional country livestock sales may not be the march of technology but the animal welfare lobby. The RSPCA is pushing to have sheep and cattle sales held at country saleyards banned.
It claims cattle suffer undue stress when they are repeatedly mustered, yarded, loaded on to trucks into town and then kept for 24 hours in cramped saleyards before auction, after which the whole process is repeated.
Victorian sheep and cattle farmer David Sleigh disagrees. He has sold sheep and cattle from his family's Jerilderie and Euroa properties using almost every available method. That includes traditional auctions through the local saleyards, direct to meat buyers who come to inspect stock in his paddocks before taking them away, to other farmers on the internet or direct to the meatworks himself using daily pricing contracts posted on abattoir websites.
New welfare guidelines for the beef cattle industry published by the RSPCA late last year recommended that livestock no longer be sold at saleyard auctions.
It wants internet or direct paddock-to-meatworks sales, which account for one-quarter of all livestock sales, to replace the dominant saleyard auctions.
Mr Sleigh still prefers to truck his cattle to the local Euroa saleyards, 150km northeast of Melbourne, because it gives him a chance to see what meat-buyers want and the competition. "There are swings and roundabouts, pros and cons, in selling either way," he said.
"But I still prefer the saleyards; you can't underestimate the social aspect of it where you can benchmark and compare what you are doing and selling with other (farmers).
"Everyone has a chance to laugh together and catch up on local news and, at the end of the sale, you know exactly what the market thinks your cattle were worth on that day."
Mr Sleigh is not alone. Nearly two-thirds of all livestock sold in southern Australia, and about 40 per cent in northern Australia, are sold through local saleyard auctions to other farmers, fattening feedlots and meatworks.
Online-only auctions using photos and stock descriptions account for less than 5 per cent of all livestock sold in Australia.
Melina Tensen, RSPCA scientific officer for farm animals, says the RSPCA would like saleyards auctions phased out within three to five years.
"It's not our top priority for the worst thing that happens to farm animals right now, nor are we saying ban them straight away, but we are advocating not selling animals through saleyards," Ms Tensen said.
"We say that selling direct (to the meatworks) is a much better outcome for the animal than being auctioned through the saleyards.
"The whole process of an extra yarding, trucking, stressful journey, time off water and feed in the yards and mixing with unfamiliar animals is an extra layer of stress that we think is unnecessary and not in their best interests."
Andy Madigan, head of the Australian Livestock and Property Agents Association, whose 6000 members run the saleyards auctions, believes the RSPCA's position is misinformed, emotive and hypocritical.
"We were totally surprised; a lot of people, including us, respect the RSPCA, but to just come out and say, 'end sales, phase out all sheep and cattle saleyards', is not acceptable," Mr Madigan said.
He said an enormous amount of work had also gone into improving country saleyards to make them more comfortable for livestock, much of it in consultation with the RSPCA.
Most saleyards, many owned by local councils, have been rebuilt in recent years with newer, bigger pens and covered yards to keep the sun off animals.
Many of the smaller country town saleyards, where councils could not afford such upgrading, have also closed, centralising sales in bigger, more modern selling complexes in major regional centres.
Read more on The Australian.