You wouldn’t rush into building a house by deciding one day to pour a foundation and frame-in some walls. Instead, you spend time planning and working with experts to help design and build a house that will hold up for generations. The same can be said when building cattle-working facilities. While the financial investment might not be as much a new house, it is still significant, and it is something that you want to be useful and last for decades.

“The planning process is important because this is something you’re going to be using for the next 20 years or so,” advises Jon Mollhagen with Moly Manufacturing, an animal-handling equipment design and research group. “You have to determine where you see your operation in the next 10 years and plan accordingly.”

In addition, you have to look at not only the facility design, but how to maximize the efficiency and safety by taking into account animal behavior principles in the design. And while you might think it would be less expensive to renovate existing facilities, Oklahoma State University extension agricultural engineer Ray Huhnke cautions that many times this option ends up costing more.

“In some cases, you can actually create more problems for yourself if you don’t have the whole farmstead in mind,” he says. “It really goes beyond just the working facility, it’s how the farmstead is laid out, and what will work more efficiently for the animals and for the workers.”

Understand animal behavior
Over the years, the industry has learned that animal behavior plays an important role in facility design in terms of safety and efficiency. A study in 1997 at Oklahoma State University found more than 50 percent of cattle handing injuries on cow-calf operations in the state were due to human error, while equipment and facilities accounted for about 25 percent of the perceived causes.

Colorado State University animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin often reminds producers and others in the livestock industry that handling practices can be less stressful to the animal and safer for the handlers if you understand livestock behavior.

You can start by understanding an animal’s flight zone (see diagram below). The flight zone is an animal’s personal space, and when you move into that zone, the animal will move. When you move out of the flight zone, the animal stops moving. Dr. Grandin points out, however, that the flight zone for each animal depends on its level of excitability. The flight zone expands as the animal becomes more excitable.

Another principle you should understand is the point of balance, which is at the animal’s shoulder. To make an animal move forward, you need to stand or move behind that point of balance, or behind the shoulders. For instance, working at the edge of the flight zone at 45 to 60 degrees behind the point of balance causes animals to circle away from you.

These principles are important when determining the size of sorting and holding pens so that you have room to work cattle safely.

Reduce obstacles
When planning new facilities, consider how the animal perceives its surroundings. For instance, cattle have wide-angle vision and can see in all directions, except directly behind them, without moving their heads.

This vision causes them to balk at a number of distractions, such as shadows and puddles of water on the ground. To prevent that, try to keep the light consistent around the working pens. “Cattle have a tendency to move toward the light. If working cattle at night or early in the morning, use frosted lamps that do not glare in the animal’s face. Position these lights in the area where you are moving cattle, such as a trailer or barn,” says Dr. Huhnke.

Also have adequate drainage to prevent puddling. Depending on the amount of rainfall in your area, you might want to put gravel down in the working facility to reduce mud and improve drainage.

In addition, use of curved, solid-sided panels leading to the chute also helps with cattle movement. The solid sides prevent the animal from seeing distractions that might cause it to balk or move backward.

Consider site location
When working with clients, Mr. Mollhagen says site location is very important and sometimes not given enough thought.

For instance, accessibility is an important consideration  not only working cattle, but also for loading and moving cattle. In some cases, more than one set of hold pens and facilities may be necessary. Topography is also important in terms of drainage. A slight slope can be beneficial, but a steep slope can lead to other problems.

Dr. Huhnke adds that for convenience, working facilities should be placed along a central fenceline in an area where several fences and pastures converge. “Both fence lines and wing fences serve to funnel cattle into a working facility. Fence lines next to the working facilities should be stronger than standard fence construction to withstand additional pressure when cattle are funneled into the pens,” he says.

Design of holding pens
Dr. Huhnke points out that the design for pens and sorting facilities needs to be simple and that several pens are preferred to one large holding pen. “More pens allow larger groups to be sorted into smaller, more manageable-sized groups.” he says. In addition he offers the following considerations when designing pens for working facilities:

  • Allow at least 20 foot by 20 foot per head for mature cattle.
  • Size pens for a maximum of about 50 head of mature cattle.
  • Avoid getting pens too wide or too narrow. Larger, wider pens make effective sorting difficult for a single worker. While small or narrow pens result in workers entering the animal’s flight zone. The smallest pen dimension should be no less than 16 feet.
  • Too few pens makes separating animals difficult and puts workers at risk. Consider adding a 14-inch wide pass-through for worker escape in pen corners.
  • Use proper gate placement to facilitate animal movement.
  • Alley width should be between 12 and 14 feet with a 10-foot minimum.

Design of working area
A curved working alley to the chute is preferred over a straight design, and as previously mentioned, solid-sided panels work better than open panels.  Dr. Huhnke also suggests a chute with sloping sides that confine the animal’s feet to a narrow path. This also reduces balking and the ability of the animal to turn around. “Sloping sides are well matched to cow-calf operations because different sizes of cattle can be worked efficiently in the same chute,” he says.

In addition to the shape of the facilities, color also plays a role in facilitating cattle movement. Dr. Huhnke recommends choosing lighter colors that are more reflective and less likely to cause shadows.

With any design, he reminds producers to keep it simple yet efficient. “The message with facility design is to look at animal behavior in a way that you can design a facility in a more concentrated area to make certain that it’s safe for not only the animal, but humans as well,” says Dr. Huhnke.