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Handy low-stress tip for sorting cattle

Cattle on most ranches are sorted several times a year — sorting the calves away from the cows for branding/vaccinating, AI protocols, pre-weaning vaccinations, and for weaning. Often this is a time-consuming part of the process if facilities aren’t set up to do it quickly and smoothly. Some producers use an alleyway where cows are encouraged to go one way into a corral and calves into another, but this still takes at least two people, good swinging gates, and cattle sometimes bunch up in the sorting area when cows don’t want to leave their calves and vice versa.

An innovative refinement of this idea works very nicely and smoothly, letting the natural movements of the animals sort themselves. Dr. Joe Stookey with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in Saskatoon says when cattle are put into a corral their tendency is to turn and come back out through that same gate.

“If you have another pen adjacent to that gate, you can let the cattle come back to the gate and sort the calves off into that other pen as the cows go out,” says Stookey. “In our facility we just drop the bottom rails off at that spot, so the calves can duck through the fence into the adjacent pen.”

The cattle are allowed to mill back around toward the gate at their own speed. “One person can just stand there and direct traffic, letting the cows go on out,” he says. “The calves scoot under the rails into the other pen.”

A key factor in the success of this method is that the adjacent pen extends parallel with the gate/alley the cows are going out, so the calves can keep travelling alongside their mothers but they are in that adjacent pen with a fence between them. That way all the animals keep moving past the gate.

This works very well if the cattle are fairly calm and used to being handled by people. The cows will walk on past the person standing by the gate.

“If they are wild and have big flight zones (hesitant to walk past the person), this might not work, but it works very well for gentle cattle,” says Stookey. “The cows walk right on out the gate and the calves move into the other pen.”

The cows don’t try to go under the rails because they are too big to fit comfortably. It’s easier to just walk on out the gate. The calves, being a little more timid, may hang back a little, not wanting to come that close to the person standing there, and more readily choose to go under the pole. They can then go alongside their mother but have a fence between them.


“If there is no pressure on them, the cows go right past you and on out the gate, and with any subtle movement you can stop the calf and he will go under the fence to get away from you and keep coming along to try to follow mama.

“What’s neat about this system is that both the cow and calf keep walking on past you, flowing right by, with no balling up at the gate. If you put them in a corral with just a gate for sorting, you soon have cows trying to come back in for their calves, and calves trying to go out the gate to catch up with mom,” says Stookey.

This creates a bottleneck and it becomes more and more difficult to sort the rest of the herd.

“Here in our facility we don’t swing gates anymore,” says Stookey. “We just have this little spot where we can direct traffic. We can sort hundreds of cattle, separating the calves from the cows, in just a few minutes. We got this idea from Dylan Biggs, a Hanna, Alta. area rancher who was working with us some years ago. He has been sorting cattle this way for many years on his ranch, working by himself.

The cows know that the sorting area is the route back out of the corral, and they sort themselves.”

Stookey recently prepared a video showing how smoothly it works. To see this sorting technique, view it on YouTube at:

Or those on twitter can access it at: †



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