How Not to Act in the Sale Barn

A greenhorn's guide to auction etiquette.

| January/February 2009

  • Outside the auction ring
    A cowboy sorts cattle into corrals outside the auction ring at Gallagher Livestock in Fallon, Nevada.
    Scott T. Smith
  • National Western Junior Auction
    Assisting the auctioneer, ringmen watch for bids from the crowd during a National Western Junior Auction.
    courtesy National Western Stock Show
  • Bull sale in Nevada
    Prospective buyers take a closer look at the merchandise during the annual bull sale at the county fairgrounds in Elko, Nevada.
    The Image Finders
  • Gritty goes to the auction
    Our pal Gritty only wanted to greet a dear friend ... now he owns a dozen head of cattle.
    Brad Anderson

  • Outside the auction ring
  • National Western Junior Auction
  • Bull sale in Nevada
  • Gritty goes to the auction

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.

11/3/2018 10:51:48 AM

I loved this article! As a long time cattle rancher in Northern Ca., going to livestock auctions was a fun part of the business process. Listening to the cadence of different auctioneers was a challange at first, until you finally “get it”! It reminded of a funny story about auctioneers, since I also worked on commission sales, for a “Ducks Unlimited” group, where we’d sell tickets, then later, we’d display all of the auction items throughout the banquet hall. One year, they had the worst auctioneer ever. He’d put out the bid, & close it, within just a few bids, with other bidders that I knew were “ballers”, who took a minute to bid, still attempting to bid, & they were getting really frustrated & angry. Of course I was acting as a “spotter”, but he’d ignore all of my attempts to get his attention, & I finally got so frustrated, I went up to him between items, & tried to talk to him about it. He was really rude, & said, “well if they want the item, they better jump on it as soon as I open bidding”. Uh, no, it doesn’t really work that way, & since it’s a charity auction, skipping out on the majority of the highest bids wasn’t too smart. We kind of had words, & I told the chairman of the club what a crappy jerk the auctioneer was. He wasn’t asked back the next year, fortunately! The whole auction culture really gets under your skin, I guess!

6/25/2018 12:02:33 AM

I grew up going to the livestock auctions in Fallon, Nv as well as Modoc, Cottonwood, and Orlando Calif. Still my most favorite way to spend the day! Lol I even watch the cattle auctions on RFDTV when I get a chance. It gets in your blood! I was not even 2 when I yelled at Modoc that pig in the ring was my Sally! She brought the highest price of a sow all day! 😍😢 Just wanted to share my love of cattle auctions. Thank you for the memories!

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