Livestock auctions are familiar places for many ranchers. Do you remember your first livestock auction, possibly as a child? Fond memories may come to mind of sitting in the stands, heart pounding from the atmosphere intensified by rhythmic chanting and shouting.

Livestock auctions hold more value than purely memories, of course. They provide a way to market animals and earn a paycheck. But sitting at the center of both auction markets and memories is the auctioneer. Ranchers entrust an auctioneer with their livelihood, to sell their animals at a fair and competitive price.

Auctioneering can seem like a daunting profession, with the responsibility required to market another individual’s product. But those involved in the field have a deep connection and passion for both the industry and their duty. That passion and duty can draw people from many different paths to the auctioneer’s mic.

The paths to auctioneering

Eric Drees of Idaho followed what one could call the conventional route to becoming a livestock auctioneer: Eric’s interest started when he was young and fascinated by auctioneers. Growing up in the cattle business, this profession soon became something familiar to him.

Starting from the age of 14, Drees worked at livestock auctions and “learned the business from the ground up.” Working in the holding pens and auction rings gave Drees the opportunity to evaluate the value of cattle and get to know buyers, and even practice a little auctioneering on small animals.

Drees knew he wanted to make a career out of livestock auctioneering and attended auctioneer school the summer before he would begin college. That following fall, he went to a large livestock market and asked if he could work there part-time time and sell small animals and calves to get started in the business.

“The operator gave me the opportunity, and it grew from there,” Drees said, now an auctioneer for 25 years.

Following a different path, Doak Lambert of Texas is also from a cattle background, but had plans to attend vet school to become a veterinarian. After his vet school plans shifted, Lambert was involved in cattle ranching before eventually working for an auction management company.

The company contracted out auctioneers for various sales and didn’t actually have any on staff. One year, a bad winter in Indiana left one of the contracted auctioneers stranded in an airport, unable to make it to the sale. The company ended up finding a local antique auctioneer last minute to substitute, who “did his best, but just didn’t know cattle.”

After that incident, Lambert said the company decided to send someone to auctioneer school in the event of a similar situation happening and he was chosen for the role. Sure enough, a year after his auctioneer schooling, the same situation occurred but this time Lambert was prepared to step in as auctioneer. Afterwards, sale management customers began requesting Lambert as the auctioneer and he eventually went out on his own to become a full-time auctioneer, 30 years ago.

Following an even less conventional path, Tammy Tisland of Minnesota didn’t have a background in livestock or auctioneering. Tisland entered the profession in her mid-30s, after asking herself “do I want this for the rest of my career?” at her desk in her accounting job.

Tisland said the idea of auctioneering “began as a spark” and a “twinkle in her eye” and she immediately started on a new path.

“I went to auctioneer school and didn’t tell anyone, just in case I wasn’t any good,” Tisland said, discovering she did in fact have a passion for the field. Since then, Tisland has been a full-time auctioneer for 19 years and has “sold just about everything under the sun.”

Although Tisland is unique as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, she said she puts herself up talent vs. talent and passion vs. passion, regardless of gender.

“If you hold true to who you are, regardless of gender, you will shine through,” she said.

Tisland says she encourages women to enter the profession but says to understand there will be natural challenges that come along with entering a male-dominated field. “It’s to be expected and only natural, because it’s something new,” she said.

Tisland also said there are a few key traits to have in the profession: integrity, tenacity, loyalty, and humility.

“Hold true to those things and you will go a long way.”

School, tech, and the future

Auction schools are established across the country and “Anyone who is interested in being an auctioneer can go to school,” Drees said. “No previous experience is required, no pre-requisites, you just have to go to school with the attitude you’re there to learn and soak up as much knowledge as you can.”

Programs range from a few days to a little more than a week long. For Drees, he had the opportunity to stay with auctioneer Ralph Wade for three days in a one-on-one environment.

The pair worked for eight- to ten-hours a day, practicing number drills and learning the foundation of a chant.

“Auction school gave me the tools and a shove in the right direction to build my own chant,” Drees said.

Part of learning is adapting change, and livestock auctioneering has seen plenty of that. The introduction and prevalence of the internet and online video sales have represented a drastic shift from traditional livestock auctioneering. Lambert recalls being present through the industry’s changes, seeing his career start with handwritten tickets and running animals through the ring “old school,” to clerking on the computer with online bids and videoing animals.

“Any technology has to start somewhere and improve and adapt,” Lambert said. “Improvement has been really rapid. I was really skeptical with the computer keeping up, but it’s been perfected almost instantaneous.”

Lambert does say a trade-off of online sales is physical auctions are not as well attended as they used to be, but now there is a convenience option available for those who may be unable to attend a sale.

However, Lambert says online auctions are a “double-edged sword.” There is a lot of speculation whether the future is going to see all-online auctions with no need for live auctioneers. Lambert thinks the future is going to move towards more “hybrid auctions”: a live auctioneer calling bids with a physical product and also taking online remote bids.

Generations carry on livestock auction business
A view from the auction block at the 2016 Red Bluff Bull and Gelding sale.

A large part of getting started in the livestock auctioneer profession is building connections and forming relationships with individuals. For Tisland, this proved to be a bit more challenging as she had no previous background or experience in the livestock field. However, she did have an interest in agriculture and farming, and channeled her passion into getting to know people.

Tisland said it’s important for her to have a positive impact on her neighbors’ lives and the community, something she aspires towards by understanding the responsibility of knowing the markets and the importance of a sale for a producer.

“Being responsible for their check is huge,” Tisland said.

“Being an auctioneer is fun, but also holds a lot of responsibility. You have to have a passion for people, the industry, and have to be very good at what you do—you can’t just be good.” — Anna Miller, WLJ editor

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