The battle between self-catch and manual livestock head catches has been going on for years. People on both sides of the argument swear by the livestock head catch they are using, but as the industry continues to shift towards low stress cattle handling it may be time to consider a new way of managing your cattle.

Before you make a decision, let's check the facts about the different livestock head catch options available to ranchers so you can make an informed decision.

What is a Livestock Head Catch?

A livestock head catch, also known as a cattle head gate, is a device used to secure a cow's head to allow handlers and veterinarians access to the animal to administer medication, replace tags, monitor well being, and various other tasks. Livestock head catches are usually found on a squeeze chute which provides additional safety for those handling cattle, but can also be mounted on adjustable cattle alleys.

What is an Auto-Adjusting Livestock Head Catch?

An Auto-Adjusting Livestock Head Catch, also known as a self-catch, is designed to the animal to catch themselves by hitting the shoulders on the head catch to activate a mechanism that closes around their neck. Self-catches have multiple settings to allow handlers to catch cows and calves of varying sizes, and include a lever to force the gate closed in the event a cow will not close the head catch themselves.

Pros of a Self-Catch

  1. "Self-Catch"
    • The name "self-catch" is often interpreted to mean that cattle will catch themselves every time, but the name is misleading.
    • Although a self-catch is designed for the animal to catch themselves, constant adjustments are required by the handler to adjust the head catch to the proper setting for different sized cattle.
    • Additionally, once cattle have gone through a self-catch a few times, they often become reluctant to enter the chute at all because of the force required to close it around their neck.
  2. Affordable
    • Self-catch livestock head catches tend to be more affordable than manual ones (but not always!).
    • With that lower price tag, you get what you pay for, with extra levers and secondary locking mechanisms, as well as a cheap design that can lead to disastrous consequences for handlers and livestock.

Cons of a Self-Catch

  1. Distraction
    • A common practice with self-catch head catches is to get cattle to exit through the side access gates instead of the head catch because it doesn't open wide enough for cattle to exit the chute.
    • This practice can lead to bad habits for your livestock.
    • Once cattle are trained to exit from the side of the chute, it can lead to distraction as they enter the chute because they believe they should be allowed to go out the side without ever stepping into the head catch.
  2. High-Stress
    • Cattle always move away from pressure, but in a self-catch they have no choice but to move towards it which can lead to high stress levels for your cattle.
    • High cattle stress can lead to low weight gain, lower immunity, and even lower meat quality. So, it is best to minimize cattle stress wherever possible!
  3. Bruising
    • The force required to close a self-catch around a cow's neck is significant, and can lead to deep bruising in the shoulders.

What is a Manual Livestock Head Catch?

A Manual Livestock Head Catch gives the handler complete control of the head catch. Manual head catches feature a handle or lever to close the gate around the cow's neck quickly and easily. The handle may be welded in one position, or move along the side of the chute depending on the model.

Pros of a Manual Catch

  1. Low-Stress
    • Manual head catches have seen vast improvement over time, and they work with animal science to keep cattle stress low.
    • Manual livestock head catches are quieter than self-catch, because there are less mechanisms to engage and no need for hitting the head catch hard.
  2. True One-Man Operation
    • A common myth with self-catch head catches is that they are a one-man operation, but this is complicated by the need for adjustments and handler intervention when cattle are reluctant to enter the head catch.
    • With manual head catches, there is no need for adjustments when handling cattle and calves in mixed groups.
    • Manual head catches don't require cattle to run up against the doors, so they are less likely to have negative associations with handling and develop bad habits like reluctance to enter the chute.
  3. Wide Open
    • Manual head catches open wider than self-catches, to allow cattle the space they need to exit the chute easily.

This squeeze chute is so easy, even kids can use it! Jokes aside, my 6 year old can just about help me work my cattle! And with this Arrowquip, I can work cattle alone if I need to. Something I've never been able to do before!

– James Maginot, Beyond Organics Farm

Cons of a Manual Catch

  1. Not All Models are Made Equal
    • As with the self-catch, you get what you pay for.
    • Choosing a low-quality manual head catch may be a short-term win, but can have long-term consequences.
    • Taking the time to do your research and compare products from different manufacturers will ensure you get the right livestock head catch for your operation.
  2. Learning Curve
    • It can take a little practice to figure out what you're doing with a manual catch, and you WILL have missed catches on occasion.
    • But once you get it down, you'll be processing cattle faster than you ever thought possible.

Choosing what style of livestock head catch is an important step in the buying process. If you still aren't sure what equipment you need, check out these blogs.


Did we miss a key difference between self-catch and manual livestock head catches? Share it with us in the comments!

Updated July 2020.

About the Author

Dana Charban, Manager of Content Strategies and Journalist for Arrowquip, catching black cow in Q-Catch 86 Series cattle chute

Dana Charban

As a small town girl from rural Manitoba, Dana Charban grew up around agriculture and farming her en...

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