How to Navigate a Livestock Auction

Follow these guidelines on terminology, animals, preparation, bidding and other aspects of buying livestock at an auction or sale barn.

by Candi Johns
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Whether you’ve been raising animals for decades or are looking for your first pair of bottle calves, a livestock auction may be the place to find your next livestock purchase. Livestock auctions are known by many names—sale barns, auction barns, livestock exchanges—but they all provide the same service: an excellent place to source great livestock at fair prices.

People have strong feelings about livestock auctions. There are folks who wouldn’t buy a cow from a sale barn if it were the last cow on Earth. Some of the reasons people avoid auctions include the risks of getting caught up in the bidding process and overpaying for an animal, getting too excited about an unusual animal and making a spontaneous decision that they’ll later regret, and purchasing an animal with a problem or health concern in which they are not equipped to handle. Also, many people don’t like the added pressure of having to make a quick decision. Once the auctioning process begins, there isn’t much time to contemplate before the gavel hits the block and the auctioneer shouts, “Sold!”

Others frequent the sale barns weekly to scoop up good deals and swear it’s the best way to grow a farm operation. No matter what camp you reside in, most can agree that there are many good reasons to attend a livestock auction. Plus, many of the cons and pitfalls can be dodged with a little preparation and discipline.

Auction Benefits

Many experienced ranchers sing the praises of the local sale barn. It can be a great place to find deals, and it often provides the best selection, diversity and opportunity for the hobby farmer or homesteader.

  • No Commitments: If nothing else, the local sale barn is a zero-pressure buying experience. If you happen to find the cow of your dreams, it can be yours that day. If you are just window-shopping and want to know what farm pigs are selling for, you can go and see. There will be no high-pressure salesperson trying to get you to take home a pig. At an auction, the buyer is in control.
    Everyone present has the opportunity to fully inspect the animals, often prior to the auction as well as during bidding. If an animal shows signs of illness, limping or other health concern—buyers can simply pass on that animal. On the other hand, if a buyer is present who is experienced with a particular breed and willing to take a risk, they stand to win the little guy at a very low price.
  • Good Prices for Everyone: You don’t need to buy 50 head of cattle to get a fantastic price at a livestock auction. Animals are often sold one at a time allowing individuals to name the price they are willing to pay.
  • Great Selection: Private livestock or farm sales usually feature limited breeds. There is very little diversity in the selection. Livestock auctions, however, provide the buyer a buffet of breeds to choose from within a category; they also present a menagerie of different stock. Buyers expect to find an assortment of cattle breeds, a buffet of goat options and numerous varieties of sheep. One of the beauties of the livestock auction is that no one knows what will walk through the gates of a popular livestock sale week to week.
  • Friends, Fun, Food: The sale barn isn’t just a good place to find interesting animals at low prices. It’s often the social gathering place of the community. Farmers, cattleman, homesteaders and self-sustainers can all find a place to belong at the local animal auction. Snack bars provide entertainment and junk food for the young and the young at heart. Some even have restaurants inside them.
livestock auction cow

Bringing Home Babies

The transition to the new farm is an important part of the livestock auction purchase. The last thing a farmer wants is to introduce a disease or problem onto his or her property. Here are some simple precautions to take to maintain a healthy farm and homestead.

  • Isolate New Animals: Keep any new livestock separated from your current animals for 14 to 21 days. Any medical concerns—if any—will likely show up within this timeframe.
  • Vet Check: Have a veterinarian provide a routine exam. He or she will be able to take care of any healthcare needs such as deworming, parasite control, pregnancy check, castration, immunizations, vaccinations, hoof health and so on. Follow any recommendations from the veterinarian in order to maintain and prevent problems.
  • Minimize Stress: Provide clean and comfortable housing. Use separate food and water receptacles for new animals.
  • Milk Last: If adding new dairy animals, milk them last.
  • Watch & Wait: Be patient. It’s easy to be eager to introduce a new head to the rest of the family. Waiting a couple of weeks before the formal introductions can prevent future problems.
livestock auction pig
Candi Johns

Auctioneer Advice

Once the decision has been made to visit the local livestock auction, there are a few things to know before placing that first bid.

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In order to help the auction amateur and experienced veterans alike navigate the livestock auction, we enlisted the help of licensed auctioneer, Ricky Timberlake. Timberlake is the owner/operator of Timberlake Auctions in LaGrange, Kentucky, and has been selling great livestock to the highest bidder for more than 40 years. He knows how to navigate livestock auctions and has some tried-and-true tips for the beginner to ensure a happy ending for the farmer and the new farm additions.

1. You Might Get What You Pay For

“The cheapest [animals] aren’t always the best deals,” Timberlake says. “And the highest [priced] ones aren’t necessarily the most expensive.”

