Design Tips for Safer Cattle Handling Systems
Cattle handling systems should be designed with handler and livestock safety kept top of mind. A well-designed cattle handling system should meet the needs of the operation, be safe and efficient for handlers, create proper cattle flow and work with cattle’s natural instincts.
If you dread the time and effort it takes to work cattle in your current system, it may be time for a new design or upgrade. Even making a few thoughtful changes to help mitigate one of your biggest pain points, such as switching out your squeeze chute or adding in new corral panels, can turn your cattle handling experience from an experience with cattle balking at every opportunity, into a well-oiled machine.
Designing Your System
Site selection is the first step in designing a safer cattle handling system. The location of your system affects how your system functions, how cattle flow through it, and dictates how you can set it up or change it in the future. Elements to consider in site selection are accessibility, whether it’s in a pasture, near your barn, or other desired area.
Be sure to also consider variables such as drainage, fencing, and electricity availability at the site if needed to operate hydraulics. Also, take note of any existing structures, trees, and natural water sources before selecting a location.
Most cattle handling systems have six key components:
- High-quality cattle corral panels and gates,
- Access alleyway,
- Box or tub,
- Working alley,
- Chute, and
- A loading or exit area.
Think about your current cattle handling needs, and the future growth of your operation when designing your cattle handling system. If you plan to expand the size of your operation, it may be more economical to design a larger cattle-handling system now, rather than renovate an outdated system later, or risk injuries incurred from attempting to work cattle in an overcrowded area.
It is important to also be mindful that cattle can easily evade handlers in large holding pens. Gates and additional panels or fencing can be used to easily adjust handling pen size as your operation changes and grows. Panels that easily pin together and can be removed or added to your system in minutes are an ideal investment. Plan for 20-square feet per cow and 14-square feet per calf in your holding pen design.
- Define an escape route first. Safety should be the top priority when designing a cattle handling system. Handlers should be aware of their escape routes at every point of the handling system in the event that something goes wrong. Selecting panels that include the option of a man gate ensures that you’re able to easily exit your system at a moment’s notice if necessary, without the chance of letting cattle escape.
- Select safe equipment. Corral panels and gates with wide rectangular designs that cattle easily see and are less likely to challenge minimizes the chance of you needing to escape an unsafe situation. For cattle, ensure that your alleys and cattle chutes have an emergency exit option in case of a crisis when the animal needs a quick escape.
- Dedicate a cattle-free area in your handling system for handlers to gather in safely, and to keep delicate equipment safe.
- Keep the alley straight at the entrance and exit of the tub or box. The minimum length for the straight section of the alley should be the length of two full mature animals, or 12-feet at both the entrance and exit.
- Consider your herd numbers. The number of cattle you have dictates overall tub or box size and alley length. You want enough cattle to fit into the alley to maintain a steady flow into the chute system and minimize interruptions to load more cattle. However, there is a sweet spot in alley length. Alleys that are too long, holding too many cattle at one time, can lead to injuries for cattle and handlers.
- Beware of alley width. It should be wide enough for cattle to move forward comfortably, but not so wide that they can turn around. This can be especially tricky when it comes to working calves through your system. Selecting an alley with adjustable sides is recommended to ensure your cattle flow through your alley seamlessly.
- Traction matters. Cattle will be safer and calmer on surfaces that provide good traction, minimizing slips and falls. Rubber flooring is quiet, decreases stress, and provides better footing. Steel flooring should be stamped to provide better traction. Packed dirt or gravel is also acceptable footing. Gravel minimizes mud formation, while cement or paved surfaces can become slippery when wet.
- Use slopes and light to your advantage. Cattle prefer moving uphill, in curves, and toward light. If slope or lighting is a factor in your design, choose to incorporate these elements to create a safer and less stressful system experience for you, handlers, and your cattle. Crowd pens must be level for cattle safety and to ensure there are no foot traps.
- Use sight lines. Cattle want to move toward an exit. Use solid and slatted walls strategically to use light and sight to help move cattle through the handling system and toward the chute. A curve with a solid side will stop them, whereas an open side will encourage cattle to continue moving forward.
- Add an access gate. An access gate at the front or back of the squeeze chute will save handlers from climbing over the fences and create a safer system.
- Handle electricity with care. Electricity is often needed in a cattle handling system, especially when hydraulics are used. Ensure safety for cattle and handlers by using ground fault circuits and outlets that are moisture-proof.
- Consider cattle behavior in design. Animals move away from a handler that enters its flight zone. Select equipment that lets you use cattle behavior to your advantage when managing cattle flow.
- Carefully select a cattle chute and head gate. The chute and head gate should complement the cattle handling system and build from low-stress handling principles to facilitate a quick and efficient procedure with cattle. It is recommended to consider squeeze chutes that are able to secure the animal so you have safe access to the parts that need to be worked on.
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