AUTUMN is the time of year when all Scottish livestock markets hold large sales of store cattle and suckled calves. Store cattle are younger beasts that are not fully grown or need a period of fattening, while suckled calves, as the name suggests, are beef calves between six and 8 months old that have recently been weaned off their mothers.

The reason for big sales at this time of year is that grass has stopped growing and those in the hills and uplands may not have enough winter feed for all of their cattle, or have budgeted that it isn't profitable to buy feed for them. So they are sent to market to be sold to farmers with better land who have enough feed to overwinter, or fatten them.

Some farmers seldom miss attending their local market, and quite a few regularly travel to other markets. I never particularly liked them and as a result of not attending regularly was not particularly good at valuing cattle.

Selling cattle was not my favourite task as I regularly got the feeling that I had been "done". Cattle values can rise and fall by £20 to £30 per head or more from sale to sale, and can even vary by £10 or £20 depending on where they are in the catalogue.

Far too often I seemed to pick a bad week to sell, then watched prices improve over the following weeks. You only sell the animals once, so it's always a niggle when you think you have sold cheap.

Farmers are "price takers" rather than "price makers". Everything I bought for the farm - such as equipment, feed, fertilisers and medicines - had a price fixed by the seller, as manufacturers had worked out their cost of production and retailers had then added their margin. I might have managed to haggle a bit of discount, or negotiate better payment terms, but at the end of the day I paid near enough the asking price. But when it came to selling livestock, I had to take whatever the buyers were prepared to bid, or bring them back home.

Hiring lorries is a costly affair and then there's the risk of introducing diseases picked up at the market from contact with hundreds of other beasts.

Canny buyers can bide their time in the hope of purchasing a cheaper batch, or wait for another day, but sellers have only a few minutes to show off their beasts in the ring. With so much at stake, it's important that cattle catch the eye of the buyers to attract extra bids.

While some groom and prepare their store cattle or suckled calves as if they were entering a show, most sellers give their beasts a basic "tidy up".

At this time of year cattle tend to grow a ridge of hair along their spine and over their tail head that sticks up. Clipping that hair off with a pair of shears makes the cattle look fatter. Similarly, clipping rough hair off the crown of the animal's head and snipping out the long hair that can grow inside their ears makes their heads look younger and beefier. Attention to little details like those can put several hundred pounds in a seller's pocket.

It goes without saying that a good auctioneer who can cajole bids out of reluctant buyers is also an important factor in getting a good trade. It's not uncommon for them to resort to guile and cunning. After all, a skilled auctioneer only needs one willing and unwary bidder to run something up to a good price.

Then there are all the standard phrases like "altering sorts that will go on and do", which can be a deceptive way of describing "ill-thriven, plain sorts".

Most buyers ignore the patter and posturing by the auctioneer and seller, and concentrate on assessing the potential for the cattle to make them a profit in a sector of farming where margins are slender at best.

Farm animals that have not grown out well because they have not had a good enough diet or enough to eat, grow faster and put on more weight than their better-fed counterparts when subsequently fed properly. This phenomenon, known as compensatory growth, can make such animals very profitable and is the reason phrases like "altering sorts that will go on and do" are used. The skill is knowing altering sorts from ill-thriven ones.

Store cattle cost about a thousand pounds a head, so those looking for several hundred are making a substantial investment, never mind the cost of over-wintering them.