So we went to our local livestock auction last night. And it occurred to me that some folks might be complete livestock auction virgins and that possibly I could be of some assistance in that area. However, it needs to be noted that the advice you’re going to get here (as you’ve been warned previously) is usually of the “Here are some things we’ve done that did NOT end well” sort. Ours is experience normally born of making every possible mistake and living to tell the tale.
I wanted photos. However, that didn’t work out well as: A. We were late B. I am short. C. My view mostly consisted of a sea of shoulder blades, I wasn’t sure anyone would find that interesting. In the interest of authenticity, here is a link to an article by Joya Parsons from several years ago that includes some photos of our local auction. The remainder are not from there, but for illustrative purposes.
Alrighty then. So here’s a Fun E Farm tutorial on attending a livestock auction for the first time as a buyer. As in, all the random tidbits I really wish I had known or thought of before my first few years ago. It wasn’t pretty.
Before I even begin, let me say this. If you are the type of person that has an extremely tender heart for animals, DON’T GO. Just don’t. Livestock auctions are not a place for vegans or card-carrying, protest attending PETA members. This will not be a pet store. It’s not the Humane Society or an animal rescue. The stock being sold are not pets. They are food animals, working animals, and producing or breeding animals. They are property here, not family. It is not likely to be a cushy environment by your standards. It will be crowded pens, noisy, likely your idea of filthy and it will smell. You may observe the use of cattle prods and shock poles and things that may shock you to your very core. You may see sick animals or those who have obviously received less than stellar care. You may see those who were injured in transport and no one will appear to care because they’re going to be purchased by a meat packer within the hour. Just. Don’t. Go. If you do not heed my advice, leave your feelings at the door because you WILL NOT likely find anyone in attendance who will sympathize with your position. And you will be in a place where “When in Rome” is your smartest course of action. I’m not saying you’re right or wrong, don’t light up my inbox with animal rights propaganda please, I’m just trying to be real and save you some angst here. Moving on.
1. Wear appropriate attire. For Pete’s sake, people. This means BOOTS, jeans, workwear of some sort. This is not Storage Wars. Men, dressing like an inner city pimp or his attorney will not impress or intimidate anyone. It will get you lots of attention, though. Ladies, this is NOT the place for your favorite flats or sandals. Same goes for your 400$ Tony Lama suede boots. You’re going to get dirty. And muddy. You will likely, at some point, step in crap of some sort. You’re going to be on your feet for most of the time. Sale barns are also notorious for being unheated and uncooled. If it’s 24 degrees outside, it won’t be much more indoors. If its 97 outside, it will be 112 inside.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH. This could be an article all its own. I highly recommend that before you purchase ANY livestock animal at ANY auction, you attend at least one time prior with no money and observe. First, go early. Find the office and ask questions. Before the auction, not during, when the staff is trying to properly record 11,764 separate transactions. Here are some examples. Must I register before I can bid? What forms of payment are accepted? How do I bid? Where, when, and how, do I claim stock after the auction? Get a schedule, if one is available. There is infallibly a certain order in which items / pens / areas are auctioned off. Sometimes, multiple pens or areas will be auctioned simultaneously. Bring a friend or family member, make a plan and split up. Also, if sale record sheets (market reports) are available online or at the office, look at a couple auctions worth. It will give you a feel for average prices so you don’t overbid. There are no stupid questions, unless you ask them during an active auction. That’s kinda stupid and should be avoided. Stay for the entire auction. People watch. Note the way things are done.
3. Bring cash. At smaller auctions, small stock (rabbits, poultry, fowl, eggs, etc.) is generally sold for cash. On the spot. As in, before the next item is auctioned. You will hold up the works if you are not prepared to provide a bidder number, and immediate CASH payment. Again, this will get you lots of undesired attention. Seriously, everything will come to a screeching halt and all eyes will be on you. Larger stock (hoofstock) is generally sold in a ring, by bidder number from the seating area, and you will pay for all of the hoofstock you’ve purchased in one lump sum at the office after the sale. Checks may have to be pre approved, and a large number of auctions do not take plastic.
4. Go Early. Way early. Some auctions have “preview hours” and some smaller ones will just allow you to “walk the pens” in the hoofstock area before the auction. This gives you a chance to look over what’s been brought in. Bring pen and paper. Note the numbers of anything you think you’d like to bid on. This is also the time for (don’t laugh because I am dead serious) what I call “poop checking”. Check the hindquarters of the animal(s) you’re interested in. Bonus for you if they actually have “exhaust” as you’re observing. All joking aside, poop is a great indicator to hoofstock health. If it doesn’t look as it should, this can indicate a health problem in your intended purchase. Also eye up coats, eyes, noses, teeth and hooves whenever possible. You will learn that these are great indicators of health, age, and the level of care the animal has likely received. This is important. Bring home one goat with coccidiosis, treat your entire herd for a loooonggg time… That’ll learn you, pumpkin. Trust me on this. An entire herd of goats with flying diarrhea is not a good time. If you have even the slightest warning bells, mind them. There will be another auction, and goats will not ever stop making more goats.
