How Cattle are Bought and Sold

Earlier in March, we set out to buy a few more bred heifers to expand the size of our herd (A heifer is a cow that hasn’t given birth to her first calf yet). While this is a common occurrence for a cattleman, for folks that don’t have cattle the question might come as to how a person purchases cattle. After all, it’s not like you can run down to Walmart or the Home Depot and get a few more cows.

I’d like three gallons of latex paint, an 18 volt drill, and four steer calves. Make them Red Angus.

Cattle are sold through multiple avenues. But all types of sales fall into two basic categories–a private treaty or an auction. In a private treaty, a seller advertises the cattle, which attracts a buyer. The buyer and seller then negotiate for a fair price.

The auction method requires a bit more work. The seller contracts an auction market to sell the cattle, and all potential buyers place bids on the cattle. The highest bidder takes the cattle home. The advantage of this method for the seller is multiple people are “negotiating” for a price at once, potentially giving the seller more profit. The disadvantage is the auction market takes a commission off the sale.

Auction markets come in many forms. They can be temporary, such as many bull sale auctions are, or even virtual, which are conducted over the internet with video of the cattle and bidders worldwide. Traditionally though, most auction markets were (and still are) conducted at a central location called a “sale barn”. Here cattle are brought in by the seller and placed in the sale ring in front of the bidders when the cattle are sold. Since sale barns have several sellers consigning their cattle on the same day, they attract several buyers. This setup allows for sellers to get a fair price, and buyers the opportunity to see a larger selection of cattle.

This is the way we bought our newest bred heifers. Mom and I went to the sale barn before the auction started Friday morning and looked through our options. We picked out a few different options, and when our favorite came through the ring we had the winning bid. Their nice, gentle, black and black baldy heifers that are going to start calving April 6th.


Our new heifers! This one in particular wanted to say “hi”. The “P” on the rumps of the other ones mean that they were checked and proven pregnant.

Since nearly all cattle are sold as a live animal at some point in their life, it is critical for their to be a way for buyers and sellers to find a fair price and exchange animals. Whether it is at a sale barn, on a video auction, or just in the cattle pens and sealed with a handshake, cattle are being bought and sold all over the country right now. And next fall, the calves out of these heifers will be a part of that process too!


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2 responses to “How Cattle are Bought and Sold

  1. They all look like they need a bath. Or doesn’t that matter to cows?
    I know it really doesn’t. But the one looking at the camera is very cute if that counts for anything. I once was lost at a sale barn when I was 3ish. Best part was the candy I got from the office ladies.

  2. I appreciated your explanation of how cattle is generally bought. It makes sense that whether through auction or private treaty, the price is generally negotiable. I’d imagine then it would be helpful to have some basic knowledge of what to look for in each type of breed before going to purchase cattle so you know what to look for.

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