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Straight, Open-Sided Chutes and Squeeze Chutes are Best For Cattle Handling

By   /  May 26, 2014  /  4 Comments

In Part 4 of their analysis, Whit Hibbard and Dr. Lynn Locattelli describe how these kinds of facilities respond better to animal behavior than those suggested by Dr. Temple Grandin, and why they make your life as a livestock handler easier.

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Editors Note: This is the fourth excerpt from Stockmanship Journal’s article “Grandin’s Approach to Facilities and Animal Handling: An Analysis” (Volume 3 Issue 1). (Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) The authors, Whit Hibbard and Dr. Lynn Locatelli, are both practitioners and teachers of the Bud Williams school of stockmanship and are well known for helping feedlots and ranches improve their operations through Low-Stress Livestock Handling education.  In this article they look at the handling facilities designed by Temple Grandin, and compare it to their experiences with good stockmanship and animal behavior.  Each section begins with a summation of Grandin’s position followed with the analysis. The final article in this series will be a response from Temple Grandin.

StockmanshipJournalCoverThe purpose of the authors’ analysis is to encourage an exchange of ideas while analyzing, evaluating and critiquing theories and ideas in a search for better outcomes for animal handlers.   They want to help answer the questions they’ve often been asked:  “What kind of animal handling facilities should we build? Solid-sided, curved, tub systems, like those promoted by Temple Grandin can be expensive, but is that our best option?  Or are there are other ways to get us where we want to be?”

This is groundbreaking analysis and On Pasture is honored to be selected to share it as excerpts.  If you’d like to cut to the chase and read the entire article, here is the link.  Otherwise, we’ll see you here weekly for an analysis of handling techniques and facilities.

Part 4

Grandin argues that single-file alleys (a.k.a. chutes, snakes, races) should (a) have solid sides (to avoid distractions), (b) curve 180 degrees (so the animals think they are returning to where they came from), and (c) be relatively long (to take advantage of “natural following behavior”). [3] Curved, single-file alleys, or “snakes,” work for two additional reasons, according to Grandin: “First, it prevents the animal from seeing what is at the other end of the chute until it is almost there. Second, it takes advantage of the natural tendency to circle around a handler moving along the inner radius.” [1]

From the LSLH perspective, single-file alleys need to be open so the cattle and handler can see each other and communicate (i.e., the handler is communicating through proper body position and movement what they want the animal to do, and the animal is communicating back to the handler whether it understands). Furthermore, open chutes look open, even inviting one to enter, whereas solid-sided chutes look closed, claustrophobic and uninviting (see photo below).

Closed Chute

Second, chutes should be straight. The notion that curved chutes facilitate cattle movement because they allegedly think that they are going back to where they came from has already been challenged (Part 3). Furthermore, consider this: Cattle under normal conditions (e.g., open range) trailing out by themselves (e.g., to water or fresh feed) go straight, not in curves. Also, when they walk to a destination and back, it’s in straight lines; they do not move in 180-degree arcs to return to where they came from.

Third, we believe that Grandin’s contention that “facilities should be designed with relatively long single-file chutes to take advantage of following behavior” [6] needs to be challenged. Would you prefer to stand in a long or short line at the airport? Are you more cooperative after standing in a long or short line at the airport? Do you enjoy flying more if you were made to stand in a long line rather than a short one? Even Grandin says that “bison become severely agitated while standing in line.” [6] Guess what, cattle do to! If the premise of long snakes is to take advantage of natural following behavior, it is paramount that handlers maintain constant movement of cattle through the system. If cattle stall in the snake, or if there is a pause between drafts of cattle being sent through the tub, cattle will lose sight of the animals in front of them because of the solid-sided curve. When this occurs there is no longer an opportunity for following behavior and often the animals stall as if lost; some even try to back out. Consider this lost soul:

Lost Soul

When this occurs, the handler needs to resume forward movement. This is difficult in the many systems that use conveyor belting on the top of the solid side. In these systems the handler must pop up onto the catwalk and peer under the conveyor belt flap and encourage the animals to move forward. Since the handler can’t simultaneously hold the flap up and use reverse-parallel technique, the handler generally pushes the animal forward from the rear. When the handler is trying to get an animal to go forward from a rear end position, the handler often creates a block to the animals following the stalled animal, hence perpetuating more stalls. With open sides, none of this happens.

Also, when animals are frightened, resistant, or confused—hence more challenging to work—and not flowing well through the system, is it easier to remedy the situation when there are a lot of animals stalling or only a few? The point is that the longer the snake the more animals there are to contend with, hence it’s inherently more difficult.

