Internet users can buy just about anything at online auction houses. Now, farmers in Germany are beginning to market and sell their livestock via an Internet auction site.
Going, going, virtually gone
Old MacDonald had a farm - with cows and pigs that went moo and oink. But if the old childrens' song were written today, young MacDonald's farm wouldn't be complete without a computer giving him access to the Internet.
Farmers have been using computers for a variety of purposes for a while. But now some German farmers have begun to use Internet auctions to sell their livestock.
So even the world's smelliest, dirtiest commodity is making itself at home in history's cleanest, most antiseptic marketplace, the digital universe.
Banking on piggies Internet auction houses like ebay are among the most popular websites on the net. You can buy or sell anything from ancient artifacts to computer software.
Why not use Internet technology to auction off livestock as well, thought some German farmers, who set up an auction site for their pigs.
The number of animals sold at virtual auctions is still relatively small. Of the 140,000 pigs traded in northwest Germany every week, a mere thousand are sold via mouseclick.
The globalized pig-sty The idea of the virtual livestock auction is catching on in Europe. Friedrich Harke is one German pig farmer who is beginning to see its advantages.
Until now, he sold his swine to a farming cooperative. The price was fixed weeks in advance and relatively low.
He has now begun to put his pigs up for sale at the virtual pigmarket on the internet. Every two weeks he makes an online sales offer. And a short while ago, he managed to sell his 180 prime pigs over the internet for the first time.
"With this way of marketing this many animals, I get around €23,000 ($20,100) for the entire load of pigs," explains Harke. "If I had done it the conventional way, I would have got around €200 less, and it would have taken three weeks for the money to get into my account. When selling online, I get my money within a week."
One of Friedrich Harke's customers is the livestock trader Hans Bernd Mergelmeyer. Just minutes before the virtual meat market opens, he works out the day's price for a kilogram of meat. A few cent more or less make the difference between a profit or a loss.
Today he doesn't want to spend more than €1.47 per kilogram. But as business opens on the virtual trading floor, all five online offers go for more than 1.47. Too expensive..
But Mergelmeyer still likes the virtual pigmarket. "I don't have to worry about customer service or setting up a sales network," says Mergelmeyer. "I just decide at short notice, whether I want to buy or not, and that really is low maintenance."
A new way of doing business
Mergelmeyer's father Johann remains suspicious of the online market. Fast trading via mouse-click is a different world from when he set up the family business.
"In the old days we sealed a deal by a handshake," he says. "Then you just paid or took your cash and you could load the animals on the truck. Since we have the computers, we just communicate with customer numbers, all the personal dealing is over."
But the trade with real pigs and face to face dealing still exists. Internet livestock auctions are still considered rather exotic in Europe.
Most farmers still sell their animals at traditional livestock auctions. Here, the experts still set the prices just like they did in the old days. And the deal is sealed when the auctioneer's hammer falls, "...going, going, gone."