Tips to Design Low-Cost Cattle Handling Facilities

Lynn Johnson, NW Graziers Network & Otto Wiegand, UWEX Ag Agent

Lynn Johnson, a Polk County beef farmer and grazing planner for the NW Wisconsin Graziers Network, recently hosted a cattle-handling demonstration and pasture walk on his farm north of Range, near Turtle Lake, WI.   At the pasture walk he discussed how a practical cattle-handing facility can be constructed at low cost while still allowing him to do important management practices with his beef herd.

Cost of constructing a handling facility can often seem prohibitive, especially for the small producer. One can easily overspend on deluxe versions when used materials and a few innovations would be sufficient.  Practical designs for facilities are available from your Extension office and publications and information can be found on WBIC.

In this video you can view some of the facility as Lynn describes important design features in his facility.

Practices possible with a well-designed beef-handling facilities include (1) visible animal identification (e.g. ear tags) (2) body weight measurements, (3) vaccinations, (4) AI synchronization protocols, (5) AI services, (6) pregnancy testing, (7) pour-on treatments such as deworming, fly control and other parasites, (8) medical exams and treatments, (9) calving assistance, (10) weaning, (11) implants, (12) culling and sorting, (13) sorting of management groups, (14) loading trailers, and (15) quarantine of new animals.  Safety for the producer and the animals is also an important consideration.  It doesn’t take many trips to the hospital emergency room to exceed the cost of a safe cattle handling facility.

The selection of the site for the handling facility needs to be planned carefully.  It needs to be accessible for easy loading of cattle by trailer.  It must be strategically connected to fields and lanes.  There should be access to water, feed and electricity.  The area should be well drained and have good surface materials.  Protection from weather or access to shelter and supplies are important considerations also.

The design of the facility should enable the operator to entice rather than force animals to move thru it.  Understand that animals usually want to escape, and will move toward their herd mates, feed or water.  Animals will have less fear and improved disposition with proper handling.  Alleys should be narrow, so animals can’t run around you.  The squeeze chute should be curved, so that animals think that they are returning from where they came, as circular movements are natural for cattle.  The facility should be designed to minimize distractions and eliminate potential injury points.

Johnson’s facility contains five holding pens; 12 foot-wide working alleys; 10 foot-diameter crowding tub; squeeze chute (about 26 inches wide for his cattle); headlocks; and a load-out area.  Johnson recommends building for flexibility by allowing for extra gates and include many multi-functional components.  Construction and choice of building materials need to be appropriate for the kind of wear and tear or abuse that your cattle will inflict on the facilities.  Extra heavy materials are needed for bison or very excitable cattle, while lighter construction would be adequate for docile animals such as those handled in Johnson’s facility.

Common facility problems include poor drainage or heavy organic soil as well as lanes and sorting alleys are often too wide or have too many corners.  Beef cattle are generally less tame than dairy cattle and would need to be trained to accept headlocks.  Handling facilities can be made more durable and substantial with deeper posts and concrete, heavy gates and sidewalls, but may have to be adjusted later because of design flaws, efficiency or safety issues.

Johnson owns 70 head of docile Red Angus cattle and could handle more with his facility.  He estimated his cash costs at about $1,500 for the used items such as AI chute and head gate, corral panels or gates, cattle panels, headlocks, and T-posts and miscellaneous materials.   Johnson was patient and accumulated these recycled and used items over time from auctions and other local sources.  You may have to spend more. Remember that each facility must be designed and constructed to meet your specific needs and should account for local site conditions and cattle behavior.

Most well-designed handling facilities will pay for themselves in a short time, even if they cost a little more.  One needs to consider the value of the services or management practices applied to your beef herd and what they would cost you if not done at all or attempted without a facility.  The value of these good management practices have been shown to contribute greatly towards beef herd profitability.

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