How to build the best loading chute
September 6, 2018
Many ranchers have ways to load cattle into a stock trailer, but if they send calves or cull cows on a cattle truck or semi they need a loading chute. A good chute makes it easy to load or unload cattle, and is easy for the trucker to get to and away from.
Rusty Hamilton (Salmon, Idaho) hauls cattle all over the West and has loaded or unloaded at thousands of chutes—at ranch headquarters, sale barns, feedlots and more. Some chutes work better than others.
"For the floor, many people use wood (with cleats) or dirt and those give good traction for the cattle. I've loaded and unloaded at chutes with expanded metal flooring and I don't like those; even though they are easier to keep clean because manure falls through, I don't like an open floor because cattle can look down through it and this can spook them," he explains.
Cleats on a wood floor are important for traction, and Hamilton suggests bolting wood strips onto the floor. "If they are just nailed, and cows come sliding out of the truck (if there's moisture on the flooring) and hit the cleats they pull the nails right out—and then you have sharp nails sticking up."
Angle is also important. "The ramp needs to be at least 10 to 12 feet long but doesn't have to be much longer, because you are only going from ground level up to 36 to 48 inches to get into the truck or cattle trailer. I've loaded cattle up some 6 foot ramps, however, and they will do it but it's a pain; some of them balk if it's that steep," says Hamilton.
Width is also important. You don't want a chute too narrow for big cattle, but you don't want it so wide that smaller cattle try to turn around. "About 30 to 36 inches is probably as wide as you want it. This may be a little tight for a big bull, but for cows and calves it works pretty well," he says.
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The loading area needs to be big enough that trucks can turn around and back up to the chute easily. Avoiding sloped areas is best, he said. "They really need at least 200 feet by 200 feet in front of the loading chute to easily turn around and back in there. Sometimes we have to do it in smaller spaces, but it's trickier. As long as you have a straight shot at it—so drivers can pull up and back into the chute—and not have a sharp corner when they pull out from the chute, it works ok."
Hamilton has a couple of tips for what not to do when building a loading chute.
"Don't build it inside a corral. That's fine when the corrals are dry, but in winter or spring it gets muddy and slick (or boggy) and hard for trucks to get in and out." The space for maneuvering a big truck may be limited unless the corral is large.
"Don't put a loading chute alley on the same alley where cattle are moved toward the squeeze chute. Some people do that to save space, but the cows don't want to go that direction and tend to balk when you try to load them. They associate it with the working chute," says Hamilton.
You want a good corral design for getting cattle sorted and moved into a loading chute. Sometimes pens are awkward for loading. "I recommend at least a couple gates in the alleyway, and a gate near the bottom of the loading chute, so you can close it off. Then if a few cattle come out you are not unloading the whole load," he says.
"Make the sides of the loading chute solid (wood or metal), so cattle can't see through it as they go up the ramp. It's just like a working chute; if they can't see out they tend to go better without balking at something they see off to the side, and they'll follow the cow ahead of them. If you put a slight turn to the alley leading to the ramp, this is better than a straight chute because they don't see what's happening at the truck and tend to just follow the cow ahead because they think they are getting away," he explains.
He also recommends having a walkway up the loading chute so people can go along it if necessary, to encourage a reluctant animal. "I would also put a gate at the top so a person can come out of the loading chute (after following a bunch of calves, for instance), and walk back down the walkway. If the chute has solid sides it is really hard to climb out; you need a gate to go in and out of the truck or chute," he says.
"Many people put a swinging gate at the top so it can be adjusted in case the truck is not exactly perfectly straight against the chute; they can move the gate a little to close a gap, but if the chute has solid sides I'd still put a gate at the top so a person can get through it—like an escape door in a trailer. If something is coming after you, it's good to have a gate and not have to try to scramble up a solid wall!"
