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Pressure and cattle positioning promote flow in handling systems

These simple changes to cattle-handling facilities can improve flow and reduce stress in the animals

If you want to build a cattle-handling facility with good flow, you’ve got to get back “to the very basics” of cattle handling.

“If you don’t understand the cattle to start with, you can’t ever build a facility that’s going to be 100 per cent foolproof,” said Jack Nester of Nester Livestock Equipment.

Good flow centres around two “absolutely predictable cattle behaviours,” Nester said at a Foothills Forage and Grazing Association workshop this fall.

First, use cattle’s natural urge to move away from pressure.

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“We’re human beings. They’re dumb cows. We can put a man on the moon, so we can certainly apply the pressure to drive a cow out of the chute.”

And second, cattle “always want to go back to where they came from.”

“We run them into a pen, and they’ll turn around and want to go back that same way,” said Nester, adding you want to position the cattle so they think they’re going back to where they came from.

When you combine those two things — pressure and positioning — you create flow, he said. But in a lot of cases, handling facilities are designed to work against those cattle behaviours.

The problem starts with crowding tubs.

“Crowding tubs are operated backwards. We’re loading cattle in the wrong side of a crowding tub if we expect them to flow out,” said Nester, adding that producers need to “push them in where you want them to come out.”

“If I want to take the cattle out the right side, I want to load the right side. If I want to take them out the left side, I want to load the left side. I don’t want to load them on the right and take them out the left because they’re going to want to come back out the right.”

Alleys are another example of flow devices that, well, “don’t create flow.”

“There’s not an alley been built that I’ve seen yet that creates flow,” said Nester. “We’ve developed left-curving alleys, right-curving alleys, S-alleys, double alleys — all under the pretence of creating flow.

“But the problem I see in all of that is the cows never got the memo. The cows still want to go back to where they came from.”

The most important thing you need to look for in an alley is whether it will prevent the cow from turning around, he said. And S-alleys don’t necessarily do that.

“The S-alley is marketed as a wonderful thing because cattle want to go around curves all the time, but I question the actual benefit that you’re receiving by having your alley in an S,” said Nester. “If I stand at the back of an S-alley and I look forward through that alley, I will see the back of the chute. Unless that cow’s blind, she’s likely going to see what I see.

“And what I see when I look at an S-alley is a very expensive crooked line.”

Tapered alleys (or V-alleys), which narrow at the bottom, are a better bet, he said.

“If you can keep it narrowed up and keep their head up, they’re going to flow. There’s only one place to go, and that’s ahead.”

While a V-alley won’t necessarily keep a cow standing, it does the trick for most cows.

“You can put the bottom much narrower than most people realize,” said Nester, adding cows can “easily” walk in widths as small as 12 inches. “That will keep most cows up.”

And once the cows are in the alley, you need to keep the right kind of pressure on to get them moving.

“Cows go down there because of what we do alongside an alley — what conditions we create to make them move forward. It’s usually vision and noise,” he said. “They need to see an exit point where they imagine they’re going back and getting out of the pressure.”

A lot of flow problems come from cows seeing and hearing people working alongside the alley.

“What we’re telling the cow when we’re standing in front of him is ‘go back,’” said Nester, adding simple things — such as sheeting to block the view — can make a difference.

“Anything that we can do to reduce the stress that we put on our livestock when we’re bringing them through is going to be a net benefit in our pocket.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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