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Hopper-bottomed calf feeder cuts labour

A relatively simple system replaced hauling feed with five-gallon buckets on this ranch

Hauling five-gallon buckets to feed the weanlings was a regular chore for the Bowie family, until a fire gave them a chance to do something different.

Originally the Bowie family, who ranch in the Great Sandhills of southwestern Sask­atchewan, used an old wooden-wheeled grain wagon to hold feed for the calves. They filled their pails from the grain wagon and lugged it to the calves’ troughs. Then, in 1984, a big fire ripped through the Bowies’ yard. The only things left standing were the chicken coop, the old calf feeder and Ian and Eleanor Bowie’s house, says their son, Jon.

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The Bowies had to rebuild their yard infrastructure, and they decided they wanted something less labour-intensive for feeding calves. A rancher south of Maple Creek had built a hopper-bottomed calf feeder that ran on a track, which the Bowies used as a template.

“His was on a very steep hill, however. And he attached a winch to it so he’d just stand at the top and give it a push,” says Bowie. The feeder would slide down the hill, stop at the end, and the rancher would then winch it back up.

The Bowies’ feeder runs over a trough. Cables fence calves out of the trough, while allowing them to eat from both sides. An auger fills the feeder so any feed that will run through the auger can be fed to the calves.

The feeder has pulley-type wheels mounted at the top, with angle iron for the track. The cart has a hopper bottom, allowing the operator to slide open the trap door to release feed.

Unlike the Maple Creek rancher’s feeder, the Bowie’s feeder is on level ground. When it’s full, it weighs about 600 pounds. But as long as the wheels are lubricated, a person can give it a push and then walk five or six steps behind it, down the trough.

“You don’t have to be a muscleman to do it,” says Bowie, adding his 11-year-old daughter pushes it down the trough sometimes.

Bowie says they usually feed around 250 calves over the winter, depending on the year. Overall, the feeder has held up well and has been fairly low-maintenance. Bowie did have to replace some of the clips holding the cables in place a couple of years ago, as some had worn through after decades of use.

As well, some of the track broke from the top of the pipe while Bowie was pushing the cart last year. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to lift the cart, but it was fairly easy to move, he says. He then spot-welded the broken track.

The worst problem they’ve had with the system occurs when the calves are first weaned. A calf will sometimes crawl through the cables and into the trough. It will then run up and down the trough, spooking other animals.

Bowie says if the calf is small, a person can push it back out between the cables. They used to have a gate at the end they could remove when a bigger animal climbed into the trough. However, it was welded shut last year, so they now remove a cable for larger calves.

The Bowies have made a couple of adjustments as well. The original steel cable tended to snap if anything rubbed it. Since then, the Bowies have installed softer steel that stretches more and doesn’t snap.

Another issue was with the posts. When the ground settled or the weather was particularly cold, the posts would heave and the alley would narrow.

“And if you weren’t paying attention and you were pushing, it would catch one of those posts. And you’d catch the handle in the gut,” says Bowie.

But that hasn’t been a problem lately. Bowie says they did pour some gravel in the low spots where the sand had blown away over the years. He’s not sure, but thinks the clay-gravel base may have fixed the issue.

The only other thing Bowie might change is the position of the clips. Right now the clips are on the inside of the posts. This adds more pressure to the clips, wearing them out faster, and makes it easier for the calves to bow the cables and get inside. Putting the clips on the outside of the posts, or putting a rod on the bottom may prevent calves from lifting the bottom cable. But that change might also create other problems, Bowie says. For example, the calves might break the rod.

In the end, Bowies says if they were rebuilding the system from scratch today, they wouldn’t do “a heck of a lot” differently.

“It’s a really efficient, easy-to-use system.”

The feeder is relatively easy to push even when loaded, as long as the wheels are lubricated.

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Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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