Cattle broker Jeff Ferguson can buy livestock without getting his boots dirty. He doesn't even have to leave the office.
Instead, he looks the animals over and places his bids via the Internet, using one of a growing number of Web sites devoted to cattle auctions.
"I bought cattle today in 15 seconds," Ferguson said after a recent auction that connected the Montana broker with a Wyoming seller.
Cattle have been sold over the Internet for a few years now, but the early auctions worked like eBay, receiving bids over several days. The new generation of online auctions feels far more authentic, with real-time bidding, instant deals and even live video of the cattle pens.
Electronic cattle auctions may never completely replace the real thing, where buyers can examine the animals in person.
But they do offer buyers a quick way to survey dozens of lots, while sparing sellers the drudgery of hauling livestock to auction barns hours away.
The cattle industry has a long and rich history of spectacular swindles. But Ferguson said he doesn't worry about getting fleeced.
"When I'm at a live auction, I know who I'm bidding against, and I also have a pretty good idea of who's bidding against me when we're online," he said.
What's more, Stampede Cattle Co., which ran the auction Ferguson participated in, sends workers to the ranches to help verify information on the animals.
"We have to earn our stripes. We are by no means in a business where we can live on our history," said Mike Bottin, a regional manager with Stampede Cattle. "Every time you put up a lot, your reputation is on the line."
Still, he said, he has been surprised by how comfortable many buyers and sellers are with the Internet.
The Visalia, Calif., company began its online auctions last month. During the most recent auction, bidding on 60 steers from Virginia went back and forth between buyers in Kentucky and Indiana. In about an hour, roughly 1,600 cattle were sold.
The Web site uses both animation and photographs. A voice announces the beginning of a sale, and a ping announces each new bid as it flashes onto the screen until the sale closes 30 seconds later. The winning bidder arranges transportation. Stampede Cattle charges a 1.5 percent commission.
Among the sellers recently was Kevin Forgey, a third-generation rancher near Casper, Wyo. The nearest auction barn for him is an hour away. Though he has used the Internet to market his calves for the past few years, this real-time Internet sale was his first.
"I've tried every way else I could," said Forgey, 43. "We've got a lot of neighbors that are pretty old-fashioned and don't seem to want to change much. But this is a really good marketing tool."
Other new sites use streaming video that lets customers watch a traditional-style auction with a human auctioneer.
However, the system can stumble because of the slow-speed Internet connections common in rural areas.
The auctions have the support of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
"Anything we can do to save money in the long run is a good idea," spokeswoman Beth Emter said. "In Montana, it's a long way to the auction barn and simpler to just have a camera on the ranch."