How Not to Act in the Sale Barn

A greenhorn's guide to auction etiquette.

| January/February 2009

Thinkin’ about buying a dairy cow, maybe a couple of lambs or a steer to fatten up in your pasture, but don’t know any local producers who might have animals for sale? Then how about pulling on an old pair of boots and heading for the nearest livestock auction barn?

Rural America’s version of the stock market, auction barns are where livestock producers and buyers gather to buy and sell animals ranging from cattle, swine, goats and sheep to horses and llamas. More than 1,000 livestock auction barns still operate across the country, according to the Livestock Marketing Association, and they’re a great place to learn the nuances of buying and selling livestock.

You can find the auction barn nearest you by checking the phone book, going online, or calling your county extension agent. Be sure to call ahead, since most auction barns only have sales on specific days of the week, and certain auction days may be reserved just for beef or dairy cattle, or for goats or swine. The Farmers Livestock Auction in Booneville, Missouri, for example, auctions hogs and cattle each Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. Be sure to ask the auction barn if they offer single animals for sale, in case you’re not looking to buy a hundred head of steers.

It’s important to get an idea of how much you should expect to pay before you put on your cowboy hat and head out. Beef cattle, sheep, goats and pigs are usually sold by the hundredweight, while dairy cows are sold by the head. You can get a good idea of recent selling prices online at

Know the lingo before you set off. If you want an animal to fatten on your pasture, you’re looking for a weaned calf or yearling, or maybe a lamb or a young pig (otherwise known as a shoat). A young dairy heifer that’s 7 months pregnant is called a springer. A dairy cow that is presently giving milk is called “fresh,” while a cow that is not bred is called “open.”

If you’re serious about buying a farm animal that day, take a truck with a livestock rack or an enclosed animal transport trailer with you. If you don’t own one, maybe you can bribe a neighbor to haul home your bovine, ovine or porcine acquisitions. It’s generally not a good idea to load a calf or a couple of goats in the rear of an SUV. If you do, be sure to stock up on a dozen of those little scented pine tree thingies that dangle from your rearview mirror, because poop is … inevitable.

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