Buying cows from a salebarn

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Aug 21, 2009
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I am looking to add to my fall cow herd and I was wondering if there is a disadvantage to buying from a salebarn vs. off the farm? Also, what questions should I be asking when looking at cows at the salebarn or farm either one?
If you don't know what you're looking for, you need to stay away from the salebarn and find you a local person that has a few too many cows.

At the salebarn, it's easy to end up with the culls and problem cows. Find someone reputable in your area and let them guide you. Lots of extra cows around in most areas now.

Good luck.
I agree with what the others have posted, but you can find salebarn bound cows that are worth having. A neighbor won't sell you junk (make that a good neighbor), but he might have a cow that is off synch on calving with the rest of his herd, related to his bull or many other reasons that you won't care about, but that makes him mark her for culling.

I sent one to market this spring who had twins last year and didn't breed back until November. She wasn't bad, but she wasn't good enough for me to deal with a summer calver and then hold her off until spring to breed her to get her back in synch. She'd have made an okay cow for somebody.
cowluv":3cjgdsbv said:
I am looking to add to my fall cow herd and I was wondering if there is a disadvantage to buying from a salebarn vs. off the farm? Also, what questions should I be asking when looking at cows at the salebarn or farm either one?

I think you're always better off buying from an individual. But if you can talk to the people bringing cattle to the sale barn, that would work, too. Some sale barns run "replacement female" sales. At the ones we've been to, the owners of the cattle were there to talk to potential buyers.

At the sale barn they're stressed and exposed to diseases. Unless you can get some info on the herd health progam from the owner you could be bringing in diseases to your herd.

If you buy from an individual, ask why they're selling those cows. Sometimes they're just downsizing; sometimes the cow is nuts. Ask about a herd health program. Calves who didn't get enough or quality colostrum at birth can be affected through their entire lives. Age? Disposition? Production?
From someone who has probably bought 1,000 cows from the salebarn. It can be done but it is not for the inexperienced. I learned that the hard way. The advice given above is very good.

That said I still buy cows from the salebarn, and off the farm, bought some yesterday. Some are good, some are bad, and some should be in the kill pen. Some belong to farmers culling for whatever reason, some belong to traders who will make sure you pay more than they are worth. All cows on the farm are not farm fresh, some just there till the next sale(or the next sucker). Think about all this before you get in over your head.
I always have cows for sale but you get what you pay for. ;-)
Thanks for all the advice. I can see the contrasts between sale barn and private owner stock.
It depends on where you are. In East Texas we buy and sell cattle just like some folks hunt, fish or play golf. People put together cows from sale barns and then offer them to people who for whatever reason won't buy them from a sale. On the other hand, I have seen people go to s asale and buy cows that they had no business buying or gave too much.

Special replacement sales are a good place to go look. Many barns are having these as a way to help consignors sell cattle without that person having to spend countless hours showing cattle to folks who are just looking.
I have bought cows from guys that do just that, go to the sale barn and then peddle what they have bought. I have never gotten burned but there is only a couple of them I will deal with. I've never had the time to go to the local sale barn but I've got to the point where I was thinking about doing it.
There can be a huge disadvantage to buying at a stockyard vs. off the farm. If you have had good luck with the guys you have delt with and feel like their prices are fair my advice would be to let them buy instead of doing it yourself. Especially if you dont know exactly what to look for in the cattle. Odds are if you cannot look them over real good in the back of the barn before the sale you might miss a problem on a cow when she comes through the ring at a fast pace. Also at some barns the buyers make a joke of sometimes riding farmers or other new buyers when they see them bidding to discourage them to try and buy anything. JMO

