What to Know When Buying Beef Cattle from the Stockyard

While buying beef cattle from a reputable breeder is most ideal, it isn’t always an option for everyone. This article will go through the things to look for when purchasing beef cattle from the stockyard and what to expect while you’re there. This post is great for someone looking to raise a head or two to raise and process for beef for their family. 

Reputable breeders put tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes more) into bulls, facilities, artificial insemination (AI), sperm, cows, top-notch feed, vaccinations, and more. They really do deserve top dollar for their cattle. However, this is often out of budget for a family. When purchasing beef cattle from a breeder isn’t an option, your next best option is the stockyard. 

The Stockyard

While the stockyard can be intimidating, one major bonus is that you are comparing apples to apples. You’ll be able to pick out a skinny or sick cow easily, even if you don’t have a seasoned eye in looking at cattle. 

Go Early

Go early. You’ll be able to walk the cat walks and look into the pens to see the cattle. This is where you should spend most of your time going through your checklist. Pick out your top contenders and know your price per pound budget before the sale begins. 

If you want to talk to a seller, your best opportunity is when they are unloading cattle. Keep in mind that the individual dropping off cattle may just be the hauler and may not own the cattle.

Before the sale starts, go to the office and register as a buyer. They will take your information. Ask if they have a list of the livestock being sold that day. Sometimes stockyards will have a list of the cattle, their weight, sex, breed, and the farm they came from; however, there are typically only lists at special cow sales. 

Grab a drink and find a seat where the auctioneer can see you and you have a clear view of the sale ring. 

What To Expect

Once the sale begins, you will have 30 seconds to assess the cattle, calculate their total price, and jump in on bidding. 

Cattle are sold by the pound. There will be a screen with the weight posted near the auctioneer. If there is a group of cattle, the weight on the screen will be the average weight per head. Bidding on a group means that you intend to buy all of the cattle in that group. 

Give it some time. Usually, stockyards will sell calves, cows, pairs, or other livestock before they get into other groups of cattle. Pay attention to how the cattle are being sold, the prices, how the auctioneer calls the prices, and the rhythm.

An auctioneer will often start the bidding of a head at what they deem is a fair market price. Don’t jump at the first price. Wait. If no one bids, the price will go down and then work it’s way back up again. 

Who To Expect

At a stockyard, you will have several different types of attendants. 

The buyers. These are typically medium to large farmers (like us!) purchasing cattle for their own farm or cattlemen that have orders to purchase large quantities of cattle for other farms or feedyards. The buyers will do most of the buying at the stockyard and may purchase a variety of cattle. They will keep prices from getting too low and will get into bidding wars. They typically sit front and center, are on the phone, and show up every week.  

The sellers. They just want to see what they get for their cattle and possibly pick up a few. The sellers may bid on their own cattle to keep the price from going too low. 

The old men that are just there to do something on a Saturday afternoon, chain-smoke Marlboro Lights, fill up on Mountain Dew, chili, and cornbread, and fall asleep halfway through the sale. My favorite stockyard attendant. 

You. The buyer that is at the stockyard buying beef cattle for their family. There are a few of you! 

What to Look for When Buying Cattle

Frame Size

You want to look for medium-sized frames. You don’t want the tallest or the shortest cow. When raising cattle for beef, you want them to be stocky, thick, and healthy. Their frame should look like it can hold weight.

The best weight range for raising beef is 700-800 pounds.

Why? The cattle in this range are weaned – more on that later. Additionally, when raising cattle on a small scale and purchasing small amounts of hay and feed – it is expensive. You really want the cattle on your feed bill for as little time as possible. That being said, if you want your cattle to have a particular diet or raised a certain way, your practices will have the most impact on cattle of this size. 

Now, you may not know how much a cow weighs by looking at it. Buyers and sellers can watch cattle being weighed as they go through intake. Keep an eye on the cattle being weighed. If they are in your weight range, make a note of which pens they go to and go visit them later for a closer look.


