– Rory Lewandowski, Extension Educator, Athens County, Buckeye Hills EERA
An important part of any beef cattle operation is the working or handling facility. A good working or handling system improves the odds that basic management chores, such as vaccinating cattle, get done in a timely manner. We all tend to put off tasks that are going to be a stressful and a pain to get done. A good handling system can reduce the time it takes to work cattle, creating less stress on both the people and the cattle. If the system is designed right, and it is easy to work cattle, it may allow the cattleman to consider and use some other management practices that could offer economic returns, practices such as pregnancy checking and use of artificial insemination. The key to a good working system is the design. Here are some things to keep in mind when setting up or changing a cattle working facility: (From OSU Extension Bulletin 906, Cattle Working and Handling Facilities)
Working Alley/Chute: Build working alleys at least 20 feet long. Shorter alleys cause delays in getting cattle to the working area. If you normally work cattle by yourself, an alley should be able to hold at least three animals for efficient labor utilization. Longer chutes can certainly be used. You may find spring loaded, back-stop gates useful to prevent cattle from backing up.
The width depends on the size of the animal. Build alleys 22 to 26 inches wide for small- to medium-frame cows. Eighteen inches is wide enough for calves. Commercial working alleys may be adjustable. One idea to consider for constricting the width of a “non-adjustable” alley is to hang a couple of plastic pipes in the alley when working calves.
Although they are harder to build, alleys with solid, sloping sides are better than those with vertical sides. A general recommendation is to build a five-foot-high alley 26 inches wide at the top and 16 inches wide at the bottom. Widths may need to be increased 2 to 4 inches for some large, exotic breeds.
Solid-sided working alleys can be built with wood or pipe frames covered with sheet metal or exterior plywood. Due to cost and ease of construction, straight alleys can be a reasonable choice for small herds. Emergency release panels, fences on hinges, could be considered if you are concerned about cattle getting down or falling backward. Pre-constructed, metal working alleys/chutes can be purchased from handling equipment vendors. These can also offer the option of being somewhat mobile.
Posts in the working alley receive a lot of pressure from the cattle. Use overhead crossbars to keep the posts in place and prevent them from bowing out. Further construction of overhead restrainers running parallel over the working alley will discourage rearing up or falling over backward in the working alley. Evaluate the height of the tallest animal you will work through a facility if your corral is to have overhead crossbars and restrainers.
Cattle will move forward more easily in an alley with solid sides. Solid, curved chutes keep cattle from seeing the working area until they are a few feet away. Avoid sharp bends that look like a dead end to cattle.
Cattle tend to move uphill easier than downhill. If there is much slope, point the alley uphill. Cattle also tend to move best from dark areas to light areas. Facility layouts should be designed so that cattle do not look directly into the sun.
Squeeze Chute or Headgate: The simplest way to create a working area is to securely fasten a head gate to the end of the working chute. Insert pipes or posts behind animals to prevent backing. A squeeze chute is more expensive than a headgate but gives you more control over the animal. Many vendors sell head gates, squeeze chutes, and fence panels. While plans are available, it is difficult to build a head gate or chute that works as well as those that are commercially available. Some new designs allow easier access to the neck region. All injections should be in the neck region.
To save climbing over the fence, build an entrance gate behind the squeeze chute or at the rear of the animal. The gate should swing into the chute to block the next animal and create a cage to protect the person working the cattle. Ideally, utilize a separate chute or breeding box for artificial insemination; this reduces the stress of the cow from her previous experiences in the working chute and headgate.
The entire publication contains more details on designing a complete handling and working system as well as information about the people aspect of actually handling the cattle. It is available on-line at: http://ohioline.osu.edu/b906/index.html or contact your County Extension office for a hard copy.