Little things can help improve flow of cattle

There are some easy fixes that make a difference, says long-time vet

Applying the principles of low-stress handling requires an eye for detail. 

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s no ‘silver bullet’ system that will have cattle flowing perfectly, eliminate welfare issues, and guarantee a positive experience for the handler.

But there are some easy ways to make them better, says Dr. Roy Lewis, who has seen, and worked in, a lot of systems.

Here’s his list of tips.

Give ’em space

“The systems where the cattle come in and turn and come back, allowing them to flow into the system, without prods seem to work the best,” said Lewis. “If you have to prod every one of the cattle to get into your system, then there’s something wrong.”

A system that’s too narrow or too tight for the cattle to get in can cause problems.

In older V-style alley systems (where the bottom is narrower than the top), cattle almost need to criss-cross their feet to move through the system, he said. Wider alley systems allow larger-framed cows and bulls the opportunity to walk in freely.

“They know when it’s tight, they don’t want to go there,” Lewis said. “It’s OK if the system narrows down after they get into the system, the back part of it has to be wide enough for them to easily walk in. Then they keep going forward.”

Not managed correctly, no-back bars or alley stops in alleyways can cause potential issues. Lewis said he sometimes finds it’s hard to get the bars set just right so the cattle only have to duck a little bit in order to move freely down the alley. Hydraulic adjustments of the stops work well, because the operator has control of the position of the stop.

“Usually, guys have them set too low or the cows don’t want to push by the side bars. I’m a big fan of slider gates,” Lewis said.

Slider pros and cons

A disadvantage is that slider gates require someone to operate them. But having someone control the flow of the animals into the alleyway can prevent a lot of trouble.

“With alley stops, the cattle can get piled up in there and if they can’t back up, you’re hooped,” Lewis said.

After, if it’s getting too crowded, opening the gate allows the cattle back. (And when wide open, a sliding gate is out of the way of the animal passing by.) If you need alley stops, Lewis recommends leaving a little bit of room so the cattle can enter the alley unobstructed.

“I find the cattle need to be committed in the alleyway. If they can walk in and have a cow’s length before they hit the stops, they don’t have to push through the stop to go into the alley. Then you’re not pushing them in.”

Not too little or too much

Surfaces allowing proper traction reduce slips, trips, and falls. But Lewis has found traction is almost too good in some chutes and can injure hooves and lead to infection, such as toe-tip necrosis.

“The traction is so good, that when cattle are moving through the system, they can spin out and their feet can get smoking,” Lewis said. “The friction is so great because the traction is so good, but now it’s detrimental.

“If cattle are spinning and really digging in (on some new chute floors) their foot slips and there is no give.”

If there is slippage when exiting the chute, throwing a rubber mat down on the exit side may be all that’s needed.

Manure buildup is another problem that Lewis sometime sees.

“A lot of these things you just have to pay attention to what’s going on,” Lewis said.

And if manure is freezing and creating icy conditions, grab the shovel.

“It only takes a few minutes.”

See what they see

If you are having to use a prod, look for spots where cattle balk and do what Temple Grandin recommends.

“Walk through the system like you’re an animal from the back and see what the cow sees,” Lewis said.

There might be something hanging in the way or a sliding gate that isn’t pushed all the way back. Or perhaps you need to make a simple alley adjustment to accommodate a slightly larger-framed cow.

When looking at your system with a critical eye, take time to think about “the worse-case scenario,” said Lewis.

“If an animal goes down in your system, for whatever reason, can you get it out, or do you have the ability to get it out?”

The crowding tub is usually the easiest place to help a downed animal, but alleys are much more difficult. Having an emergency exit or an area that you can open in the alleyway is something to consider. Whether it’s the chute or the alleyway, not having a way to get a downed animal out creates a big welfare issue, he noted.

Final thoughts

But is one system better than another? Do the straight systems like a Bud Box and straight alleys allow for better cattle flow versus a curved system?

Lewis said he finds curved systems are better for handlers because they’re close to the animals.

“Cattle follow you by their eyes,” he said. “The left eye always seems to be the side they follow you on.”

If the cattle are sweeping left through the system, which seems to be the way most systems are set up, the handler is on the inside and the cattle seem to move freely through those systems. Real tight curves seem to make cattle more reluctant to go through, he said, adding many newer curved systems are more open on the inside. This allows cattle to see the handler, follow the handler’s body positioning, and work in conjunction with their flight zones.

“But I’ve seen straight systems where the cattle go through (with) no issues,” added Lewis.

The ultimate authority on a system are the animals themselves.

“The bad systems, the cattle get worse every time they go through. And the good systems are imprinting the cattle a little bit, it gets easier every time they come through.”

About the author


Jill Burkhardt

Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.



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