RANCHER PERSEPECTIVE – Reuben Olson, who ranches near Prairie City, South Dakota, has several loading chutes, but his main chute is made of wood. "It is not very steep; it is 16 feet long. We have a lift on it so we can adjust the height. We can drop it down to load a stock trailer and raise it to various heights to load different size trucks. It is about 3 feet wide, with solid sides. Cattle will go up the chute a lot better if they can't see through the side or the bottom; there's nothing spooky to distract them on the outside.
"I talked with one guy who built his ramp in stair-step fashion–like going up short little steps, and the cattle go up it very well, and it isn't at all slippery," says Olson.
Some people build up an area for the chute (or have trucks coming to it on a lower level) so the floor is dirt or gravel rather than having a ramp. "Many sale barns have a chute with dirt floor and this is good footing. The cattle don't have to go up a ramp; they walk straight onto the truck on the same level. I think that would be ideal," he says.
Holding pens behind the chute should be user-friendly, to get the cattle in. "If the loading chute is next to the gate where they ordinarily go out of the corral, you can line up the pens so cattle are moving in a circle and know this is the direction to go out of the corral. If they always go out that corner, they naturally want to go that way," he explains.
Brian Glass and Kent Wilkinson, also of Prairie City, built two loading chutes in Glass's shop last winter out of steel. One of the biggest challenges was moving the heavy chute outside and into place.
"We used oilfield pipe for the frame (posts and base), and sheet metal for the sides," says Glass. The sheet metal was 3/16ths thickness, and 4 by 8 foot sheets. "We used quarter-inch plate for the ramp. I made a double chute—side by side—one at ground level with just a dirt floor for loading stock trailers, and the metal ramp for the loading chute for semis."
The quarter-inch plate for the ramp was heavy and awkward to handle but made a solid, durable floor. "We used old steel posts that were bent or too short for cattle fences as treads for the floor," says Glass. These were welded onto the metal plate, for traction. Eventually he plans to make a small ramp for the trailer-loading chute so calves can step right into the trailer and not have to jump up.
"The metal ramp for the truck chute works nicely. One neighbor said we should have used wood (bridge planks) because metal would be too noisy. But the cattle loaded very well up the metal ramp and it wasn't noisy because everything was welded solid and didn't rattle. I figured the quarter inch plate would last a lot longer than wood."
The chute is 36 inches wide. "It could be a little narrower but a big bull will fit through this, and when are loading calves if one calf stops another one can go by it. The ramp is about 16 feet, but 3 feet of that is a level landing at the top. The 13 feet is a gradual incline and then there's the flat spot where they walk into the cattle truck. I saw one like that and thought it was a good idea—so the cattle are not scrambling upward as they go into the truck," says Glass.
"I put a door so you can walk through, and not have to crawl over the solid side. I also put a door up front on the trailer side, so you can get in and out and slide the trailer gate," he explains.
The sides of the chute are 5-foot 2-inch height from floor to top. "This is the height I build free-standing panels; cattle don't try to jump over," says Glass.
"It took a little longer to build and more material than we thought, but will last a long time—much longer than wood. We used 2 7/8 inch oilfield pipe for the bottom frame and 2 3/8 drill steel pipe for the posts. We made a bottom base and welded the posts to the frame; the posts are not set in the ground. If necessary I could lift and move it to a different spot."
Wilkinson says these chutes will last beyond their lifetimes. "We put conveyer belting on one side of his to help buffer and muffle the sound."
For anyone trying to build a metal chute, Wilkinson and Glass recommend making sure you have extra time, and some help to hold everything. "It's very heavy material, and squaring up the posts on top of that pipe is tricky and you need an extra hand," says Glass. "It was really good having the neighbors help." Kent Wilkinson and his father Jim helped put the chutes together.
Some of the angles were also tricky, but doable. "I used a plasma cutter, but mainly a chop saw. I created a saddle at the end of my pipes, to touch each other, rather than a straight cut, so there wasn't so much gap to weld. It fits better and saves a lot of welding," he says.
"Sometimes a trucker is in a hurry or not careful when backing up and hits a chute pretty hard. The wooden ones don't hold up very well with that kind of abuse, and they weather too much. Metal will last a lot longer," says Wilkinson.