Cattle Purchasing Decisions Report

Defra has published results of social science research into the factors that influence farmers’ decision-making and use of information when purchasing cattle. 

Movements of cattle are an important source of new bovine tuberculosis (bTB) infections. To design interventions which reduce the risk of transmission of bTB via cattle movements, it’s important to understand the decisions behind cattle purchases. This research used farmer interviews, focus groups and an online game to explore cattle purchasing decisions. The findings of this report will support Defra’s aim of increasing responsible cattle movements in England and use of social science evidence in policy making. Further work is ongoing to understand the practical implications of some of these findings.

Phase 1

Phase 1 of the research involved gathering information around three key themes.

  • Explaining how farmers’ cattle purchasing decisions are shaped by farming systems.
  • Identifying disruptions to farm systems and changes to cattle purchasing decisions
  • Describing farmers’ behavioural responses to these disruptions and their implications for attempts to encourage responsible cattle purchasing


Loading cows on to a transporter - TB hub

Farmers in the High Risk and Edge Areas of England were selected for face-to-face interviews using specific criteria. To supplement the interview data, focus groups with farmers were also organised in the High Risk and Edge Areas. Alongside the farmer interviews and focus groups, the research team involved relevant agricultural professions within the research, including auctioneers and vets.

Key findings

  • An individual farmer’s purchasing patterns are relatively stable. This is because purchasing is designed to maintain the farm system amongst other pressures.
  • Purchases are based on the availability of the right animals and judgements of good value. Reputation and trust of the seller are important factors in making these decisions with other sources of information often being used to confirm decisions.
  • Distinct purchasing typographies exist with each placing different levels of importance on factors such as data, cost and appearance.
  • For farmers seeking information to inform purchasing, ibTB was the most common source. However some farmers did request more information than is currently available.
  • Disruptions to the farm can create opportunities to assess and change purchasing practices. Example disruptions given include a large disease outbreak and changes in family situations.
  • How farmers respond to disruptions can follow specific behavioural patterns which policy interventions may be able to influence.

Access the report on Defra’s science and research projects website.


The researchers conducted 22 in-depth interviews and nine focus group sessions with farmers in the High Risk Area and Edge Areas of England. This research was conducted with 29 farmers in the HRA and 58 farmers in the Edge Area in total. In addition to this there were 19 participants in the focus groups who were not farmers (vets and auctioneers).

There were five different approaches to cattle purchasing outlined in the study. In brief these are:

  1. The Chancer
    Motivated to purchase animals based on “good value” and impulse.
  2. The Entrepreneur
    Driven by financial margins and profit oriented.
  3. The Manager
    Purchases are to maintain their system and are carefully weighed up.
  4. The Stockman / Stockwoman
    Purchases are long term investments that are carefully considered.
  5. The Professional
    Buy and sell cattle for other farmers on a regular basis.

The research did not quantify the level of each of these typographies and there may be some overlap depending on situation (particularly “The Chancer”). Availability of cattle is important to all the different purchasing patterns. Farmers then have different priorities in which animal they choose or how they make decisions on these.

The research highlights that no single policy can influence cattle purchasing practices due to the diversity of approaches and influences to buying cattle. Providing additional disease risk information at the point of sale may be relevant for some farmers, but others will benefit from local information and advisory services. Compensation values do not appear to be a significant factor in cattle purchasing decisions.

Phase 2 

Phase 2 of the study builds on existing evidence showing that information about bTB risk is not the main factor used when making purchasing decisions. Factors such as how the cattle are managed and their production levels take priority. In cases where two animals are similar with respect to other factors, bTB can be the factor that helps make the choice between them.

Cattle movements are an important source of new bTB infections. To design interventions which reduce the risk of bTB transmission via cattle movements it’s important to understand the decisions behind these cattle purchases. Phase 2 of the study looked at whether different information presented at the point of sale influenced how farmers considered bTB risk. To do this, an online game was designed so that farmers had to view this information when making choices between which cattle to purchase in different scenarios. The different types of information related to bTB included:

Cows grazing - Bovine TB
  • Number of years the herd had been TB-free (benchmarked with the parish average)
  • A score for how trusted the vendor was (proportion of farmers that would recommend the vendor)
  • A warning that if the animal tested positive for TB, they may not get full compensation
  • A logo stating that if the animal was post-movement TB tested and then subsequently tested positive for TB in the future, they would receive 100% compensation

Key findings

  • The key factors influencing purchasing decisions are related to the ongoing management of the herd, such as production factors and diseases other than bTB, and selecting animals that best matched the existing herd.
  • Bovine TB was not a primary influence when selecting an animal but if two animals of a similar quality were presented then it could be the deciding factor (i.e. it plays an arbitrating role). This means that any information is valuable in the right context and that no-one set of information will be suitable for all purchasers.
  • Incentives relating to compensation did not provide a strong steer in purchasing decisions. However, where adverts appeared to be of similar quality the potential for additional compensation could sway the decision.
  • The participants were interested in the metrics based on trust in the vendor but they were not necessarily used. Trust was more likely to be derived from personal contact by visiting the farm to meet the vendor.
  • The research suggests that information about bTB would be most influential after a significant TB breakdown. Farmers may use bTB information to match their circumstances and risk profile.

Access the report on Defra’s science and research projects website.


This research aimed to understand the decision making and thought processes farmers use in cattle purchasing and how the insights from the first phase of this work could be applied to influence this. Rather than look at the influences in a workshop setting, the researchers decided to develop a game which would make the participants think about their decision making as intuitively as possible. The alternatives of a simulated auction and adding interventions to real auctions or online cattle sales were not appropriate for this work. This was because the researchers might document the decisions using these methods, but they would not capture the discussions with the farmers about why they made them. It was also not practical within the projects time constraints.

The researchers stressed the importance that bTB in isolation is unlikely to alter purchasing decisions. Understanding when bTB information becomes important (e.g. when selecting between animals) and following a TB breakdown may help to target interventions more effectively. Understanding the nuances around potential policy interventions may help to inform the development of theories of change that consider the ways that farmers think rather than how they should think with regard to bTB. This research therefore highlights the potential limitations of relying on the provision of information to guide cattle purchases as a means to minimise the spread of bTB.

Defra commissioned and published an experiment designed to look at the impact of how bTB information is presented at auctions. Access the report on Defra’s science and research project website and a summary of the research on the TB hub.