I’ve advocated for years the use of solid sides on loading ramps, chutes and crowd pens. In many situations, adding solid fences improved the movement of cattle into trucks and squeeze chutes. Some low-stress cattle handling, however, don’t like solid fences because they prevent the cattle from responding to the movements of a handler walking nearby.

When cattle are very calm, their instinct is to watch where a handler is located and respond to his/her movements. A highly skilled handler can handle cattle very calmly in a chute and crowd pen with open, barred sides if the following two conditions are present:

  • The facility must be located in an area, such as a pasture, that is completely free of distractions. This includes passing vehicles, moving equipment or extra people standing in the wrong places.
  • When solid sides are removed, all handlers must be careful to stand back and remain outside of the animal’s flight zone unless they’re actually moving the animals. If the handlers constantly stand inside the flight zone, cattle waiting in line in the chute (race) may become agitated and rear up. The handler must only enter the flight zone when an animal needs to be moved and then back up and retreat from the flight zone.

With solid sides on the handling facilities, the cattle will remain calmer even if the handlers are in the wrong places. Solid sides are especially recommended for use in facilities with a high employee turnover or where there is lots of activity near the facility. This is especially important in the single-file chute, crowd pen, loading ramp and crowd gate.

Here are some instances where solid sides are essential:

  • Busy truck-loading ramps where the cattle in a crowd pen or going up the ramp can see moving trucks or people walking by. Solid sides usually improve movement because an animal’s view of these distractions is blocked.
  • In meatpacking plants, solid sides prevent cattle from seeing vehicles, moving conveyors, and people.
  • Ranches where many unskilled people are present to help with branding and vaccinating of cattle. When working cattle is an annual social event, solid sides will keep cattle calmer.
  • Feedlot processing facilities in the middle of a busy feedlot. The most important location for solid sides is the outer perimeter of the crowd pen and working chute. This prevents the cattle from seeing feed trucks, pen riders and other distractions. Many existing prefabricated feedlot processing facilities have a solid side that is only 4 ft. high along the lead-up chute. This low solid side reduces the size of the flight zone even though the cattle can see over the top. Cattle can be easily moved through the single-file chute by a handler working on the ground. A catwalk is not used, which makes it easy for a person on the ground to use flight-zone principles.
  • Cattle often refuse to enter a squeeze chute if they see people standing by it. The use of louvers can block cattle’s view of people standing next to the squeeze. The back half of the squeeze chute is the most important part to be covered. Experiment with pieces of cardboard.

Recommendations on solid sides

In facilities with lots of distractions or using less-skilled handlers, the use of solid fences on the loading ramp, single-file chute (race), and crowd pen will usually improve cattle movement. The crowd gate should also be solid to help prevent cattle from pushing it back at the handler.

This is especially true when wild cattle with large flight zones are being handled. When very tame cattle with small flight zones are being handled, solid sides may not be needed.

Handlers must remember to fill the crowd pen that leads to the single-file chute only half full so the animals have room to turn. To utilize cattle’s natural “following” behavior, handlers should wait until the single-file chute is partially empty so the animals can immediately pass through the crowd pen into the single-file chute. Cattle will turn around in the crowd pen if they have no place to go. Crowd pens should be used as a “passing through” pen to the single-file chute.

The most important fences that should be covered are the outer perimeter of the facility. This will block outside distractions, something especially important for facilities located near busy roads or buildings with high human traffic. Get down in the chute and see what the cattle are seeing, then experiment with pieces of cardboard to block distractions.

On one ranch, cattle balked upon seeing a worker using an electronic scanner to read ear tags in the single-file chute. Building a shield for this person to stand behind solved the problem. Experiment with a piece of plywood for the person to stand behind.

Cattle behavior during handling is controlled by what the animals see. Watch for where the cattle are looking. Animals’ ears are an indicator of things that concern them; they will point their ears toward either the handler or distractions that attract their attention. I call this “ear radar.”

Calm animals will show you the things that concern them. You won’t be able observe this behavior if cattle become agitated and frightened. Calm animals will have soft-looking eyes with no visible eye white. When eye white is visible, the animal is agitated and frightened. Two scientific studies have verified the correlation between visible eye white and fear. Keeping cattle calm will make them much easier to handle.

The use of solid vs. open sides depends on the situation. A highly skilled handler can move cattle calmly and quietly in open-sided facilities located far from distractions. But solid sides will improve handling if:

  • Lots of people are present.
  • Less-skilled people are moving cattle.
  • Lots of outside distractions exist, such as vehicle, equipment or people traffic, as well as reflections on shiny metal or other moving distractions.

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.