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Purpose and Components of Beef Cattle Handling Facilities 

Evaluating intended uses or objectives when developing new or renovating existing animal handling facilities.
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Good cattle handling facilities are necessary for all cattle operations, regardless of the number of cattle.  

Cattle handling facilities have multiple uses: 

  • They restrain individual animals during management practices (vaccinations, health treatments, pregnancy diagnosis, etc.).  
  • Good facilities help cattle handlers collect performance data, which is critical to herd genetic improvement and marketing efforts.  
  • These facilities can be as rudimentary as a rope used to restrain a calf in an open pasture or as complex as a transportable set of pens and hydraulic chute.  

There are several important issues to consider when developing new or renovating existing animal handling facilities, according to the Mississippi State University Extesion. The most important consideration is the intended uses or objectives. Consider whether the facility will handle 30 cows and calves just a few times per year or to process truckloads of stockers each week. Efficiency refers to the number of animals that can be worked over a given amount of time and should be balanced with cost and safety. Very basic, well-designed and maintained handling facilities are usually sufficient for the average cow-calf production unit and are often the most cost-effective.  

The following are key components of handling facilities and some tips on setting them up properly.  

Catch Pens  

Most cattle handling facilities consist of a pen, or set of pens, to gather the cattle in before working them. Ideally, each pasture on the operation should be in reasonable proximity to a catch pen.  

Lane Systems  

Pasture lane systems – or collection alleys – can make it easier to move cattle to and from pastures and catch pens. Lanes connect catch pens and paddock exits to the crowding pens of cattle handling facilities. Lanes should be 10 to 16 feet wide to allow for a tractor to fit through the lanes but is not enough space for cattle to run past handlers.  

Crowding Pen  

From the catch, sorting or holding pens, a main lane should lead to the crowding pen – or sweep tub – where cattle line up to move single file through an alley. A circular (quarter or half circle) or funnel shape is the recommended design for a crowding pen because it allows cattle to use their natural instinct to follow each other while limiting their vision of potential obstacles or distractions ahead. Where the crowding pen enters the alley, slant one side at a 30-degree angle.  

Alley  

After the crowding tub, cattle enter an alley or chute, which leads to a chute section where individual animals are restrained. A curved alley maintains flow because cattle see only the animal directly in front of them and naturally follow. Having solid sides on alleys ensures that movement outside of the alley does not cause cattle to balk or slow their forward movement. The working alley should be at least 20 feet long to avoid delays in efficiently moving cattle. The width of this alley varies depending on the size of the cattle being processed. It should be wide enough for cattle to move forward without much resistance but not wide enough for them to turn around. A good width for calves is 18 inches, but this will not accommodate larger cattle. Some commercially available working alleys are adjustable. However, it might be more cost-effective to build a 22- to 26-inch-wide working alley and hang spacers over the sides when working smaller calves.  

Slider Gates  

Slider gates in alleys act similarly to backstops by keeping cattle from backing up. They are very effective at staging individuals for maintained flow, but they are usually manually operated and require attention from a handler. They are most effectively used at the back of permanent scales or between the chute and palpation cage.  

Squeeze Chute  

A squeeze chute with a head catch ensures safety for both cattle and handler. The head catch keeps the animal from backing up and allows access to the head and neck. Squeezing the sides of the chute limits movement of the cattle while they are being worked.  

Squeeze chutes have multiple levers or pulls that function to open, close and squeeze different parts of the chute. This allows one person to operate the squeeze chute while other handlers move cattle into the chute.  

Palpation Cage  

A palpation cage is an extension of the squeeze chute with a door that swings across the alley. It allows easy and safe access to the rear of cattle restrained in the squeeze chute. It is especially important for cow-calf operations where pregnancy diagnosis and other reproductive management techniques are frequently used.  

Sorting Pens  

Having sorting pens situated in front of the working chute decreases labor by allowing cattle to be individually directed to the appropriate management group. Sorting pens are sometimes called holding pens because they are designed to hold cattle before and after processing through the chute. If cattle are not to be worked immediately, holding pens need sources of drinking water for cattle and additional space. The number of cattle that will comfortably fit in a pen is based on the width and length of the pen and the size of the cattle. In general, cattle need 14 to 20 square feet of space each. Pen areas should be roughly tripled when holding animals for extended periods, such as overnight.  

Flooring  

Flooring is a design issue that is often overlooked but can create safety issues for both cattle and handlers if not done correctly. Dirt floors are the most common, but in certain environments, dirt floors readily become dusty or muddy. Mud can harbor infectious diseases, and dust can aggravate the respiratory system, both leading to an increased incidence of disease. Concrete flooring is a good alternative to dirt floors but must be textured to reduce slipping. Planning ahead will save money and time because it is easier and cheaper to texture concrete while it is being poured.  

Loading Ramps  

Loading and unloading ramps are used to move cattle from ground-based handling facilities to trailers for transportation and vice versa. They can be permanent or portable.  

Working Tables  

Working tables next to the squeeze chute and head gate where cattle are restrained are useful for organizing supplies. Tables provide a surface for preparing animal health products to administer, marking ear tags, writing down records, and completing other organizational tasks that take place during cattle handling.  

Utilities  

Incorporating utilities such as electricity and water into cattle handling facilities can greatly increase their functionality.  

Scales  

Capturing cattle weight is important for herd performance programs, genetic improvement efforts, nutritional management and animal health product dosing. Integrating scales into the alley improves efficiency by letting a handler record cattle weights while other handlers are performing management practices in the squeeze chute.  

Fences  

Fences provide the boundaries of pens and paddocks. Fencing construction and management recommendations are provided in Mississippi State University Extension Service Publication 2538 Livestock Fencing Systems for Pasture Management.  

Download Holding Pen and Loading Chute Dimensions 

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Holding Pen and Chute Dimensions

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Additional Resources

Watch NCBA Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP) winner profiles. See how the beef industry showcases its stewardship, conservation and business practices that work together on farms and ranches.

Blair Brothers Angus Ranch – South Dakota

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JY Ferry & Son, Inc. – Utah

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