What to Know BEFORE Going to a Cattle Auction
Updated: Nov 7
Cattle auctions are thrilling.
Sawdust, donuts and a cup of tepid coffee. Multiple sales rings, fast-talking auctioneers and restless, bawling cows. Bids coming fast and furious.
It's auction day and it's easy to get caught up in the auction adrenaline! Before you know it, you're coming home with two adorable Jersey bull calves you didn't even mean to bid on. Thank goodness they're small and will fit in the back seat because you didn't bring the trailer!
Cattle auctions can be a great place to make purchases for your growing farm and ranch. But, they can also encourage an "oops" moment or impulse buy you'll end up regretting. Before you leave for your first cattle auction, it's prudent to understand how auctions work and keep a few "golden rules" in mind.
Different Types of Cattle Auctions
Typically, auction houses hold "regular sales" and "special sales" auctions.
Regular sales are usually held each week (or month) at a specific date and time. They attract all different types of animals. You may see dairy bull calves or dairy cull cows, finished beef, dairy replacement heifers or even starter herds. You'll also typically see other animals, like sheep, goats, poultry and even rabbits. Regular sales tend to be a crapshoot for what's there, which isn't helpful if you're looking for something specific, but prices can be reasonable.
Special sales are set at times by the auction house and advertised. Sellers usually know they are coming up, so they will save animals specific for that sale. If you are looking for higher-quality beef cattle for a starter herd, attend a beef cattle special sales auction.
The other type of cattle auction worth paying attention to is breed-specific auctions. These are held by breed organizations and are an excellent place to purchase superior genetic animals. These auctions are typically held in regional areas on a rotating basis. Some of the rarer breeds might have only one auction a year. To learn about these auction opportunities, follow the breed organizations you are interested in.
Know What You are Looking for Before You Go to a Cattle Auction
Having a plan and doing your research before you go to auction can't be said enough! That auction "adrenaline" has sucked in many a buyer "just going to look" into coming home with a flock of chickens and an angora rabbit of dubious quality.
Think carefully about what livestock your farm needs, what your budget is and give yourself permission to walk away with NO purchases made. If you're buying cattle, make sure you understand what your goals are.
If you're looking to purchase a starter herd, be picky! What breed or type of cow you want? What traits are you looking for? Are the animals you would be purchasing worthy of breeding stock? How do they fit your breeding goals? Check out our post "Livestock Best Breeding Practices" for more information.
Always keep your ultimate goal in mind and weigh that against your auction options (and budget!). To get an idea of cattle prices, check the USDA's auction reports from across the country. Although this list doesn't usually include breed club auctions, it is searchable by state. Breed clubs will typically report their sales prices after their auction on their website.
Don't Purchase Any Animal You Aren't Already Set up to Care For
Remember, you'll be bringing these critters home with you directly after the auction, so think about what you will need to care for them.
Some auctions will keep your cows overnight for pick-up the next day, but most require you to take them immediately after purchase. If you're planning to buy multiple animals over the day, that means loading up your trailer several times as you make your purchases. Either way, it is essential to get your new cows home and settled as soon as possible to reduce stress.
Do you have adequate shelter and fencing set up? Fencing for a few starter calves is a whole different scenario than bringing home a mature bull.
You'll also need to keep your new stock separated from your other animals for 10 to 14 days to watch for any signs of disease.
Purchase Healthy Cows!
This one is a no-brainer, but it can be more challenging than it looks to suss out unhealthy animals in the high-stress auction environment if you are a new cattle buyer.
Look for any signs of significant distress, snotty noses, weepy eyes, strange bumps or rashes. Make sure they aren't limping and are moving freely. If you are purchasing a pregnant (or supposedly bred animal), check for any vulva discharge. Calves should be alert and NOT have yellow diarrhea (scours!).
For those new to cattle buying, this is a great time to enlist the help of a friend with cattle-buying experience. They will teach you plenty in just one auction experience.
Know the Auction Dynamics
Once you've gone through an auction or two, you'll be a pro. But that first time can be daunting!
When you get to the auction, you'll need to stop at the office and sign up for a buyer's number. This is the number you will bid with and present when it is time to settle your bill. Know each auction house's billing policy before you go. Some auctions will take checks, but many will only accept credit cards or cash.
Take some time listening and learning to understand the auctioneer! Most auctions will have more than one ring going on at the same time. It's a lot of noise and it takes time for your ear to adjust. Watch bidders around you (although some are very subtle!) and see how they bid to get a feel for the process. Remember to keep your hand motions limited because, yes, people do accidentally purchase a lot they never meant to.
Go dressed in work clothes and bring hay, water buckets and even a pitchfork to clean up messes while waiting for more stock to load. And of course, don't forget the trailer!
Last but Not Least, Have Fun at the Auction!
Cattle auctions can be a lot of fun. They can be a place to connect with other farmers and ranchers in your region and a good learning opportunity.
Many people are avid auction attendees. You'll find the same sort there every time you go. It can be a "social gathering" to see what's available livestock-wise and check in with the farming neighbors. Don't be afraid to go to a few auctions just to connect, with zero plans to purchase anything.
Last but not least, here is a great website that maintains a weekly calendar of upcoming cattle auctions all around the U.S.
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.