BLOOMINGTON, Wisconsin — “We are the music to the sale.”
That’s how full-time auctioneer — and the 2014 World Livestock Auctioneer champion — Baine Lotz explains his job. This year, the annual event, hosted by the Livestock Marketing Association since 1963, drew 31 semi-finalists who competed by selling cattle at the Bloomington Livestock Exchange in Wisconsin. The competition attracts cattle buyers and sellers as well as fans who come strictly to take in the spectacle. But the cowboy hat–festooned contestants take their fast-talking pretty seriously.
Since cows give birth just once a year, a farmer’s entire livelihood can depend on an auctioneer’s ability to get top dollar for his animals during a single sale. And studies have shown that the right soundtrack can make customers more likely to open their wallets.
The auctioneering can certainly sound musical, but the chanting has another more practical, and maybe obvious, purpose: calling out bids.
“He will many times go back and restate the bid that he has, but the number that should come through the chant is the number that he’s asking for,” Corbitt Wall, a market analyst for DVAuction, an online service that broadcasts some auctions online so buyers can bid from anywhere.
But between those numbers is the like Wild West: Auctioneers can use “filler words ” — like “go,” “now,” “dollar bid,” and “will you give” — but no rules govern which ones they can incorporate.
The “filler” words are where each auctioneer puts his or her own signature on the chant and creates its melodic nature. And just like pop songs, the lyrics to a chant are often misheard and disputed, especially by those outside the world of professional auctions.
The auctioneers also act as hype-men for the livestock, detailing the bovine beauties’ diets, ages, weights, and vaccination histories, as well as lavishing them with general praise.
VICE News attended the 2018 World Livestock Auctioneering Championship and spoke to some of the fast-talking contestants about the competition, the psychology that can make an auctioneer effective, and what the hell they’re actually saying during their “chant.”