Cattle facility tune-up
July 21, 2014
Whether brand new or decades old, a corral setup may need a few updates to maximize its efficiency, making things easier on both the cattle and people who work in it according to cattle handling expert Temple Grandin, who spoke in Rapid City, S.D., on July 1.
"There is getting to be so much more interest in low stress handling. That is something really good, and I'm happy people are relaxing and realizing that handling matters. For years handling was my number one animal welfare concern, and doing it right can help with better reproduction and weight gain," began Grandin.
During her presentation Grandin highlighted many relatively easy fixes to problems she sees in many of today's working corrals. Taking the time to address these issues can aid in creating a low-stress handling facility for both livestock and people.
"We have to prevent situations where animals are frightened. If an animal fights against it we need to get rid of it – eliminate distractions.
"A lot of people are using pre-made cattle handling facilities today, and they have those big struts on the ground. Cover that up with dirt. It's three times harder to get cattle to go over a floor change – concrete, dirt or just a metal strut on the ground. Try to make your entire facility the same," she began of a major point that can improve flow through a facility.
She listed reflections off of parked vehicles along the fence as another variable that can cause a mess, even in a good set of corrals, and suggested moving them away from the facility along with coats and other obvious distractions.
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"Why do I keep talking about these distractions you've heard about your entire life? Because people aren't remembering them," she stated of the reason for including what some would consider basic handling principles at the beginning of her presentation.
As cattle move through the working facility, Grandin noted that simple adjustments, including not overloading the crowd pen will improve livestock flow.
"It requires more walking on your part, but is better handling. I think we should rename the crowd pen the pass through pen," she noted.
Backstops in single file alleys are another potential problem area in many facilities. Not only are several poorly designed, but older versions may be too short for today's cattle.
"People tend to put way too many backstop gates into a facility. If they're backing up, figure out what's making them back up. Get rid of those loose chains. Use a sliding gate or a remote control so cattle don't have to clump through it. If you have a bump gate right where your tub goes into the single alley cattle tend to balk – hook up a remote control in a way it doesn't jiggle and raise that up when they're entering," she noted.
If cattle continually turn away from a single-file alley, it could also be because the backstop gate is set too low according to Grandin. This is more common in older facilities built for smaller framed cattle. Simply raising the gate and eliminating the concern that cattle will bump their back may result in much smoother flow into the single-file alley.
"Another fairly simple thing to improve an existing facility is to increase the lead-up chute (single file alley) length. If the lead up only holds two cows, you can't use following behavior. If you time your bunches into the crowd pen so there is space in the lead up alley, they will come up and keep on going right up the chute because it's easy to follow," she explained, adding the same principle applies to loading trucks.
Squeeze chutes also provide multiple opportunities for improvement. From simply adding cardboard to the side so cattle can't see the handler to a myriad of other variables, chutes can be a point of issue or ease.
"If you have a chute that only squeezes from one side you need to adjust it – if you throw those animals off balance they don't like it. I prefer chutes where both sides move. If an animal bellers as you squeeze, you're hurting them. A big mistake is when animals start to fight in a hydraulic chute they squash them. No, no, no. If you calm down handling in the back of the facility, they come into the chute calmly," she explained.
For those with manual chutes, proper maintenance is also a critical component for both human and livestock safety.
"With manual chutes the biggest cause of accidents is not maintaining latches, especially the friction latches. Never oil friction latches. If they become worn out this is not the place for your welding, you buy a new one from the company. Ratchet types you can lubricate – those are the old ones that get worn out and as they come open the bar flies out it hits you under the chin," Grandin explained.
Adding non-slip flooring in front of chute is another easy fix to reduce cattle stress as they leave the facility, as is maintaining a proper handler movement pattern.
"It's a real simple thing, if you're inside the animal's flight zone move in the opposite direction of desired movement. If you're outside the flight zone, move in the same direction. It sounds crazy but it works," she stated.
Taking the time to study animal behavior and determine any specific issues in a given situation can also improve handling, save time and reduce stress.
"Just recently I was in a meat packing plant, and the cattle came to the entrance of the crowd pen and just stopped. They had never done that before. There was a paper towel roll where there hadn't been one before. That plant would have been slowed down considerably just because it took so much longer to load their crowd pen. Let's just remove the paper towels and fix it," she provided as an example.
While addressing facility shortfalls can go a long way in improving cattle handling, it will never be the sole piece of the puzzle according to Grandin.
"Facilities are only half of the equation. The other half is the behavior and management side of livestock handling. Too often people want the magic thing that will solve their problems rather than looking at management.
"There is never a situation where rough handling will be good for the livestock, from a safety or productivity standpoint. Get down in the chute and see what your animals are seeing, stop yelling and screaming, and leave the blue heeler in the house," she said.