Have you ever tried to tighten a nut on a bolt in a tight spot using a pair of pliers? You can get it done, but it takes time. On the other hand, if you used a ratchet and the right socket, tightening that nut is quick and easy. Having the right tool for any job makes it much easier.
The same is true with cattle-handling facilities. You’ve probably had the experience — either with your own equipment or a neighbor’s — of having to work calves in an old, rusty chute designed for a large cow. The process can take hours just to run a few head through. That can become a hindrance to working cattle and eventually lead to missed opportunities.
In today’s cattle industry, the number of opportunities for value-added and source-verified cattle keeps growing. Many of these opportunities, however, require that you vaccinate and tag calves at the ranch. To do that, you need the facilities to work the cattle efficiently.
In addition, if you’re selling cattle on a grid, you want to avoid bruising that can lead to discounts when the cattle are slaughtered. Research shows that carcass damage caused by improper livestock handling can potentially reach more than $250 per head, says Jon Mollhagen with Moly Manufacturing, an animal-handling-equipment design and research group. Improper handling, he adds, can reduce weight gain, lower conception rates and create a poor public perception of the beef industry.
“Good facilities improve opportunities for producers to participate in value-added programs,” says Marty Caldwell, a veterinarian in Vaiden, Miss. He’s worked cattle at a number of farms and ranches over the years and decided to invest in his own portable hydraulic chute three years ago to take to farms that didn’t have adequate facilities to work cattle. He says that using his own equipment makes the process go smoother whether it’s checking semen on bulls or giving vaccinations to calves. In addition, the better chute saves him labor and he’s able to handle animals by himself if needed.
At some point, you have to evaluate your facilities and decide if it’s time to look at other options. You can start from scratch or just renovate your existing facilities. Or maybe you want to invest in a more portable option that can go to the cattle. Or you might consider bringing in someone else with the equipment to work your cattle. What-ever your needs, there’s an option for you.
Investing in cattle-working facilities is not cheap. Most facilities with chutes and corrals cost several thousand dollars, but with the proper planning and design, the right facility can serve you for decades to come.
That’s why the planning process is important with any type of facility. “Not only do you need to consider your current needs, but your needs 10 to 15 years down the road,” says Mr. Mollhagen. “This is something you’re going to be using for the next 20 years, so it’s important to look at future goals.”
Building or modifying permanent facilities is the least expensive option because you can recycle materials or use less expensive materials depending on the market. Keep in mind that any time you put a post in concrete, you’re tying up the property it sits on for years to come. If you’re leasing land, you may not want to invest in something that you can’t take with you.
In addition, there’s more labor upfront to build stationary facilities. “If you’re going out and building a set of permanent pens today, you’re going to spend some time digging post holes and building corrals,” says David Fillebrown with Priefert Ranch Equipment. “Then after you build the facility, you may find it doesn’t work the way you expected. That can be frustrating.”
Mobile facilities offer more versatility, and prices vary. Mr. Fillebrown says that their portable options typically cost less than stationary systems. That price, however, can go much higher depending on the type of facility. Mr. Mollhagen points out that a portable yet fully self-contained system with hydraulics to move it around can cost significantly more. It just depends on your needs.
For some, however, the cost is outweighed by the versatility that portable facilities provide compared to building permanent facilities. And there’s less investment in set-up time and cost. “Portable panels and handling systems are like the fast food of cow pens; you don’t have to wait. You take it out, put it up and use it. That’s a big time saver.” Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting the cattle to the facilities; instead you move the facilities to the cattle.
For producers leasing land, this option means you don’t have to leave the facilities behind when the lease is over.
Bring in outside help
There are a growing number of individuals and veterinarians who are investing in mobile facilities and working cattle for clients at the ranch level. This might be a less expensive option on a yearly basis, depending on how often you work cattle and the types of services performed.
Dr. Caldwell, for example, charges clients a minimal fee for bringing out the portable hydraulic chute to work cattle. He says he can use the chute anywhere because it has a Honda engine that runs the hydraulics, so he’s not limited on where it can go. He does, however, scout out the facilities of new clients to see what they have and see where he can use his chute. Sometimes he gives clients recommendations on changes they can make to existing facilities to make working cattle more efficient. Even his larger clients who have good facilities want to use the bigger hydraulic chute when working certain types of animals, so it gives them access to a bigger chute without the investment.
When evaluating this option, keep animal health and biosecurity concerns in mind in terms of using facilities that have been on other farms or ranches. Make sure that whomever you work with keeps the facilities clean and follows Beef Quality Assurance guidelines. Also, check references to make sure you get the most for your money.