The notion is simple enough: work with, rather than against, the innate instincts of cattle and they'll move through processing facilities more calmly, and with less stress and risk of injury. When cattle are calm there's also less chance for injury to the people handling them.
Unfortunately, execution is more difficult. “We often engineer the facility to overwhelm a lack of cattle-handling ability,” says John Brethour, a research specialist at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center in Hays.
Conversely, plenty of busted noses and toothless grins attest to the fact that cattle-handling expertise and the best of intentions can't overwhelm inadequate facilities or the improper use of them. In both cases, knowing how to handle cattle without the proper equipment and facilities is akin to roping a renegade without a rope.
Restraint Is The Key
“Most processing injuries I've seen are at the head gate,” says Jon Mollhagen, founder of Moly Manufacturing, Lorraine, KS. “Some older designs have parts that swing out quite a ways. Without guards and shields these parts can hit people. The other reason for injury at the head gate is typically insufficient head restraint.”
If cattle can move their heads up and down and side to side, or if they can step forward or back, the potential risk is obvious.
“You must have head restraint, and that begins with body restraint,” Mollhagen says. That's one reason he equips his chutes with both an upper and lower hydraulic squeeze.
“With equal pressure top to bottom, and an upper and lower squeeze and self-adjusting head door, you achieve more head control because you have more body restraint. That means less risk of injury to the animal,” Mollhagen says.
He explains that if animals start to go down, the lower squeeze can catch them. If they've gone down, the lower squeeze can be released to allow them to get their feet back under them — all without risking a handler's limb by reaching inside the chute to help out.
Compare this to the more traditional scissor-gate chutes Mollhagen used before he began designing his own equipment 15 years ago in a bid to find solutions for his own operation.
“The scissor gate works like a nut cracker. All the pressure is down low, the narrow opening at the bottom makes cattle want to jump through rather than walk. That creates stress and can cause shoulder injuries in the squeeze and head injuries at the door. Consequently, there isn't as much head control, either,” he explains.
Dean and Bonnie Christensen operate Christensen Cattle Co., a cattle-feeding operation at Fullerton, NE. They say they discovered the same thing when they began using a Mollhagen chute. The Christensens are also part of their family's commercial cow-calf and seedstock programs.
“I kept thinking I had the best chute every time I bought a new one, but we were still injuring too many cattle in the head gate,” says Dean. “Now, there are fewer injuries and we're moving them through quicker and safer.”
Bonnie adds: “It used to take us three or four hours to work 200 head of cattle, with four people to move them up. Now, we can do the same thing in an hour with fewer people, and feel comfortable doing it.”
Along with increasing efficiency and safety, while reducing cattle injury, Dean says, “I know that with less stress on the cattle, our implants and vaccines are working better than when it was a fight and a struggle.”
Mollhagen adds: “If you've got a head gate bolted between two posts, you're limited to how much body restraint you'll ever be able to get. Everything we do processing cattle at the head of the chute is about neck access and safety, but to achieve that you have to start with body restraint.”
Reduce Sight And Sound
Of course, there's nothing to restrain if you can't get cattle into the chute safely to begin with.
“We know if the animal stays calm you'll get the best flow through the chute and the alley leading up to it. And, we find the visual aspect of cattle handling to be more important all of the time,” Mollhagen says.
In an effort to block cattle from seeing anything except the route ahead of them, Mollhagen says sheeted (solid-sided) systems have offered improvement.
“It offers the best security to the animals,” he says. Not only do solid sides channel cattle vision and keep the wayward dog at bay, they also prevent handlers from sticking an arm or hand into a compromising situation.
The challenge to sheeted systems, Mollhagen says, is if we can't see inside the alley, how do we move the cattle? His answer was to install belting on the side gate and belted louvers on the chute so processors could remain closer to the chute but still be beyond the animal's sight zone.
“Of course, noise is also a major issue in handling cattle,” Mollhagen says. “When the industry began replacing wood in processing facilities with steel, it was more adaptable and durable, but it created a lot of noise.”
Noise impedes cattle flow. Plus, human nature being what it is, the louder the surroundings, the louder humans tend to become, which creates a vicious circle of increasing decibels. Mollhagen addressed the noise issue in his chutes by sleeving contact points with oil-based polyethylene.
Use What You Have
In most every situation, Mollhagen believes there are ways to exploit the potential of existing equipment and facilities to increase cattle and processor safety.
First, make sure you have the right equipment for the right cattle. As an example, Mollhagen points out some chutes only can accommodate cattle within certain size parameters.
“Make sure the head gate is adjusted to the size of the animal [on manual models] or that the automatic adjustment is working properly before running cattle in,” he says.
Next, Mollhagen suggests evaluating the system for sight and sound impediments. Are there dangling chains, flapping tarps or shadows creating shadows that distract cattle? Has that screeching head gate been oiled since the Nixon years?
In other words, he says, make sure the facilities are ready to use, then use them only for their intended purpose.
He also points out processors can reduce the risk of injury by ensuring there is both visual and verbal communication across the chute to confirm cattle are ready to be released.
While the details of cattle handling and its equipment pay dividends today, those cited here believe they'll return even more in the future because cattle will be heading through the chute more often.
“I think we put cattle through the chute more today than in the past. There are more beneficial management practices we do today, and there is more pressure on producers to record information on the cattle,” Brethour says.
Mollhagen agrees. “In the past six years, I've seen a different attitude as far as people handling cattle and realizing the importance of keeping them quiet,” Mollhagen says. “Individual animal work is becoming more important all of the time,” he says.
Part of that has to do with market and regulatory demands. Dean Christensen points out the growth of programs, such as Beef Quality Assurance, means producers must be more precise in how they handle cattle and administer vaccines.
Even without impending new demands like a national animal identification program, Brethour says, “I'm an evangelist about people looking at upgrading cattle handling facilities. Those facilities can pay for themselves with increased safety and efficiency, and less stress.”
A pioneer in the development of ultrasound technology for evaluating and predicting carcass performance, Brethour has seen about every cattle-handling contraption you can think of and some you can't. And, he's seen the value of proper cattle handling combined with the equipment that makes it possible.
“Most ranches are shorthanded, but none are more short-handed than I am,” Brethour says, in explaining that processing cattle at the research center is literally a one-man show. He worked with Mollhagen to mitigate the effect. The result was hydraulic controls set about 6 ft. behind the chute's end gate. From here, Brethour can move cattle into the chute and catch them, too.
“If you think everything is great and doesn't need fixing, you're not looking hard enough,” Brethour says.