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12 Tips for Handling Cattle Easily & Safely

Here are 12 tips from animal scientist and handling expert Ron Lemenager of Purdue University. He’s also a rancher, so he’s put these tips to practice.

1. Reduce shadows, color contrasts, and noise. Cattle want to take flight when they can’t see what’s ahead. Shadows and odd color patterns may confuse and stop them. When you set up a working chute, consider the sun angles and light sources. Reduce shadows by putting solid sides on chutes and crowd pens. Artificial light directly overhead will produce fewer shadows. Cattle also balk at noises from dangling chains or rattling head gates, Lemenager says.

2. Remember that when you work cattle in an open pen or pasture paddock, their blind spot is directly behind. They won’t respond to your commands or arm signals from there. Work to the side, about 30° to 35° off of straight behind. This is a point of balance from where cattle are more likely to respond to your signals. 

3. Have at least two holding pens with a gate between them that lets you easily sort cows from calves. 

4. Study up on locking head gate designs: straight neck bars, curved bars, scissors, and full opening. There is even a swinging saloon-door design. All can work and all have disadvantages, says Lemenager. What he feels strongest about is having one that securely locks the bars on an animal’s neck. It should be a positive engagement latch with notch locks that can’t slip.

5. Add a brisket bar, cow palpation gate, and palpation cage protection for preg checks. The brisket bar keeps her from going down on her front knees. A side door is a must to get in the chute behind her. You must be protected from being overrun by the next cow in line behind. 

6. Prevent turning by making sure working alleys and chutes are ideally 18 inches wide for calves and 30 inches for cows. Walls should be 5 feet tall and sturdy enough to contain your biggest cows. 

7. Consider a Bud Box to keep cattle from going back in the direction from which they came. To take advantage of this, some producers have built a holding pen, sometimes called a Bud Box, leading into a working chute. The box is 12×20 feet. The entry gate is next to the chute entrance. You put cattle in the box, and as they try to go back through the same gate they entered, they funnel into the chute. It takes advantage of their natural instincts.

8. Make sure calving pens have enough room to maneuver a calf jack. Jacks are long (for leverage) and cumbersome. Create some wide spaces or side panels that easily move to allow for the jack.

9. Give some traction to concrete floors of chutes and working pens. Lemenager says even a severe broom finish to concrete is not enough. If you’re stuck with a smooth floor, try bolting wood strips or rebar to the floor, with openings wide enough for their feet. 

10. Put gates in the direction you want cattle to move in a paddock. He likes alleyways to connect pastures and paddocks. If you’re usually moving cattle in a northerly direction through alleyways, put the gates in the north corners of paddocks. Moving will become routine to them.

11. Make gates into paddocks 16 feet wide, not 12. Make alleyways 20 to 30 feet wide. 

12. Make it easy to get a drink. On his own farm, Lemenager had 25 cow-calf pairs drinking from a two-bowl automatic drinker. Cows would take turns and then head back to graze before the calves could drink.

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