Circle H Ranch
Very few cows that are on the farm are actually fresh---most were bought at a sale and then are being passed off as fresh on the farm. I have much better luck buying at the sales barn. We have about 15 sales barns within 80 miles of my house (used to be 20) so almost all cattle are bought and sold through cattle auctions. Things to do if you are going to buy at a sale. Know what you want and what you are willing to pay. Go through the pens and look at the cattle. Have they had sale tags on them previously? You can tell by glue or skinned places or if tags seem to be in different places on each cow, they are probably covering old tag marks. Look at eyes, are they clear? If ears are down, feet, how they walk, if something seems wrong, it probably is. Does the cow have a good udder? You cant always tell in the ring. Does the cow have any swollen areas? Those can tell if the cow has been given anitbiotics recently. Does the cow stink? Any unnatural smell can be a sign of a major digestive problem. Most barns have the checkin slip copy on the pen gate. Look at the slip---who is selling the animal? Is it a private person or the sale barn owner---with experience you can recognize cattle jockey names. Does the cow act wild or does she try to get away from you? She is probably too crazy. If a worker comes by, just ask offhand if he knows who brought these cattle in. Some people like to talk and will give you the whole story, others will beat around the bush---that can tell you something. I will ask the unloaders who brought certain cattle in that I am interested in. They are usually pretty talkative. Then, if you want the animal, decide while you are looking at her what you are willing to pay. Do not wait until you see her in the ring and the bidding starts or you are likely to pay way too much. I buy 300-500 cows per year at sales barns and have bought twice that in certain years. It takes experience and if you take a friend, make sure that friend knows what they are doing---you can make just a big of a mistake relying on a friend who just thinks he knows what he is doing. Also, if the sale barn will not let you walk around the pens, don't buy there----the insurance excuse is just an excuse to keep you from learning what you need to know about the cattle. Best of luck
Yeah, we have bought a lot of good cattle at sale barns

And I have sold a lot of dammed good cows at sale barns.

In fact I have sold entire crops of steers, replacement heifers and bred cows at sale barns.

If anyone says they only send junk to a sale barn, they are not big players - they are shipping in onesies and toosies.

You take a ranch or farm that is sending off 100 plus animals - they are sending some quality there - and buyers for various companies are there to pick them up

Packers show up to feed their vertically integrated systems and yes, feedlots show up to fill their pens, ranches are there to pick up a bunch of replacements, or they are there to buy a bunch of bred cattle to put on grass.

Remember this:

If you are buying young stock, bred stock or just some replacements - the advice you got from Stocky is solid.

Here is some additional that is as solid.

You go to the vet - BEFORE you buy - and find out what medical protocol s/he recommends - and follow it.

Soon as you bring the new animals home - start that protocol.

Isolate, vaccinate and provide fresh food and water.

Biggest buy I personally ever made was just over 400 breds at a dispersal sale - never lost one animal by doing what the vet said. Spend that money to protect your investment.

As an aside - we calved that big buy out out - rebred them and sold everything the following fall - bred cows and some real good calves - the good old days when one could make money at it.

You find a dispersal sale - retired guy getting out, a family death - or someone just tired of the game - get there a day early and look them over and pick your bids.

Smallest buys were one animal buys.

Only time I ever lost a sale barn animal or regretted buying a sale barn animal that I can immediately think of was in buying day olds - they die sometimes. But they die when born on the farm as well. This is a game I do not play - some are good at it - I am not and have no interest in learning it.

If you are a newbie with a mentor you go and have fun.

There are some real deals to pick up - I have seen what people sell across the fence to neighbours on this site and the quality of what crosses over through private sale seems to be going down in a lot of cases if the pics are any proof - and prices seem to be going up.

Sale barns at various cattle "run times" are ideal to get some real good animals - have fun and spend wisely


Going to throw this option out there.

If you have a neighbor that goes to the salebarn a lot you should tag along with them to learn what you can. We have one neighbor who is an older man and he pays my grandpa a small fee for him to just buy calves for him since the neighbor isnt very good at reading cattle and my grandpa is. Another neighbor also goes along with my grandpa and asks a lot of questions after the sale about things my grandpa observed or what he thought about different cattle that went through. That seems like a good way to learn to me. You have to be quick and pretty observant at salebarns.

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