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Eight tips for efficient, safe livestock handling systems

If you’re in the market for a new handling system, consider safety, footing and how the system will be used

The basic purpose of a livestock chute and handling system is to hold, sort, direct, position, control and treat. If designed properly, the system will reduce operator handling time and effort, minimize animal injury and stress, plus allow anyone using it to do so safely.

1. Decide what is needed

First, it is important to decide what is realistically needed.

“Choose your checklist of what you look for versus doing a brand promotion. Base it on the number of animals and what you’re going to be doing to them. If you’re just going to pregnancy check, vaccinate and ear tag, that’s simple. If you run cows, you’re going to need a palpation cage. If you’re running feedlot animals, you need to look at all those different aspects,” says Jennifer Woods, livestock handling specialist. Woods, who is based out of Blackie, Alta., has a graduate degree in veterinary preventative medicine, and has been mentored by Dr. Temple Grandin.

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The squeeze is a very important investment as it is the centrepiece of the handling operation. If it does its job well, the handler’s task will be efficient, easy and safe.

2. Demand safety for the handler

“Safety is huge for everything. You want something that allows you safe access to the animal,” says Woods.

While squeezes come in many different shapes and variations of handles, ropes and levers, it is important to consider the positioning of the features.

“What has taken me out and many other people are the handles that stick out for the head catch. I like the ones that collapse down, because I don’t know how many I have run into. You also want to make sure your veterinarian has safe access to the animal from the back and they won’t get trapped or snap an arm if the animal goes down,” says Woods.

Safe access to the neck for injection sites is vital because of Canada’s food safety regulations.

“The palpation cage and the neck access are two big things for safety for you and the animal.”

3. Demand safety for the animal

For the animal’s safety, it must be restrained for efficient procedures to be completed between the catch and release process. Sides and openings should be covered so feet can’t get stuck.

“I’m not crazy about the V-neck restrainers,” says Woods. “Cattle will choke out when they go down in them and they are harder to get back up.”

She likes adjustable squeezes, so animals don’t get stuck in a partially turned position.

“And by all means, if you’re using hydraulics, make sure they are not squeezing the animals too tight.”

A glimpse of the livestock handling demonstrations at Ag in Motion in 2019. Decide what you need in a handling system before you buy.
photo: File

4. Make it easy to use

Another vital consideration for Woods is ease of use. She relates a story of hanging off the ground from a head catch that she couldn’t close.

“You really want something that moves easily and quickly. I like self-catching for handlers working alone, but make sure they are of good quality and that the mechanisms work well.”

5. Selecting tubs and alleyways

There are many available sizes and optional features available for tubs and alleyways, but Woods like the tub to be at least 16 feet wide for roominess, with solid sides from 28 to 52 inches to remove distractions that may stop animals from moving. She also likes catwalks to put handlers in the animal’s line of vision to prompt movement.

She’s not against adjustable sides for the bottoms of alleyways but warns there is more work involved with such a system.

“You’ve got to make sure you adjust it as needed. You can run into snow, mud or manure on the ground so be sure there is a big enough gap at the bottom that the manure can come out, but not big enough that animals can get their heads stuck.”

Woods explain the shape of the alley is extremely important.

“One of the problems I have seen on some systems out there is the ‘S’ alley corners are too tight and the cattle are basically bending in half going through. If you’re doing a curved chute system, create a nice bend.”

6. Match the design and cost to animal behaviour

Her philosophy around handling designs is to match an animal’s natural instinct with the intended structure.

“I always tell people to envision how water would flow through their system. That’s how cattle will move through it. If you have a bunch of sharp corners, what’s a wall of water going to do when it gets to the corner? It’s going to crash. But if you have a nice curved corner, it’s going to flow around.”

She reiterates that well-designed handling systems don’t have to be complex or cost an enormous amount.

“Something fancy doesn’t mean it’s going to work better. I’ve seen a lot of simple systems that work really well.”

7. Respect the three must-haves

Three must-haves for Woods are proper footing, quiet operation and regular maintenance.

“From the animal safety side, footing is huge, and this doesn’t mean straw on top of concrete.” If animals don’t feel secure in their footing, they won’t settle in the chute, she adds.

“They must also be quiet. The quieter they are, the calmer the animals will be.”

Woods instructs all her clients on the importance of regular maintenance including lubrication before starting the system, plus making sure the hydraulics work properly.

8. Don’t repeat mistakes

Finally, Woods encourages producers to keep an open mind and be willing to think outside their comfort zone.

“If you tear down a facility, you don’t have to build it the same way as before,” she says. “If you do, you’re going to have the exact same problems. There is a whole lot of information out there to make use of on facility design that we didn’t have before, so take advantage of it.”

About the author

Contributor

Bruce Derksen lives, works and writes in Lacombe, Alta. He has 30 years of experience as a hands-on participant in numerous branches of the Western Canadian livestock industry.

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