I managed a sale barn in east-central Mississippi, right next to the Alabama line in Lauderdale County, for ten and a half years. The shape and size of sale barns in America can be as diverse as the regions and people they serve, so to give an idea of my particular area: this part of the state, historically, was full of pine trees, not open range as you would find north of Lauderdale County where people kept larger herds of cattle.
People nearby kept a few cows, usually small-sized herds of about 30 head per ranch, plus a half-dozen or so big producers nearby. That number would have been larger had it not been for the extreme droughts we experienced in our region in 2000 and 2001, which resulted in a great number of healthy cattle that went to slaughter, since no one had the water to spare. That caused a dwindling of the area herds, as well as the number of sales we made per week in the years to follow. During my decade at the sale barn, we handled between 200 and 500 animals per week, from cattle to hogs to goats.
A sale barn is a facility for producers within a certain geographic area to sell their livestock at auction. Beyond the bare bones of a sale ring and pens, it needs to furnish everything a producer would want when it comes to bringing cattle to sale—a clean, safe building for the people and animals, experienced handlers, a good auctioneer, and above all else, a good slate of regular buyers who will bring the price to a competitive level every week.
Throughout the year, certain months were guaranteed to be busy. Calves born in the fall will be ready to market on the first of April; the calves born in January, February or March would be ready to market by September and October. November and early December are busy with people selling off their cull cows, which don’t need to go through another winter and aren’t going to calve again. Those were the big months, while summer—June, July and August—were the slowest
Our weekly sale started at one o’clock Monday afternoons. Every Sunday morning we would swing the gates open to start receiving and tagging cattle, and we stayed open late into the evening. The animals were tagged in the order in which they came, beginning with #1 and working all the way up to the last animal brought in on Monday morning before the sale. Different barns determine their sale order in different ways, but we advertised that we would sell our cattle in order, which was the fairest way we could think of.
As the cattle came through, we also put them into categories, first separating the stocker cattle—the cows that were in good enough shape to go back to the farm—from the slaughter cattle, which weren’t going back. The stocker calves would make up the third group. We kept a competent, licensed veterinarian on hand, aging and pregnancy-testing all of the stocker cows on the spot. Then we would pen the cattle on one side of the barn, being sure to position the stocker cattle where people could take a good look at them before the sale started.
Once the sale began, we brought them into the ring in this order: orphaned calves, stocker cows, stocker bulls, slaughter cows, slaughter bulls and, finally, stocker calves. As the animals moved through—as individuals or in a group, depending on the seller’s specifications—the auctioneer quickly worked out the right price among the buyers, to keep the sale moving along.
The most important thing was to keep the sale moving quickly, coordinating the efforts of the auctioneer and the cattle handlers so that it didn’t get bogged down—the prices tend to slow down on level with the pace of the sale. If the seller doesn’t get the price he thinks he should have, he always has the option while the cattle are still in the ring to pass out and take them home again.
Finally, once sold, the animals were weighed and penned on the other side of the barn, organized by who they would be going home with. After all of the animals were sold, the buyers would settle up in the office with us. We took a three percent commission rate, which was average in our region, and sent home the rest of the money with the producer.
Today sale barns are, above all else, a service. A lot of money might pass through a sale barn, but very little sticks around. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s when my sale barn was just starting, it might have been a moneymaking venture. But today, between land taxes, insurance rates, and utility costs, there’s little money in it, and we knew that during the slow summer months, we would be struggling to pay the bills. But as long as producers are raising and selling cattle, there will be a local sale barn there to benefit them and the surrounding area. And the more money these barns can send back to the producer, the longer he can stay in the cattle business.