Weighing the value of permanent and portable livestock handling facilities

Functional equipment makes it easier to practice good stockmanship and keep people safe, whether the facilities are portable or stationary

For some cattle producers, the choice of permanent or portable handling facilities is never considered. Feedlots and grow yards require a permanent infrastructure due to the number of cattle worked daily in a specific location. Sizeable cow-calf owners also require a structure to handle both the larger cows and the smaller calves.

But with operation use constantly expanding to accommodate technology and advanced management strategies and procedures, plus the pandemic of 2020 refusing to go away, budgets are constrained and every option for livestock handling needs to be considered.

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Dr. Joyce Van Donkersgoed of Alberta Beef Health Solutions says when she goes on a call, she’s always thankful when there actually is a facility. Beyond that, there is room for both types of equipment, depending on what needs to be accomplished.

Considerations for permanent facilities

Van Donkersgoed says indoor structures are preferable — especially in colder weather climates — but understands it’s not something added easily or cheaply.

“There should always be enough shelter to keep equipment, vaccines and of course people, from freezing. Propane and overhead heaters are an option.”

She describes situations of broken-down chutes and alleyways where patching and welding would no longer fix the problems. “They have to be operational. If the infrastructure isn’t taken care of, it won’t handle cattle properly. That’s not safe for anyone. We don’t want animals hurt and we want to keep people employed and safe.”

With the pandemic expanding the dimensions of feedlot and finishing cattle, she suggests a Bud box or straight alley where the height and width is adjustable to accommodate bigger animals. Packing plants are working their way through the backlog of heavier cattle, but they will still be more plentiful than usual in the coming weeks, so it is important to handle them safely and efficiently.

For all types and variations of facilities, Van Donkersgoed outlines some tips and features to incorporate, many at a reasonable cost. She urges producers to cover holes in front of the chute with clean mats or use shavings, sand or straw to fill them. Calves can pull their back tendons when forced to exit a chute through a hole.

Simple items include installing non-slip and non-abrasive floors plus a palpation cage if it’s in the budget. “For the vet, we need to be able to get behind cattle and not get injured. It could be pregnancy checking or doing a rectal prolapse, water belly or any surgery.”

Mats are also a reasonable investment if they are kept clean to avoid slippage. Some non-slip models are made from old tires and are a reasonable cost.

“The main thing is to be operational and usable,” she says. “Workers are precious, and we don’t have enough of them. We want them to be safe and able to work because if they find facilities too dangerous, they quit.”

The benefits of portable equipment

For some livestock operations, portable equipment, chutes, alleys and panels are a necessity due to the size and location of pastures and infrastructure. Kade Blake, sales manager and design consultant for Daniels Manufacturing Co. in Nebraska, says for feedlots the fixed models are still dominant, but many cow-calf producers have invested in portable equipment to complement their operation.

“Many outfits have pasture land strung out at large distances, which makes it tough to bring the cattle to a single place. Portable equipment provides a huge benefit.”

He explains portable equipment is now much easier to transport with additional user-friendly features. Panels, alleyways and Bud boxes can all be easily moved at speed limits.

“They travel really well,” he says. “It’s very simple as everything stays on the wheels. There are jacks in the front and once unhooked from a truck, they are taken down to where the whole alleyway is level and ready to go. Chain it to a Bud box and add panels with some staging pins.”

Blake says an excellent feature of portable equipment is that it can be added to permanent facilities or fences at a reduced cost when existing capabilities are lacking. Many producers invest in a portable Bud box versus a stationary one as the cost is less, but the durability is still there. These are incorporated at home yards plus provide an option for simple removal and transportation to a distant pasture. Input costs for a single set-up are easier on finances.

He adds panels are a great option for artificial insemination and estrus synchronization at pasture sites. Transitions for double AI barns are available and with just a few panels added, both boxes can be fed at the same time right in the field. They could also be inserted directly into a barn if desired and room is available.

“Panels can be added to existing poles and posts on farm sites and when needed, be gathered up, stacked on panel carriers and moved. It helps a lot of operations. Stationary settings make use of portable equipment quite easily.”

Both Van Donkersgoed and Blake agree that while functional and usable facilities are vital, they won’t work as well without adding complementary low-stress handling and stockmanship techniques.

“If equipment isn’t serviceable and functional, it makes it more challenging,” says Van Donkersgoed. “Training the workers how to run the chute, work the cattle in the snake front to back and move them forward. Avoiding overcrowding in the tubs and alleys is very important. COVID can’t be an excuse not to use low-stress cattle handling, no matter the facility.”

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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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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