5. Set a budget. Stick to it. This is hard, I know, believe me I know. If you are anything like me, this is the killer. If you are going for six hens, don’t buy twelve. If you’ve decided your limit on a goat is 75 dollars, don’t get caught up in the moment and bid 175. Don’t bid on something you aren’t wild about simply because you got shut out on the last one. On a related note, do not buy something you are not prepared to care for or know nothing about. Impulse buying here is not your friend. (Ask me about pheasant, pigeons, or guinea pigs sometime.) And don’t, for the love of all things holy, buy stuff you can’t haul. Our auction doesn’t deliver, most don’t, and those that do charge ridiculous prices for delivery. And you do not, I repeat, DO NOT, want to ride home in a folding lawn chair in a cargo van with a 200 pound horned beef steer breathing on the back of your neck. Voice of experience here, people. True story. Also, do not be this idiot below. It’s likely I (or someone like me) might walk up and hit you, (another true story) and I really just don’t heart jail coffee. (Photo below depicting a similar circumstance) Yes, that’s three, possibly four goats in a trunk, and what is almost certainly a feed sack full of poultry which may or may not be alive.
6. Prep at home before you go. See above. Prep your vehicle for transporting whatever you intend to buy. Have crates and cages or boxes in your truck or trailer. Water, especially in the summer, is advised. Some animals may come into the auction barn in the early morning hours and have little access to food or water through the auction. If you aim to buy bottle babies of any sort, have bottles and milk replacer on hand already. I take full bottles with me. Our closest auction happens at 6 pm on a Wednesday, over an hour from home. There is NOTHING worse than getting home worn slam out at 11 pm, with a truck or trailer full of stock you are not prepared for. Make sure you have a “landing area” prepped for anything you intend to buy. Brooder bins and lights for peeps, pens, food and water. You’re likely going to be exhausted. The stock is going to be stressed. Having wire nippers available at home for removal of ear tags now is much easier than having to catch an animal later or treat ripped ears after a tag has been stuck in a fence. Having a plan and areas prepped will make things go so much easier.
7. Quarantine. I cannot stress this enough. Be prepared to quarantine any stock purchased at an auction for an appropriate time before integrating it with any existing herd or flock on your farm. Separate quarters, separate feed and water containers, everything. If you’re trying to be all organic and un-medicated, understand that auctions are probably not a good buying platform for you. Even if what you bought looks and seems perfectly healthy, understand it was just exposed to the critter equivalent of an auditorium full of snotty, sneezy, kindergartners and all their respective pathogens, germs, and nasties. Every single critter brought onto this farm from an auction is quarantined and medicated. Every one. Every time. They will ALL be given appropriate wormers and vaccinations and preventatives and those will be given time to work before they are integrated. Once they are, it’s a closed flock or herd and only then, any unnecessary meds are discontinued. No exceptions, unless they are intended for immediate sale or slaughter. These may not be the hens you bought, but they may have been their neighbors in the next cage. Once you’re home, handwashing and being mindful of tracking parasites or nasties from one pen to another should be observed. A dishpan of bleach solution to dip the old boots in between enclosures is advisable and will save you plenty of grief later.
8. Type of sale. Ok, so typically, small stock on the barn floor is sold by the piece and without the cage. What this means is that if there is a cage with six hens and a rooster in it and you only want the hens, tough noogies. You’re bidding on and buying ALL of them. You are buying on them as a lot, but bidding on them by the piece. If the winning bid is , say 10$…the winning bidder now owes 70$, as there are 7 birds in the cage. Same goes for rabbits, peeps, most fowl, etc. BY THE PIECE. Box of 25 chicks? 3$ bid? 75$. In the sale ring, smaller hoofstock (like sheep, goats or young pigs) may be brought into the ring in large lots, in which case the winning bidder can opt to take one, all, or any combination. The sold ones will be ushered out, remaining ones will be sold with a new round of bidding. If you’ve picked one goat kid you simply must own, and it’s brought into the ring as part of a lot, this is an important time to pay attention and exercise self control. The people you will be bidding against at this point are likely meat buyers for packing houses. They want them all, they want them cheap. If the price is low enough, they will take them all. Bid for first choice, up to your limit, and if they go over, then quit. Live to bid another day. Larger stock is sold BY THE POUND. That 123 you’re hearing is not a $123 feeder beef steer. It’s $1.23 per pound. All 800 pounds of him. That’s 984 dollars, kids. If you do not know if you’re bidding on something by the piece or pound, don’t bid until you’ve confirmed which. There is typically a scale somewhere above the auction ring which will give an accurate weight and the auctioneer will have announced it prior.
9. Learn your terminology. This is a picture of a sale sheet, or market report.
By familiarizing yourself with the terms on it, you’ve prepped for how things are sold, and if you don’t already know the difference between a boar, sow, steer, bull, cow, calf, ewe, ram, doe, nanny, billy, kid, wether, etc…please educate yourself on those terms before you go. (Hey, I don’t judge, I see it all the time.)
10. Don’t bid against the Amish kids. Well, ok, you can bid…but there are only two possible outcomes here. You’re going to lose or get soaked. Understand that kid probably has more cash in the wallet tucked in his homespun trousers than you do. Know that he’s probably here every time the doors are open. He likely has far more working knowledge than you. He knows what he’s bidding on, knows exactly what he’s willing to pay for it, and he will not stop up to that point. The other conceivable scenario (and I see it a LOT) is he brought it in, and he will bid you up to the price he wants for it or buy it himself to bring back next week rather than see it go for half market price. They’re smart and savvy. You can learn a lot from these young fellows.
11. Keep track of your purchases. Seriously, write it down. Cage number, sticker number, price paid, amount owed, # of heads, etc. You will likely be unable to collect any of your stock until after a particular area or group has finished selling and been recorded in the office. You can and will forget. When you get home, this is also good information for your own records. You’ll thank me later, trust me on this. Bite the bullet and be the nerd writing your stuff down. It also comes in handy when you have to defend your hens from being snatched up later by a non-writer who may mistakenly think he bought them.
So, as this has gone on far longer than I planned, I hope some of these tips are helpful if you’re planning your first trip to auction. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I will address other items in a future post to come.