by Sally Colby

Beginning beef producers have more to consider than which breed to raise and developing a market strategy. Good handling facilities are a critical aspect of a successful beef operation and should be in place before the first animal arrives on the farm.

Pennsylvania state beef extension specialist Dr. Tara Felix says while handling facilities should be one of the first things producers should think about, facilities don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. “Fancy handling facilities translate to very expensive handling facilities,” she said. “You can have ultra-fancy but you don’t have to have fancy to work cattle.”

Properly constructed handling facilities make life easier for the people using them as well as the animals being worked. Safety for both humans and animals should be a prime consideration for any cattle working system. When choosing a location for handling facilities, consider lighting, nearby buildings and other potential distractions that may cause cattle to panic or balk. Understand the flight zone of cattle, and how cattle prefer to move. Adequate pen size along with proper gate and panel placements help with smooth animal flow and reduce the risk of injury to humans by frightened animals. Alleys for cattle movement should be at least 10 feet wide, but no wider than 12 to 14 feet. Alleys that are too wide makingabbbie it easy for cattle to run back past a human handler.

Selecting the most practical handling facilities for any given cattle operation depends on the type of operation and the goals of that operation. The first step in planning a handling area is to review current facilities, such as barns and other outbuildings, and determine how those facilities can be integrated in a handling system. Consider the proximity to animal housing areas and pasture, and how cattle will be moved to handling facilities. Site drainage is also important, especially if the topography of the farm includes areas where water tends to pool.

All aspects of cattle handling facilities should be designed to allow the handler to maintain BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) standards. Access to the appropriate area of the animal’s body for injections is important, as is head restraint for administration of nasal vaccines. If handling facilities will be used for castration, be sure to allow adequate space to work safely behind the animal.

If cattle will be handled frequently or in poor weather conditions, consider placing a portion or all the handling facilities under roof. However, remember that cattle are hesitant to move from light areas into dark areas, and plan for adequate lighting to prevent cattle from balking at entrances.

Good footing in a handling system helps prevent slippage that results in cattle becoming injured as well as the subsequent potential for human handlers to put themselves at risk while securing downed animals. Beef cattle operations established on former dairy farms are often at an advantage because grooved concrete is already in place. Another option that provides secure footing is crushed limestone, which packs down and provides a hard, concrete-like surface.

A basic handling system should include a holding pen where groups of cattle wait prior to entering the holding chute, a crowding pen where cattle are held just prior to entering the working chute, a working chute, and a holding chute with an adjustable head gate. A catwalk around the outside of the crowding pen is a good safety measure that allows handlers to use their own body position to influence animal movement.

The holding pen should provide adequate space for cattle to move freely without overcrowding. The crowding pen, which is directly behind the working chute, should hold about five to seven animals just prior to entering the working chute.

While some beef producers prefer solid sides for both crowding and working areas, the working chute should definitely have solid sides to prevent cattle from balking at objects outside the chute. Sloped sides help confine the animal’s feet and legs, which reduces balking and turning around. A system of back-up bars, also known as stops, help prevent cattle from moving backwards in the chute and allow a person to safely work behind the animal for A.I and other close-up work. Stops should be as quiet as possible to avoid startling cattle in the working area.

A handling system that includes a cutting gate comes in handy at weaning or for sorting off cattle of different weights. Scales are another option to consider. “Scales are really important, particularly if you’re tracking weaning weights and other weights,” said Felix. “Maybe a cow has prolapsed and might need antibiotics — dosages are based on body weight. You can guestimate but scales help with accuracy. It isn’t an expensive item, and it can give you a lot of information.” To save wear and tear and maintain accuracy, scales should be located such that cattle only move across them when necessary.

While moving and restraining animals for routine work is important, producers should incorporate handling facilities with a system that allows safe and efficient movement of cattle for shipping. The load-out facility should be designed to accommodate the trailer or vehicle cattle will be loaded off or on. A loading chute located directly off the crowding pen makes it easy to direct cattle to walk up a ramp and onto a truck or trailer. The ramp on a loading chute can be sloped or include steps, and should be at least 12 feet long for safe footing and easy movement.

Producers who purchase new or used commercially available handling systems should understand and follow the manufacturer’s usage and safety precautions. All workers involved in cattle handling should receive training in how cattle move and respond, and be able to quickly recognize and handle dangerous situations that could cause harm to humans or animals.

Some producers construct their own holding and handling facilities using heavy-duty lumber, adding plywood sides where appropriate. These systems can be completed with a sturdy, easy to work wooden head gate or a commercially available head gate. If properly designed and maintained, homemade handling facilities can serve the producer for a long time.