As confusing as this statement might appear, it’s a fact that many experienced farmers understand well. What might seem like a steal of a deal at the livestock auction can quickly turn into a pile of veterinary bills and healthcare. Likewise, the most expensive bottle calf at the auction can prove to be worth every penny and arguably the best deal at the house that day. “You can’t give too much for a good one,” is the motto of many seasoned auction participants.

2. Go Prepared

Timberlake cautions the beginner to be a spectator before becoming a customer. He recommends attending a couple of auctions prior to pulling the trigger on a set of goats.

Taking a back seat and watching the action for a few visits allows a person to learn how things work. It provides an opportunity to observe the market and make appropriate bids. You’ll get familiar with the auction language and the expected price and become more comfortable with the bidding process.

3. Ask for Help

Don’t be afraid to talk to the owner/operator of the auction. It’s their job to help. The staff at the auction should be happy to familiarize new customers with the process:

  • how to register,
  • how to bid,
  • what forms of payment will be accepted, and
  • how to load/take home your purchase.

4. Call Ahead

The auction staff can also help customers with specific breed requests and information. Calling ahead can save you a wasted trip. A farmer on the hunt for a Berkshire pig or Jersey cow might wait weeks before the particular breed comes through the auction. A quick phone call can often reveal if a specific selection is on the roster for the night.

5. Arrive Early

Plan to get there well ahead of the actual bidding. This allows you to easily check in at the office, preview livestock and talk to staff about what animals will be auctioned as well as the order of events.

6. Take Along an Experienced Colleague

Timberlake also recommends novices to bring an experienced friend or colleague along, if possible. With experience comes knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is learned, wisdom is lived and most times, it’s in the buyer’s best interest to have someone at their side with a little of both.

An auction veteran will know the lingo. Many terms can be daunting for a newcomer; registered, weaned, bucket-broke, bred, worked, castrated, knife-cut, steer, stag and many other terms will flow rapidly from the auctioneer’s mouth. (See “Say What?” on page 56 for some definitions.) Many of these terms are warning signals; others are a green light to a super buy. Having an experienced farmer by your side is a great way to navigate the foreign waters.

An experienced auction-attendee will also be familiar with the market. Certain times of year, livestock prices will escalate; other times, the market will encounter a lull. A regular will probably know how the industry fluctuates and if it’s a good time for your intended purchase. Lastly,
a knowledgeable ally will probably know a good animal when they see one.

livestock auction
Candi Johns

Say What?

Learn the lingo used at the auction house to get the best deal. Here are a few terms you should know before bidding:

  • Bucket-broke: a calf that has been taught to drink milk from a bucket instead of having to be bottle fed
  • Castrated: testicles have been removed
  • Knife-cut: indicates the castration was performed with a knife verses banding. Knife-cut is preferable to banding by many.
  • Registered: an animal that has official documentation and is cataloged with its particular breed. Registration usually indicates lineage and verifies stock breed. It might also be referred to as “pedigree,” “documentation” or “papers.”
  • Steer: a male cow that was castrated prior to sexual maturity, used primarily for beef
  • Weaned: a calf that no longer relies on its mother’s milk for food and growth but is now dependent on hay, silage, grain, water and mineral for its source of food
  • Worked: a working a group of livestock. This can include vet checks, vaccinations, deworm, parasite control, fly control, preg-checks or other regular maintained of livestock.

What to Expect

Don’t let the auctioneer or the auction house intimidate you. The process couldn’t be simpler. While there definitely will be some fast talking and prices flying around, there’s nothing to fear.

After you arrive at the auction house, check in. Everyone is given a number to be used for bidding. When you want to bid, simply hold up your sign or card. However, don’t be the first one to bid. Watch the bidding. Auctioneers will usually ask for more than they think they can get and then back up. Let someone else start, and jump in if you like the animal and the price.

Also, don’t scratch your head, run your fingers through your hair or wave at someone across the room. If you do, you could end up with an unwanted bull or group of goats. Many bidders don’t use their cards or numbers to bid. They simply raise their hands. Make an attempt to keep your hands in your lap unless you intend to purchase the animal on display.

While you’re three, why not take home a pair? Many farm animals—cattle, sheep, goats, pigs—are herd animals. If this is your first livestock purchase, consider going home with at least two so they have a companion.

Finally, go prepared. If there is a chance you might get in on the auction action, take a truck or trailer to safely transport the newest additions to their new home.

Thanks to the old-fashioned style of buying and selling at the local livestock auction, great animals and great prices are available to everyone. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t buy a good animal at an auction,” Timberlake says. “They’re wrong.”

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.

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