When I (LL) do systems assessments, if cattle are challenging the handlers (for reasons known or unknown) one of the initial troubleshooting measures is to reduce the size of the draft (the number of animals being moved together at one time). The draft size is then increased one at a time until the ideal draft size for that set of cattle in that facility is determined. Sometimes it is found that small draft sizes work best. In that case long snakes are a waste of facilities. Additionally, when processing protocols are long (e.g., branding, incoming processing) it is ideal to have a shorter snake so that wait times are decreased and cattle remain cooperative. This is especially important with cattle that are being treated. Often they are pulled when they are severely ill and then made to stand in the long snake before being treated, which compounds the stress, which is counterproductive for sick animals.

Some facilities designed by Grandin have very long snakes. This has the undesirable consequence of taking movement out of the cattle due to constant “stop and go,” which actually teaches cattle to stall. An additional challenge with extra long snakes with two arcs is that it’s difficult for handlers to work the cattle that are stalled in the outside arc if the handlers are properly positioned on the inside of the arc. Handler position on the inside of the arc is ideal because with minimal head movement the cattle can easily keep the handler in view. When a handler is on the outside of the arc the cattle have to turn their heads (often back and away from the target; i.e., the squeeze chute) to keep the handlers in view which does not facilitate cattle flow. Snakes with more than one arc require additional labor to position handlers in the proper locations.

An obvious advantage of straight single-file alleys or chutes is that animals never lose sight of the animal they are following. Also, the last cow or two serves as “bait” to help draw in the next draft of animals into the chute. If needed, the squeeze chute operator can hold the last animal until those entering the chute from the crowd pen can see it. At that point the operator releases the animal and the next animal in line sees it “escape,” which encourages it entering the chute.

Grandin has advised putting belting above the solid sides on snakes, ostensibly to minimize distractions. This is really troublesome. The real distraction here is what I (LL) call the “predator distraction.” This is the ultimate in horror! Cattle in the snake know that a person is outside of the snake, so when the person “pops in” from above to shove the animals forward, it is very frightening. Furthermore, it completely blocks the animal behind the one the handler is shoving forward, thereby disrupting flowing the remaining cattle forward.

Grandin recommends double-file or side-by-side chutes. [6] This is not necessary. If we create proper cattle movement, single file is fine. One problem with a double-file chute is that if the animals stall, it is difficult for the handler to access the outside lane without disrupting the flow in the inside lane. It is for this reason that Williams did not recommend double-file chutes.

Grandin also recommends V-shaped snakes with catwalks, which are necessary due to the tall, solid sides. [6] We find both problematic. V-shaped snakes are not adjustable and do not fit all classes of cattle. Therefore, how do you safely accommodate all classes of cattle? Small animals (e.g., early weaned calves presented for preconditioning) can turn around. Short, small-framed, thick cattle (e.g., bred and near term due for scours vaccination) or near finish (e.g., at re-implant time) in the feedlot can get wedged. Furthermore, we suspect that cattle are less apt to move willingly into and through V-shaped snakes out of fear that the narrow bottom will interfere with the free movement of their feet; something that is exceedingly important for prey animals.

Tall, solid-sided snakes require catwalks. We find catwalks challenging and not user friendly. Catwalks put the handler above the animal which is a predatorial position that unsettles and stresses them. Furthermore, standing above a cow tends to impede movement. Due to the horizontal design of bovine vision, they have to lift their head to look up to see things above them, unlike humans. The problem is that when they lift their head their feet tend to stop. Grandin admonishes us not to build overhead catwalks, but all catwalks put the handler overhead when the sides are solid. Also, in Grandin-designed systems many catwalks are on the outside of the arc which is precisely where a handler should not be. To effectively move cattle ahead the handler needs to work the inside arc (for reasons described below). Another problem with catwalks is that it takes considerable effort to repeatedly step up and down off them. Consequently, handlers are prone to remain on the catwalk instead of getting off of it where they can use proper body position more effectively. Lastly, in wet, freezing weather, metal catwalks become slippery and unsafe for handlers.

You Can’t Trick Cattle Into Squeeze Chutes By Hiding

“By definition,” Grandin explains, “anytime a human gets close enough to a cow to give it a shot or provide veterinary care, that human has violated the cow’s flight zone.” [6] Therefore, she recommends preventing animals from seeing people deep within their flight zone as they enter the squeeze chute by blocking their vision with either solid sides (even cardboard will do) or louvers. [3] Also, people at the squeeze chute should stand motionless and not look at the incoming animal; moving people and staring eyes are threatening. Additionally, the pump and motor should be located away from the squeeze to minimize noise. [5]

So, the animal is to be isolated from everything and then get bit by the rattlesnake? We believe that it’s less stressful for animals if they know what’s coming and not be surprised.

