January 25, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry – stockyards and handling tips

Cattle, farming, husbandry, stockyards for cattle, loading ramps basic principles, helpful construction suggestions, stand off and feed pads

By Dr Clive Dalton

Loading ramps
Having to build a set of yards for handling and loading cattle on to trucks can be an expensive exercise, but there is no avoiding it unless you can use your neighbour’s yards. Hand-pushed ramps on wheels used for sheep won’t do for cattle other than young calves.

Using old broken-down yards is a real danger to you and the stock, as you never know which bits are going to collapse next. Truck operators are now well within their rights to refuse to accept your business if facilities are not safe.

Make sure that any ramp used allows trucks to back up leaving no gaps for legs to slip down, and always keep checking for protruding nails, as they can work their way out over time.

Nails on yard that were never fully knocked in.
Waiting to damage both stock and handlers
Cattle yards - some basic principles
  • Build on a level well-drained site.
  • Cattle move best up a slope but it complicates building. So don’t make a big issue of this – build on a level site where possible.
  • Have a good clear entrance to the yards at right angles to a fence so stock will go in easily.
  • Circular yards and curved races are ideal for cattle movement but in small yards they add complication in construction and cost. Amateur builders should stick to building square things!
  • Have a holding pen that will take all or most of your herd. If it won’t take them all comfortably, then you’ll need a larger area to confine stock like a small paddock near the yards.
  • Don’t pack animals too tightly into yards – it’s dangerous for them, you, and the yards. Having a fence collapse and the cattle bursting out in panic at a critical moment is a terrifying experience!
  • Have a small forcing pen before the race so cattle see only the one option of moving into the race. Stock like to see a clear-way ahead of them.

Example of using a gate to make a forcing pen for small herd of quiet cattle.
  • The race is where they can be held tightly in Indian-file, head to tail. Calves can be held side by side.
  • Close-board the sides of the race so animals can only see a clear way ahead. But don’t do it all as you may need some rails to climb out in a hurry some time.
  • Have a good strong gate at the end of the race to keep cattle in. There will be a lot of pressure on this gate as cattle lean back on it. It needs a very strong catch on it, but one that can be easily opened.

A good solid gate at end of race
  • Smooth the sharp edges off the top rail.

Shows edge smoothed off top rail for when you lean over.
Note the big galvanised nails holding the rail; should also be fixed by wire stapled
on to prevent twisting in the sun.
  • It’s essential to have a good strong and safe head bail on the end of this race. Make sure it cannot be lifted off by an upset animal, so have pins through the ends of the hinges or reverse the top gudgeon.
  • Have a vet gate to give access to the rear of a beast when it’s in the headbail.
  • Have a couple of pens beyond the head bail so animals can be drafted and held separately.
  • Concrete the crush pen and race and put road metal in the rest of the yards.
  • Have cat-walks or narrow platforms on the outside of the crush pens and race to stand on so you can lean over safely into the pen to work.

Catwalk to stand on for treating cattle in the race. Note bird netting to prevent slipping.
  • Put chicken netting on the catwalks to stop operators slipping mainly in wet weather.
  • All rails should be wired as well as nailed and excess bolt threaded heads sawn off.
  • Have gates that open fully so stock cannot get stuck behind them.
  • Gate catches should be easy to get at from both sides, with self-closing latches where possible.
  • Gudgeons holding gate hinges need to have bolt through them to prevent them being lifted off by cattle.
Safety bolt in gudgeon to prevent gate being lifted off
  • No hinges should protrude to bruise animals or people.
  • Have a weather-proof box for Tb cards on the loading ramp.
  • Build a cover over the race to shelter stock and workers from rain and sun.
  • Have a rubbish bin and get people to use it. Remember to empty it too. It’s a great treasure chest to let the vet see what products you have been using!
  • Have a decent first aid box protected from the weather and make sure it contains the appropriate items and not just nesting starlings!
  • Have a mobile phone at the yards.

General handling tips

Having to get in with big cattle to drench them can be dangerous
It's a hard physical job
  • Cattle walk normally at around 4km/hr and a lame beast walks at about 2km/hr. Bikes and ATVs don’t like going at these speeds neither do young riders on high-powered machines or tractors!
  • When cattle are about to be yarded, park all vehicles and tie up all dogs well away from the action.
  • Drive the stock in on foot and give them plenty of time to see where they are going.
  • Throw some hay into the yards to attract them in if they are wary.
  • If stock get stirred up and won’t go in, leave them to settle for 10-15 minutes before trying again.
  • Talk to them in low tones when moving them, and only use loud shouting when necessary.
  • You can’t let them refuse to go in for ever, so the final time, take them up to the entrance and hold them there long enough for them to see the entrance. Then making sure they cannot break back – put pressure on them with plenty of noise so they realise going in is their only option.
  • Avoid leaving an animal on its own in a yard. The only exception may be a bull.
  • Remove any “novelty” things around the yards that they have not seen before, especially things like plastic bags that blow around. That’s what the rubbish bin is for.
  • Have a long stick or length of 25mm alkathene (about 1m long) with a small rag or flag on the end which cattle see as an extension to your arms. Use this for drafting as you can operate by standing well back from the stock. Hold two of these up high when moving bulls or agitated cows to increase your “threat” size.
  • Some people love to poke stock with a stick through the rails as they pass along a race. Ban this practice or try it on them to see what it feels like.
  • If you want to use an electric prodder- then only use it sparingly on stock like bulls that may not want to shift. Be careful when working with someone using a prodder as you may not see them prod the stock, but you’ll feel the beast’s reaction – a kick without a warning!
  • Don’t get into pens among large cattle – work from the outside from a catwalk.
  • Be especially wary of backing poles that go in behind a beast. You often get it half way in and if the beast moves back 30cm the pole becomes a missile flying back a metre into your delicate parts.
Fence post put in behind last beast. 

  • Make sure the backing pole is the right length.
  • Always wear safety boots or gumboots with steel toe caps.
  • Use the animal’s “point of balance” to move stock.
  • Don’t “eyeball” stock if you want them to move towards you. Turn your back and walk backwards (carefully) past their point of balance.

Getting advice
There are specialists who will design stock yards of all sizes and can arrange for them to be built. It’s a very good idea to go and see stockyards on other farms when they are being used, and after the newness has worn off them. Farmers are great, they’ll tell you everything that’s good about their yards and everything that needs improving – at no charge.

Stand-off pads and feed pads.
  • The concern here is that the cow often finds it difficult to find a suitable area to lie down.
  • Cows need rest and prefer to lie down between 8 and 12 hours each day.
  • They can tolerate a minimum of 4 hours/day for 4 continuous days before they start to suffer distress – seen by hanging of their heads.
  • When let out to graze after confinement, cows will rest in preference to grazing.
  • Cows are reluctant to lie down on wet and/or slippery surfaces or in deep mud or slurry.
  • They prefer soft surfaces to lie on such as sand or bark and should only be held on hard surfaces (e.g. concrete) for periods of 4 days maximum or they will suffer lameness and stress.
  • For cows to lie down on stand-off areas they should have a minimum of 3.5m²/cow for short periods (12 hours/day for up to 2 days) and 5m²/cow for 3 continuous days or longer.
  • On a feed pad not all cows will want to lie down at the same time as some will be feeding, so areas per cow can be modified based on their behaviour.

Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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