Because the facilities and equipment around here are all showing some age, I have had to make an effort to go through them a bit ahead of working cows and calves in order to find, repair, or replace items that have worn out or been damaged, and we still have a few surprises.
Cattle chute and facilities
Poorly maintained facilities can lead to all kinds of grief when something doesn’t work when processing and handling cattle.
“Tempers can really flare when you’ve got everybody together on a big cattle-working day and one of the sort gates that you use to separate the calves from the cows quit swinging over winter,” says Nicholas Lee, manager of Rocking Horse Ranch, near Salmon, Idaho. “These things can also become safety issues. If the gates don’t swing and latch properly, your help can get hurt struggling with a heavy gate, or when a cow shoves a gate over the top of them because there was no latch, or it failed.”
Inspect the holding pens and sort facility, and check the alley system that feeds the chute. Make sure the fences are secure and safe, gates swing and latch properly, and cattle backstops function properly and are not damaged. If you use short poles or pieces of pipe to hold the cattle in the alley, make sure you have a good supply on hand, and that they are in good condition.
Inspect the chute carefully. Most of our older chutes have processed thousands of cattle and been exposed to the elements 365 days of the year. Some damage caused by cattle is obvious and easy to see, but the damage caused by repetitive cycling of moving parts and rust does not always stand out.
As you begin the inspection, make sure the chute is set securely so it will not move away from the alley as cattle hit the head catch. If your chute sits on a concrete pad, make sure it is bolted to the pad. If it is not bolted down, drill the pad in the locations of the anchor bolt holes in the frame of the chute and insert expanding anchor bolts into the concrete pad. Use locking nuts to secure the chute and grind off any of the threaded bolt above the nut to prevent operators and chute-side helpers from tripping on the exposed bolt. If you do not have a concrete pad, chain both sides of the chute frame to a secure post on each side of the alley at ground level.
Next, look over the chute for bends in the main framework, tailgate, side panels/bars, and the head gate. Bent materials in any of these structures may inhibit the function of the chute, either causing difficulty in the process of catching, holding, or releasing a cow. While you are looking for bent materials, look closely at the welded connections. A broken weld in the frame structure, side panels, tailgate, or head catch can cause trouble holding the cow at best, and cause injury to the operator or chute-side help at worst.
Next, inspect all of the moving parts of the chute: pivot points for the squeeze mechanisms, head catch and tailgate; locking mechanisms for the head catch and squeeze and width adjustment mechanisms for the head catch and squeeze. These points are subject to wear from repetitive motion and rust from exposure to the elements. Check the pins or bolts at these points to see if they need replacement. The initial problem caused by worn pins or bolts is rough or difficult motion of sections of the chute. When the pins or bolts finally break, parts of the chute can release allowing, the cow to escape or hang up, and the operator or helpers to be injured.
Last, apply a film of light oil or WD40 to hinge points and ratchet locks. Do not apply oil to friction locks, as this will cause them to slide and release. Do not use heavy grease. Grease solidifies with exposure to sunlight and oxygen, causing moving parts to seize over time.
Calf tables and facilities
If you use the same facility to work calves and cows, you have already reviewed the physical components of the holding pens, sorting alleys, and the alleys feeding the table. Some of us use a separate complex for the calves. This allows the cows and calves to be worked at the same time, but also provides for a more convenient facility, built on a smaller scale to better accommodate small calves. As with the cattle facility, inspect the structure of the pens and gates to make sure they are secure and the gates swing and latch properly. Make sure the table is anchored securely in order that it will not move during use.
“We attached a tractor front-end counter weight to the off-side of our table to help make it more stable when we tip a big calf,” says Lee.
Continue by inspecting the calf table for bent structures and broken welds. Next look at the pins and bolts of the pivot points. Calf tables rely on small springs or friction locks to hold the squeeze and head catch closed. Check to make sure these springs are not sprung, and keep an extra spring on hand for emergencies.
Apply a thin coat of light oil to the ratchet locks of the head catch and squeeze. Do not oil friction locks. If you use an electric branding iron, make sure the extension cords you use are rated for the distance and wattage necessary to run the iron and any other accessories such as clippers and dehorning irons. A 10-gauge extension cord will carry sufficient wattage to operate all of these tools. If you use a generator, service the unit ahead of time, and make sure that it will start and run properly.
Good luck with the spring cattle working, and may the summer grass be plentiful.