Look for cattle that get off the seller’s trailer, go through intake, and are in the pens calmly. This is a stressful environment for them so even the most calm, cool, and collected cow may get a little wound up.

If you are going to be feeding, working, moving, and hauling these cattle, you want them to be easy to work. Especially so if your fences and working facility isn’t the best – and they don’t need to be! You’ll just want to prioritize their disposition. 

Cattle that are blowing air from their nose, dip their heads, charge, hold their head up very high with perked up ears, relentlessly pace, or are very jittery are not the cattle you want to deal with every day. 


Sometimes sellers will wean cattle from their mamas by bringing them to the stockyard. I know, it’s sad, but why does that matter to you? Cattle that are not weaned will lose weight for approximately 30 days once they make it to your farm. They will be searching for their moms, they’ll test fences, they’ll bawl. All of this burns calories and the stress will put them at a higher risk for getting sick. 

How do you know if the cattle you’re looking at aren’t weaned? If they are under 600 pounds and mooing relentlessly, they are likely not weaned. This is why we suggest looking for cattle that are 700-800 pounds. At this weight, there is a higher likelihood that they are weaned when you purchase them. 


When buying beef cattle, you want to be sure you are buying a breed that has the best potential for rapid growth and tasty steaks. There are over 50 beef breeds, but the tried and true beef breeds are Angus, Hereford, Charolais, and Simmental. Avoid dairy breeds like Holstein, Jersey, and Guernsey. 


With buying beef cattle, the easiest route to go is purchasing steers. The work of banding them is already done, you don’t have to worry about tetanus and infection. Steers gain weight faster. You also won’t have to worry about him being pregnant, like you would with a heifer. 


Remember that cattle are sold by the pound. Do the math and have your per pound price budget in mind. 

Know the market. You don’t have to be an expert on the market, but you want to know when you are getting gouged. 

Pay attention as cattle are being sold, especially cattle in your weight range. This will give you an idea of what is a reasonable price. If the price seems too good to be true, it is. You may be missing something that more experienced eyes can see and are passing up. 

All black cattle will always sell for a higher dollar amount. Keep this in mind when considering which breeds you are open to raising. 

Background Information

This one can be tough at the stockyard. Your opportunity to catch the seller and ask questions is when they are unloading. You don’t want to chat their ear off but asking if they are weaned and vaccinated pretty much covers what you really need to know. 

If you’ve missed your opportunity to chat up the seller, you can bet that sellers typically want buyers to know that their cattle are weaned and vaccinated. The sellers will have the auctioneer announce their farm named and that the cattle are weaned and vaccinated. 

If they don’t do that, you can use your judgement with weaning and speak to your vet about vaccinations when they see your cattle for a check up post-purchase. 


Getting a good eye for healthy cattle can take years. But using your best judgement will go a long way. If they cattle look sick or down or otherwise “off”, do not risk it. 

You want your cattle to be alert and vigorous with a filled out frame and overall healthy look.

If the cattle have a belly that looks abnormally round and large, there is a possibility that they have parasites or are bloated. 

Look for clear, bright eyes that are free of gunk and are not sunken in. Watery eyes can be an early indicator of pink eye. Look for cattle that have completely black pupils. Any white or off-coloring can mean blindness. 

While a slick and shiny coat is best, cattle that are raised outside will develop a fuzzy winter coat. Keep in mind the seasons and look for an overall healthy hair. 

Avoid cattle with snot running from their nose, a cough, or have a general lameness about them. 

While cattle may have looser stool with the stress of transport or certain diet, what you don’t want is very watery diarrhea. This can be an indication of scours. 


Pay close attention, as some limps are subtle and can be hard to see. Look out for a limp or swollen knee joint. Make a point to look for any injuries. Check the condition of their hooves. Hooves that are curled upward or swollen should be avoided. 


At the end of the day, you are going to get what you pay for. The auctioneer and other buyers will keep the price fair and consistent with market value. If it is too good to be true, it is. Trust your judgement, take your time, and remember – there’s always another sale if you don’t find the one that is right for you.