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Mechanics Corner: Safety in your handling facility

Andy Overbay Published on 22 May 2015

While generally not considered part of your equipment line, your cattle-handling facilities are one of your most useful and profitable tools if constructed properly.

Safety in the handling of cattle translates into not only fewer injuries to the handler but fewer injuries to the animals as well. While high cattle prices drive home the price of mishandling animals, the fact is: Safe and smooth cattle handling always pays dividends.

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I had the valuable experience of working for a semen distributor when I first graduated college. The position gave me the opportunity to see about 100,000 head of cattle every six to eight weeks. One comment I would occasionally get from customers was how they needed a bull to make their cows smarter.

While I understand the intention, the request points out a common mistake in safe handling: Cattle are not people. They don’t think like we do; they don’t even see the world the way we do. So if we design our facilities in such a way that we ignore that cattle are cattle and we aren’t, then who really has the lesser intelligence?

There are thousands of good designs and ideas out there for the construction of a handy facility, and really the best choice for you depends on the type of cattle you are handling. The “Bud Box” is a simple and effective design, but it does require you to be in the pen with the cattle.

It’s one thing to be in the pen with a group of weaning-age Holstein heifers. It is another issue entirely if you work the occasional trailer load of 600-weight steers that act like they never saw a person before the day you stepped into their world. So what is the best design? The answer is the old lawyer retort, “It depends.”

There are some variables and conditions that serve both the handler and the handled that need to be considered in any design, old or new. In fact, older facilities and handling equipment suffer more of the “conditions to be avoided” because of wear and tear and design flaws.

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Good footing with proper drainage is a must. Floors must provide adequate traction to both the animal and the handler. If you are in the market for new handling equipment and facilities, select a design that allows you to regularly clean and maintain both the flooring and moving parts.

New concrete floors for cattle should have an 8-inch diamond or square pattern with 1.5 inch (3.5 cm) x 1.5 inch (3.5 cm) V grooves. Several producers have grooved concrete as it is being poured, but there is some reason for concern with this practice.

Grooving freshly poured concrete can result in burrs that can injure the feet of cattle and leave them susceptible to foot diseases; therefore, it may be better to float the concrete smooth and groove it professionally after it cures.

Inspect your facilities and equipment regularly for any sharp or protruding parts. I am sorry to report that I have seen my share of older wooden fencing where the nails, bolts or screws have worked their way free and are positioned perfectly to injure an animal or a person. Gates, fences and chutes should have smooth surfaces to prevent bruises.

Sharp edges with a small diameter, such as angle irons, exposed pipe ends and channels, will cause bruises. Round pipe posts with a diameter larger than 3 inches (7.6 cm) are less likely to bruise. Vertical slide gates in chutes should be counter-weighted to prevent back bruises. The bottom of these gates should be padded with cut tires or conveyor belting.

The gate track should be recessed into the chute wall to eliminate a sharp edge that will bruise. Gates in drive alleys should be equipped with tie backs to prevent them from swinging out into the alley. Livestock are easily bruised if they become caught between the end of the gate and the fence. This is a common cause of bruises in the valuable loin area.

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Many producers in our area have been using used guardrails as fencing in corrals and chutes. While strong and extremely durable, care should be taken to eliminate exposed, jagged edges that are lacerations waiting to happen. When you inspect your chutes, fencing or other barriers, be sure to get down at cow and calf level to look for possible threats, especially at the hook or hock levels.

Another area of concern is the noise that some equipment and systems can make. Some systems seem to be manufactured by drum makers. They clang and slam at every point, and that is never a good thing. Research at Louisiana State University has suggested that excessive noise causes more adrenalin release than striking an animal.

In fact, only shocking a cow with a prod resulted in more adrenalin than yelling during handling. Once cattle release adrenalin, side effects such as milk reduction and dark cutters result, and these profit eaters can last longer in the bloodstream than imagined.

Not only does handling equipment need to be as quiet as possible, but the handlers need to follow suit. Keeping the noise level down not only results in better cattle, but I think you will find it also results in friendlier personal relationships – and that is always the healthiest and safest alternative.

Handling equipment and facilities are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination; however, what is the cost of a day or two stay in the hospital, if you are lucky to only need a couple of days? You will find that an investment in a well-designed facility with quiet, smoothly operating equipment will not only benefit your health and the health of your animals, but it will also result in higher profits.

In closing, as we have stated here before, the most valuable piece of equipment in your handling facility is you. Be careful, take it easy and live to work another day. PD

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

andy overbay

Andy Overbay
Extension Agent
Virginia Cooperative Extension

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