Days of hollering, bullwhips, long nylon ropes and rodeo-style livestock handling of livestock are long-gone.
Nowadays, most livestock operators have developed working pens for improved efficiency and safer and more humane handling.
Whether using portable corrals or elaborate permanent pens, alleys and gates, stockmanship is still the most important requirement when doing essential hands-on management of livestock.
Joe Harner, Kansas State University agriculture engineer, has designed intricate plans incorporating consideration for both stockman and his stock.
“It still boils down to how the livestock is handled. A far less-than-perfect corral will work far better than the best working facilities when there’s excellent stockmanship,” Harner stated emphatically. “That’s the No. 1 priority in handling livestock.”
However, as the biological and agricultural engineering department head, Harner said there have been notable transitions in constructions.
“With the major transition in transportation is accommodations have become essential for loading and unloading cattle from trucks and various kinds of trailers,” Harner explained.
While high-loaded semi-trucks were the most common method of hauling large herds of cattle for decades, that has changed.
“Double-decker trailers are still in use, even though sometimes it’s difficult for cattle to walk up a steep ramp. So, many more ground load trailers are now being used,” Harner said.
Consequently, the engineer is requested by producers to design working pens so cattle can be loaded and unloaded from high-load semi-trucks as well as ground load trailers of various types.
Typically cattle have been released from a working-squeeze chute into one large pen together. “Facilities are now being designed to sort different types of cattle into different pens,” Harner explained.
“Whether being sorted for several pastures, pregnancies, weight variation, sick pen, whatever, cattle can be separated more efficiently. That’s much easier than going back into a large herd to select out certain individuals,” he continued.
Many facilities now are designed to sort cattle two, three, even four different ways, Harner added.
Stockmen are sometimes resistant to invest much in quality corrals to be used a few times during a year — sometimes just once or twice.
“Today, we’re designing more multiple-use facilities that serve a purpose for stockmen throughout the year,” Harner pointed out.
While the initial intent might be for processing incoming cattle or health management, the pens can also serve as sick bay, calving area, or an area for youth livestock projects. Any number of purposes can help make it a more economical investment for a rancher, Harner said.
Working facility construction can be expensive, and Harner sees creative stockmen utilizing a unique variety of materials on hand or purchased more economically.
“Woven wire, steel driving posts, hedge, more traditional fencing can work well in larger pen areas,” Harner said.
“However, tighter confined cattle — like those being moved down alleyways — put considerable more pressure on fencing. It is essential to build a stronger construction,” he said.
Stockmen are generally in a hurry and often short on manpower. “Everything seems to move faster today, and speed is vitally important. Work really needs to be done more efficiently,” the engineer said.
“The best solution to getting a job done faster is often to just slow down. That might sound contradictory but, often when stockmen work slower with livestock, there are fewer problems and they often end up finishing the work ahead of time,” Harner said.
Five main areas of a functional working system are shipping/receiving, sorting/holding, crowding, processing and transition feeding to working area.
Every working facility is unique with basic components including pens and alleys, palpation cage, squeeze chute, loading chute, working table and scales.
“Cornerstones of a facility are the cattle entrance, loading chute or trailer location and working side of the cattle chute,” Harner said.
Considerations must be given to cattle size and numbers, crowding method, sorting and pens.
“Additional concerns might be hot and cold water, electricity, covered work area, supply room, office and veterinary room,” Harner noted.
Alleys should be 12- to 14-feet wide for humans, or 14- to 16-feet wide for horses. “There is safety concern when alleys are less than 10-feet wide,” Harner warned.
“Facility stories frequently highlight benefits of curved alleys. However, this is often impractical in small facilities since they’re used to perform multiple functions,” he said.
Recently, there has been debate about which of the prominent professional livestock handling innovator-speakers has the better working facility designs, methods, approaches and techniques.
"Still at the core of each of the design methods is the desire to handle cattle more safely and effectively in a way that works with the animals’ natural instincts," Harner said.
“Good stockmanship can overcome most design flaws until the time comes to renovate and build livestock facilities. However when re-modifying working areas, make sure you do not repeat the same design flaws,” Harner concluded. £