Beef: Purchasing Cattle Through the Auction Barn

My extension colleagues and I often get calls from landowners hoping to get into the beef business. After much discussion, and after we’ve hopefully convinced them that they need adequate fencing and handling facilities, they may be ready for cattle. I usually recommend that they start with yearlings to graze for a season or two to get used to managing and handling cattle.

The next question is where to get the cattle. Cattle can be purchased directly from other farmers, an order buyer or through an auction. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but this article will focus on purchasing through a livestock auction.

There are several reasons for using an auction barn to source cattle. First, there are a lot of cattle in one location to choose from. When buying directly from a farm, the selection is limited. Second, depending on the auction facility, the cattle will be sorted into similar lots separated by sex, weight and color. Finally, the auction method of selling will usually determine the true value of the cattle that day.

For the first-time buyer, an auction barn can be a daunting place, full of people, cattle and what seems like a lot of confusion, with no rhyme or reason as to what is happening. But there is order, and you need to take the time to unravel the mystery.

Your first step is to understand that auction barns have two types of sales: regular weekly sales and “special” sales. The purpose of the regular weekly sale(s) is to merchandise whatever comes in that day. The predominant type of animal will be dairy bull calves, dairy cull cows and finished beef. The buyers are “meat” buyers. This means that, with the exception of some dairy bull calves that will go to a farm to be developed into veal, most of the animals will go directly to slaughter. Occasionally some younger cattle will be offered up for bid, but the selection will be limited.

A special sale merchandises a large number of similar cattle that generally do not go directly to slaughter. These can be dairy sales, replacement beef sales or feeder calf sales (i.e., young cattle that will be grown to a finished weight for slaughter as beef). These auctions attract greater numbers of cattle with a specific audience in mind. This is where you’ll find young cattle for your first-time purchase. You’ll need to call or check the auction facility’s website for the dates of these special sales.

Once you know the dates, attend one or two sales without planning to purchase. You need to become familiar with the surroundings. Locate the office (where you’ll go to obtain a buyer number), the sale ring, and the pens where the cattle are housed. Arrive before the sale starts and find the manager/owner. Let them know that you’re a first-time buyer and what type of cattle you’re interested in. One of their roles is to help you find what you’re looking for.

In addition, ask about how the sale is structured. In what order do the animals sell? How are they packaged – as singles, multiples, single owners, commingled with other owners, health management? Once you’ve made your purchase, when can you pick them up? Most of the owners/managers and their employees with whom I’ve spoken are more than happy to assist. They want a satisfied customer and will work with you to meet your needs.

At some point you need to decide what type of cattle you want to purchase; this is based on the intended market. Let’s assume that you’re looking for cattle to graze during the summer. In general, the buyer of your cattle wants healthy cattle that are capable of gaining 400 pounds and achieving low Choice grade. To do that, the following factors must be considered.

Number – You need a minimum of two head. Cattle are social animals and will not do well if raised alone.

Weight – On pasture, cattle will gain 1.5 to 2 pounds per day. If you have a 180-day grazing season, these calves should gain 270 to 360 pounds. The average finish weight will be around 1,250 pounds. They should leave pasture weighing 800 to 900 pounds, which means they should weigh 550 to 650 pounds when turned out to pasture. Calves typically decrease in price (cost per pound) as they get heavier. However, purchase weight and finish weight are not directly correlated unless you account for age.

Size – Cattle finish at different sizes, just as each of us is a different height. With some exceptions, large-framed animals, like Charolais and Simmental, are finished at 1,300-plus pounds, and medium-framed animals, like Hereford and Angus, generally finish at 1,100 to 1,200 pounds. There are also small-framed animals that will finish at less than 1,000 pounds. A cattle feeder generally wants to put 400 pounds of gain on his purchased cattle; therefore, a small-framed steer will be undesirable at 700 pounds, while a medium-framed steer may be undesirable at 1,000 pounds. In general, small-framed animals will always be discounted.

Breed – Based on our research and common knowledge, Angus (black) cattle garner a premium compared to all other breeds. Holsteins receive the greatest discount, followed by straightbred Herefords.

Gender – Bulls and heifers are discounted compared to steers. Bulls must be castrated, and with that comes the risk of infection and reduced growth. Heifers do not gain as efficiently as steers and often do not reach as heavy a finish weight.

Muscle – Muscle size also has a range, from light (Holstein) to heavy (Charolais). Light-muscled animals are discounted compared to those with more muscle.

Horns – Horned cattle will be discounted compared to polled or dehorned cattle.

Age – Older animals are discounted relative to younger ones, especially at lighter weights. The extreme examples are cattle that are stunted due to lack of adequate nutrition or disease. These animals will be severely discounted.

Health management – Properly preconditioned cattle bring a premium. This means they have been vaccinated, and if required a booster vaccine was given at least three weeks prior to the sale date. Preconditioning reduces illness due to the stress of movement from the home farm, through the sale barn and to the purchaser’s farm. While it is widely believed that the sale barn is the source of illness, the main cause is the stress of transportation.

Cattle condition – This one is a bit more subjective. Cattle that are not completely shed out, look droopy, are not active in the ring, are excessively covered in mud or manure, and/or have a heavy nasal discharge are suspect and will be discounted.

Lot size – Finally, when possible, purchase animals in as large a group as you can manage. A group of five steers from one farm will be less prone to illness than steers purchased from five different farms, and their genetic makeup should be more similar. However, don’t sacrifice the above factors for the sake of purchasing from a single owner.

Before making a purchase, talk with your veterinarian regarding a receiving program for newly purchased cattle. Even if you purchased preconditioned cattle – which is extremely advisable for the first-time buyer – repeating these vaccines along with some of the shorter-duration nasal vaccines may be recommended. You will also need a protocol for treating sick cattle and shoud have the antibiotics on hand.

Putting all these pieces together can be a challenge, which is why it’s important to attend a few sales before making a purchase. Watch what cattle bring the highest price – what do they look like? What about those bringing a low price? Cheap is not cheap unless you know what you’re doing. If you leave the sale barn the day of purchase with cattle that are in the lower end of the price range, then I would be concerned about the quality purchased and how salable they’ll be when you market them. “You get what you pay for” is just as true for cattle as it is for any other commodity.

The last step is to get the cattle home as soon as possible. Many auction barns will allow you to load out while the sale is still going on. The sooner the cattle can be settled in their new environment, the healthier they will be. Fresh water and medium-quality (12 to 14 percent crude protein, or CP) grass hay should be provided free-choice. If allowable for your intended market (e.g., no grain allowed for grass-finished), a 14 to 16 percent CP starter pellet or grain can be gradually introduced.

Auctions can be a great place to source cattle. Indeed, the majority of cattle purchased to put on summer grass in the U.S. come from auction barns. Take the time to learn what quality looks like, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance, and until you can be classified as a true “cattle jockey,” don’t buy the bargain of the day.