Measure twice, design thrice

From the March issue of Cow/Calf Producer.

The other day I visited a cattle-handling facility.  It"s situated in a sturdy old barn on family property. The chute is narrowly built of wooden slats, and the head gate is at least 60 years old. It was well designed in its day and now it is used to work lighter weight cattle.  It"s completely functional in 2015. The brothers working the cattle here would like to replace it, but like most cattlemen, they"re getting every bit of use out of it they can.  Even though the United States is the top beef producer in the world, the average herd size here is 40 cows, many of which are managed by producers who typically have off-farm jobs.  For these operations, while it may not make financial sense to create their "ideal beef facility," there are steps they can take to make effective use of what they have.

So, how does a producer decide what to build or how to modify an existing set up?  We measure, explore design ideas and invite input in four components of facility design.

Measure twice

Livestock handling has been studied and prescribed amounts of space have been determined for various sizes and weights of animals. Most of the math has already been done. Producers just plug in the numbers at their own facility, right? If only it was that simple. For most cow/calf producers, a working facility will see the whole range of the measurements from full-grown cows to young calves and every size between. We may not be getting a break on the size of cattle our facilities need to accommodate, but we can give ourselves a break by taking ample time to measure meticulously.

Design your layout

The components of a cattle-handling facility are the holding and sorting pens, tub, alley, chute and load out. Online searches and local Extension services provide ample layout ideas and diagrams. These plans are based on the research that shows us that cattle like to return where they came from (circular movement). They don"t like loud noise, intense lighting contrasts or flashy visuals. Cattle do like to be with their friends and food, so creating a positive relationship between your cattle and the working facility can really improve herd movement. Plan to feed or water regularly in the gathering area of the facility.

Invite input

Rob Hawk, a North Carolina Extension agent, says producers he works with are using squeeze chutes and "bud box type designs" to help manage their cattle since NCSU Extension has been working with them. "In fact, I was on a small cow/calf producer"s farm just last week that needed help with the layout of his cattle-handling facility. He is utilizing a bud box and being creative and functional with low cost materials/equipment and creative but practical Extension designs," he explains.

Besides the Extension office and online resources, visit another producer"s place that has thought through its facility redesign.

Design your work space

What are your herd goals that will be accomplished in this facility? Most of those goals will be achieved from your working area outside the chute. Which tasks do you need to accomplish while the cattle pause for your attention? Write it down. Having a written plan may seem too elementary for a process you have memorized. But this simple step can improve your workflow and influence your chute or head gate choice.

The cattle are used to the elements and get to move consistently through your facility and out into the pasture again. You, on the other hand, stay put and work for hours on end. A permanent shelter or a temporary awning that you can secure without deterring the cattle"s movement is an important consideration. Also, a large folding table or two small ones are essential to save your gear and your back during this process.

Does your chute have ample neck access and a bottle holder for multi-dose administration? Would your feet appreciate a fatigue-reducing slip-resistant rubber mat? Do you need a non-slip surface for the cattle to tread on as they leave the chute?

Invite input

I"ve learned a lot over the years by helping others work cattle at their facility. It"s like being in another woman"s kitchen. You"ll need to take the job you"re given and do it well, but while you"re there, you"ll find some really great recipes for what suits and maybe what doesn"t suit your own cattle-working routine.

Design your chute

Whether you"re shopping for a squeeze chute or head gate, don"t buy cookie-cutter. You don"t need to pay for options you won"t use or end up lacking a really important-to-you feature. Hold out for what suits you best. The right-side exit of that chute on the lot may be the right-side exit to nowhere at your facility, and even if you"re given a "discount" you"re still paying for something you don"t need.  

Local farm stores, farm trade shows and Internet searches will give you ample options for chutes made in the United States and Canada. I suggest exploring each of these chute sources.  Your design options are only limited by the time and energy you put into researching.

Producers can also "test drive" several different chutes. Sales representatives should be able and willing to connect you with other producers who will let you see their chute in action. When you"re out test-driving chutes, invite those producers to visit your operation to help in your chute design process.

Ask your veterinarian. If you don"t do anything else, ask the local veterinarian which chute options she likes and dislikes.

Other factors to consider include the weight of the chute. All gages of steel are not equal. Chutes that seem comparable may not wear equallly under the weight of your mama cows. In fact, dividing out the price of the chutes by weight will give you a good idea of their quality.

What is the quality of the paint on the chute?  Yes, ask even if you plan to place it under a roof.

How easily replaced is the floor piece of the chute once it"s worn out?  Does the manufacturer provide a slotted floor option?

Answering these questions before the chute is in place may save time, money and headaches down the road.

Your facility; your dignity

As I"ve traveled the southeastern United States, I"ve noted a trend in how smaller producers describe themselves. They always have their heart in what they"re doing, but they also consistently describe their facility as not grand enough. If your facility works for you safely and mostly efficiently, then I celebrate your set up. The truth is that whether your chute is wood or steel, manual or hydraulic, head gate or squeeze, having a working facility that meets your needs is all that matters.   

As a small producer, you have to work your day job before you can come home and work in the barn. Or you"ve planned and skimped to retire with a piece of land and a herd. In the valley where I farm, at least three other farms use manual chutes or head gates operated single handedly by retirees, and then there are those brothers with the museum-quality head gate.  Good design and patient creativity are available to any producer.

Show us your chute

Sometimes the best ideas come from the cattle operation down the road or from a discussion at the coffee shop. At Cow/Calf Producer, we would love to hear from you and see your cattle-working facilities. Send us a photo and a description of your facilities, and we"ll share it either in future issues of the magazine or online at

This is a photo of my family"s unfinished holding area. We used a combination of treated lumber and heavy-gauge page wire panels because we had saved up long enough to buy some new materials.  Since this photo, we have added and removed a few posts, added gates and continued to accept that handling facilities for smaller operators are typically an evolution of ideas and resources over time.


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