Graeme Finn has come up with a low-manpower cattle-sorting system that allows him to sort about 200 head in an hour, is easy on the livestock, and perhaps equally importantly brings harmony to the processing day workforce.
Anchored around a partial wagon-wheel layout, the sorting system enables one person to stand in the “hub” of the layout and sort cattle into five to six different holding areas as cattle naturally mill around the circular sorting pen. Once sorted, cattle from each pen can exit through a double “S” alley, can be held in a squeeze if further processing is needed, exit toward a loading chute, or head back out to pasture as required.
“It works like a charm,” says Finn, who raises cattle near Crossfield, Alberta, along with his wife Heather and in-laws Don and Trudy Evans. “It makes for a very easy system — cattle flow nicely which reduces their stress, and it is easy on people too. Let’s just say it brings harmony to the sorting process.”
Based on handling facilities Finn saw in his home country of Australia, the system needs only one person standing in the central sorting pen to run the gates (in this layout) into six different holding areas. People are needed in other areas to keep cattle pushed toward the sorting pen, or on the other end keep cattle moving through the exit alley back to the field or to a waiting cattle liner, but one person can handle the sorting. Finn says when they are sorting and processing at the same time, they usually have four people at different stations, but if they are just sorting it can be handled nicely by two people — one bringing cattle up and one running the gates.
Time to upgrade
“We just had an old square wooden corral setup that was starting to rot,” says Evans. “So it was time to make a change in our handling facilities. Graeme had this idea for the wagon wheel setup and we figured it was worth a try. We wanted something that two people could manage.
“And this seemed liked the simplest way to do it. It wasn’t necessarily cheap, but we decided to bite the bullet and build it. And so far I am very pleased, it works extremely well. Cattle flow through it very well, and it is much easier on everyone.”
Evans estimates it cost about $20,000 for all materials including steel rod, steel posts and half-inch wire cable needed to make the perimeter fence, as well as interior pens, alleyway and loading chute. But it is well built and he figures they probably won’t need to build another.
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Completed in 2012, the overall layout of the cattle handling system is 120 feet wide and about 140 feet long. This particular setup is designed for a 200-head cow-calf herd but can easily be adjusted to match herd size.
The pink highlighted line in the diagram shows a typical cattle flow. Cow-calf pairs are brought into the receiving pen from pasture in the top left corner of the diagram. From there a group is moved into the forcing pen. Finn says it works for the person operating the sorting hub to also bring cattle in from the forcing pen.
Once a small group is in the sorting pen (28-foot diameter), cattle are guided to mill around clockwise and the sorter can then open 12-foot wide gates to separate cows from calves, or separate heifers from steers as needed. Once that bunch is sorted another group is brought in from the forcing pen to the sorting pen.
Once everything is sorted into their respective pens, then each group can be moved through the double “S” alley for further processing, if needed. On preg-check day for example, Finn says cows are brought down the double “S” alley, and pregchecked at the squeeze. From the squeeze, bred cows exit to the left and head back out to pasture, while open cows exit toward the loading chute area to the right for shipping.
If they are just sorting steers for shipping, for example, they can be moved directly from one of the sorted pens, through the sorting hub to the loading chute area.
All posts for the cattle handling system are made from 2 7/8 inch steel drill stem, set on eight-foot spacing.
Most of the perimeter fence of the cattle handling system uses seven strands of one-half inch steel cable attached to the steel posts. Interior dividers (or in areas of higher cattle pressure) the pens are made of steel posts with five rails of 1-1/2 inch circular steel tubing welded to the posts. The whole set up also has a cap rail made of 2-3/8 inch steel tubing. The exterior fence and pen dividing panels are 5-1/2 feet tall.
The sorting pen is 28 feet in diameter with seven gates, all 12 feet wide with six bars. The pie-shaped pens on the spokes of the wheel are all 46 feet deep. Finn says they could be lengthened to accommodate a larger herd.
The double “S” alley makes for easy cattle flow toward the squeeze. In the squeeze area and along the loading chute they’ve attached strips of rubber draper material to the rails to act as a curtain so cattle aren’t distracted by activity outside the alley and chute.
The loading chute area opens with a 12-foot wide gate and then narrows to 50 inches, and then again to 36 inches to help funnel cattle toward the loading ramp. The loading chute ramp is set on a 30° angle, so as cattle walk down the chute they aren’t looking directly into the black opening of a cattle liner.
Finn, who designed and built the cattle handling system himself, says he is pleased with the ease of how cattle flow through the pens and chutes. He says it is hard on animals as well as on people when cattle balk or the corral set up it self is awkward or fails.
“What we have is a good solid system, conducive to cattle behaviour and flow and it just takes so much of the work out of sorting and processing cattle,” he says.