North Canterbury farmer James Hoban describes his family’s experiences running an onfarm public ram sale.

Onfarm public ram sales are a different proposition to private selling, with pros and cons associated with both options. After different experiences with onfarm sales our family has concluded that a public sale works for us.

In 2019 we held our inaugural South Suffolk, Southdown and Corriedale onfarm sale. Despite some inevitable stress in the lead up, the day was a great success and enjoyable experience. Now we know the formula works we will make it an annual event.

As a fourth generation Corriedale stud breeder, selling rams was not a new experience. However, opening up to the public for a day and showing them the product of long-term genetic decisions is a daunting proposition.

A friend who sells more than 150 rams privately each year has told me that while he has looked at holding a sale in great detail, the ultimate reason he has continued with private selling is because he has an established client base with a set pecking order. He has surveyed clients and not surprisingly found that their opinions are split roughly in half. Generally, those who buy lambs later in the season are keen to get a crack at top genetics while those longer-term clients who get best pick are happy with the status quo.

Our situation was different.

Our Corriedale sales had wound down in the 1990s due to changes in farming practice. Now with two generations working together we have shifted to hill country which is better suited to breeding sheep and increased our flock, from a small client base.

We are the only Corriedale breeders offering an auction so that was likely to attract some new clients and our South Suffolk clients were used to an onfarm sale format run under the flock’s previous owner. It would be naïve to think that an onfarm sale is the best option for every breeder, but due to a combination of circumstances it is working for us.

When weighing up sale options the following things need to be considered:

Sale format

For us a Helmsman sale makes a lot of sense. We attend both traditional auctions and Helmsman sales when buying bulls and as buyers far prefer the Helmsman system. This takes most of the adrenaline and pressure out of buying because as a purchaser a clear list of rams can be worked out with price limits for each and back up options once a ram hits the price limit.

In an auction, snap decisions have to be made and are complicated by the selling order. For example, a third-choice animal is in the ring before your first pick – do you chase it or wait? A Helmsman is arguably a buyer’s day whereas a seller can benefit from more hype with an auction ring. A Helmsman makes for a relatively relaxed day for both though.


With no covered yards and an ancient woolshed desperately in need of replacement, sale facilities have been a challenge for us. Fortunately, we do not need an auction ring for a Helmsman sale which has simplified things.

Two empty bays of an open shed with a stage has worked well. This area is used for the auction which is run on whiteboards. There is plenty of room for people to stand or sit and time to return to rams and review them at any stage through the sale. A catering tent is positioned next to the shed so food and drink is available at any time.

Rams are penned nearby, outside in a purpose-built race with square pens 2m x 2m. Heavy steel gates were fortunately on (hopefully long-term) loan from a friend who had a stockpile of them he had bought from saleyards. Closely mowed grass underfoot and only four rams per pen means buyers can see feet relatively clearly but still hop in with sheep safely to inspect wool or conformation safely. Swinging gates make it possible to walk through the pens rather than climbing netting.

Hired toilets and a chiller trailer help the day run smoothly.

Workload and timing

While some view private ram selling as more time-consuming than a sale, this may not be the case. While a public sale day condenses a lot of the stress into a short period, there is a substantial amount of work in the lead up.

There is no doubt that private selling allows the breeder to spend more time with individual clients. This can be a rush at sales and inevitably not every client can attend on the day, meaning it can be a long time between face-to-face catch-ups. Visiting clients is one way around this or even delivering rams for those who were unable to attend the sale.

Inevitably, ram sales fall in a busy time of the year – either during the mad dash to Christmas or the post-Christmas catch-up period. The calendar is already bulging with onfarm sales and people cannot attend everything. This should be a key consideration for any breeder looking to move towards a public sale.

We have found an afternoon sale works well. Almost all work is done before the day with the main commitments on sale day penning rams, catering and spending time with people. We provide a light lunch before the sale and a barbecue afterwards.

Preparing a catalogue takes a reasonable amount of work first time around but we have found a set formula to be a great help. Our SIL bureau provides all the data (once we have everything up to date) and the printers have sale catalogues down to a fine art. The key challenge is to make sure catalogues are finalised, printed and posted in time for people to study them before the sale.

Catering is a major commitment – handled by my mother who has a lot of experience catering for small and large crowds. People need to enjoy the day and a key aspect of that is being well fed and watered.


The wrong person helping on the day creates stress and takes a lot of fun out of what should be an exciting event.

We were careful with who we asked to help or accepted offers of help from and this made the last sale a lot of fun. Interestingly some of our best helpers were other local ram breeder friends, despite the fact the sale could have been seen as competition for them.

The right agent is key. We stuck with one stock firm largely because of an exceptional local agent. He did the extra work, brought a number of buying orders and kept stress to a minimum. Having a selling company handle all invoicing and payments reduces the family’s workload.

The clients a good agent attracts and their support with sale preparation and on the day are well worth the commission they earn.

We have also found a number of businesses we work with to be a great support. Our local vets help with the barbecue as well as sponsoring our catalogue. As do our contractor, lawyer, accountant, wool buyer and a local real estate agent. Our bank also sponsors the catalogue and lends us a marquee.

The downsides

For us the downsides to a sale have been manageable. This year an existing long-term client missed out because he couldn’t attend and had given an agent a budget that didn’t line up with the results on the day. This was unfortunate but he understood it and will be back. Not all clients would look at things that way.

Weather is something we were lucky with last year but we do need to plan better for a wet sale day. This is easily addressed by putting some thought into sale facilities and all-weather access to the venue and parking.

When our bank manager suggested we hold a ram sale we were naturally nervous but also conscious that following the bank’s ideas can be a smart move.

Our biggest fear was a complete flop on sale day – a public form of embarrassment which other breeders have experienced. That is a real risk and probably the biggest downside to an onfarm ram sale. We were lucky with our timing in 2019 – other new ram sales experienced great results too, so it was the right year to have a go.