When it comes to low-stress cattle handling, the proper facility setup can eliminate a lot of headaches and make cattle handling safer for the producer, says Dr. Ron Lemenager, professor of animal sciences at Purdue University who also raises beef cattle near Otterbein, Indiana. "If the facilities are designed correctly, you can take advantage of animal behavior," Lemenager says. "It really takes the stress out of it if you have facilities set up correctly."
When buying a chute, it's a good idea to see the different styles in action and weigh the pros and cons for how different chutes and headgates fit the operation. For a smaller operation with calm cattle the owner is familiar with, a less expensive chute works just fine. But for feedlot operations where several hundred head of cattle are going through the chute, a more durable chute is necessary. "It's a fairly significant investment when you buy a squeeze chute," Lemenager says. "It needs to be the right one for what you're trying to accomplish."
Chute and headgate options
Certain types of headgates are better suited to certain operations:
•Self-catch headgates are a good fit for cattlemen working alone. Bars on these gates are shoulder width apart, and catch the animal's shoulders as the animal moves forward, locking the animal in. This way, producers can stay behind the point of balance, rather than opening the gate manually in front, which can cause the animal to balk.
•Scissor gates are hinged at the bottom and open at the top in a V shape. This can cause choking if the animal goes down, Lemenager notes. Because it's hinged at the bottom, cattle have to step through a smaller opening. So, these gates are best suited for cow-calf operations where cattle are more likely to walk slowly out of the chute.
•To fit multiple applications, Lemenager recommends full-opening gates with parallel bars. These can be either self-catch or manually-operated gates. These are the same width from top to bottom, preventing choking if the animal goes down, and reducing the chance of stumbling out of the chute.
There are several chute additions that can make life easier:
•Neck extenders reduce head mobility and expose the neck for easy neck injections required by Beef Quality Assurance.
•Brisket bars prevent cattle from going down in the front, and should be removable to switch out when working both cows and calves.
•Side-opening gates offer an easy exit and allow access for treatments. This often includes multiple openings for neck injections, and at the bottom to work on feet or semen collection.
•For cow-calf or heifer operations, a palpation cage is a necessity. These cages can double as a blocking gate to prevent the next animal from moving forward.
•Proper flooring can prevent slipping. Most flooring is metal or wood, and will be slick when wet. It can help to install pieces of wood, rebar, or one-inch square tubing perpendicular to the flow of animal traffic. An old, worn-out track from a tractor or bale belting can also be used to minimize slipping.
Consider color and lighting
Solid or open sides are also something to consider in handling facilities. For a working alley, this is dependent on the kind of cattle coming in. If the operator doesn't know the history on cattle and how they will behave, solid sides make sense. For crowding tubs on the other hand, solid sides are desirable to minimize light contrast and ensure cattle funnel into the alley. Lemenager notes this can be done with inexpensive material, like sheet metal from grain bins or guard rails from a highway. "I've seen a lot of creative things that didn't cost producers a lot in the way of materials."
This light or color contrast exists from the crowding tub, through the animal alley, to the chute. Cattle usually have to move their heads to focus, which is why they balk when they see a color contrast. Lemenager notes his own farm, where he decided to paint the squeeze chute to match the working alley. "Cattle think, 'There's a color change, I'm going to stop and see if this is safe.' Then it takes somebody to help cattle move forward. Since we eliminated that color contrast, it's really reduced amount of encouragement they need."
Benefits of Bud Boxes
For a low-stress alternative to a crowding tub, Bud Boxes, created by Bud Williams of Independence, Kansas, are a great option, Lemenager says. How does the Bud Box work? It's a box at the end of an animal alley, where a solid gate is closed behind cattle after they enter the box. The box is perpendicular to the squeeze chute. Box dimensions are typically 12-by-20 – or 12-by-30 feet for loading semis. "It takes advantage of two basic animal instincts," Lemenager explains. "When animals are trapped they would like to go back in the direction from which they came. And, most cattle want to go around an object when there's pressure."
The animal's natural instinct is to move back to the entry gate (which is solid and has been closed) and then move into the animal alley and squeeze chute. Because the natural instinct is to go around an object when pressure is applied, it's easier to work cattle from the inside, although Lemenager notes there is a risk of cattle going through the handler rather than around. "This design works really well in a cow-calf environment when the cows are really quiet."
In a pasture, the location of the gate leading to an alley is important. Gates should be in the corner of a pasture, rather than in the middle of a fencerow. "Cattle are in a cell for several days, but if the gate is in the middle of the fence line, I've now got to move cattle through the next cell," he explains. "When those cattle hit the gateway, they're going to put their head down and start grazing that lush regrowth."
This is why alleyways are important, allowing easy access to the gate, and sometimes doubling as a paddock themselves. "From an efficiency standpoint, there isn't anything wrong if you've got a 30-foot wide alley, use that as one of your cells," he adds. "You're going to have some forage that's going to grow in there, and it doesn't have to go to waste."