We concur that it is wise not to “stare down” the cattle when encouraging them to enter the chute; this is called “eye stalk” and can discourage cattle from entering the chute. More fundamentally, the idea of needing to hide behind solid sides or louvers on squeeze chutes needs to be challenged. Even if it’s possible to hide behind louvers during an animal’s first trip through a squeeze chute, it’s certainly going to suspect that you’re there on its return visits. Again, wouldn’t you rather know where the rattlesnake is? Consequently, you might as well let the cow know that you are there and not make it guess. Arguably, not knowing what’s hiding behind the louvers is more stressful than knowing. Furthermore, we’ve observed that crews will often leave a panel open on the side of the chute for certain procedures, like branding, which has not hindered the flow of cattle unless they were in a state of panic.

Even more fundamentally, a critical point that Williams makes, but is overlooked by Grandin, is that cattle don’t mind going into a squeeze chute or what happens to them once there; what they mind is how they are treated and handled before they ever get there, and that starts with how they are brought into the corral and every step in between. If they are treated well and handled properly, good movement is created and maintained throughout the system, they will usually willingly walk into a squeeze chute, stand there, then calmly walk out.

Williams also stressed the attitude of the handlers at the squeeze chute. He wanted people to enjoy working the animals, to have a positive attitude, to learn proper technique (e.g., slow and smooth injection technique; not a snake strike), and to focus on quality of work (e.g., working together as a coordinated team and to master proper cattle handling technique).

Entering the squeeze chute should be viewed as a transition. What happens at transitions? If animals don’t have enough good movement to cruise right past them they may hesitate and try to figure it out. So, if the people handle the cattle properly (even giving hesitant animals a moment to examine and get comfortable with it) and keep them in a normal frame of mind, the cattle will usually enter smoothly. If cattle have had a prior bad experience or are panicked, they may require more time and encouragement. Each situation needs to be assessed and handled appropriately.

As far as louvers, they may be good for some cattle and some crews but not others. Ideally, when cattle have good movement and are comfortable with the handlers, louvers are unnecessary. If louvers were easily removable; they could be considered a tool. Our main objection to louvers is that they are an extension of the argument for solid sides, which we challenged above. It confounds us why handlers want to hide from their cattle and prevent cattle from seeing them, which makes effective communication impossible. Skilled people at the squeeze chute can use their body position—as they do everywhere else in a processing facility—to effectively communicate with and move animals. Furthermore, the squeeze chute operator can do a much better job of checking the movement of animals coming in too fast (e.g., by lightly squeezing them with the sides or partially closing the head catch as they enter) if he or she can clearly see them entering.

Although the question of the effect of squeeze chute noise on cattle is unresolved—Grandin believes that it has a negative effect, Williams does not—the authors do agree with Grandin that all facilities and equipment should be engineered for quietness. [10] Because cattle have much more sensitive hearing than humans to higher frequencies (i.e., human and cattle hearing are most sensitive from 1000-3000 Hz and 7000-8000 Hz, respectively), [11] it makes sense to reduce unnecessary noise, such as by placing squeeze chute pumps and motors away from the working area. An additional benefit is that people can interact with cattle and each other more effectively when there is no extraneous noise to contend with. Consequently, conscientious facility design should include considerations to minimize noise.

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About the author

Whit is a fourth generation Montana rancher who spent aobut 38 years handling cattle conventionally before making the paradigm shift to low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as taught by Bud Williams. For the past 10 years he has studied and practice LSLH, and shares his knowledge in clinics, onsite consultations, and articles. He began publishing the Stockmanship Journal in 2012. It is the definitive source for quality information on stockmanship. Though the importance of stockmanship is becoming well recognized, until this Journal, there was no professional publication addressing the subject. Hibbard began publishing the Journal in January of 2012 to provide a consistent and efficient way to share information on stockmanship, and to serve as a forum for open, intelligent and informed dialogue. The Journal is a means for improving the level of discourse and the discipline of stockmanship. It is published twice a year in electronic form and includes articles written by experts in the field.


  1. Maria Bowman says:

    Hi Kathy,
    The link to the original article doesn’t seem to work–could you double check it? Thanks.

  2. Chip Hines says:

    Having been involved in both systems, the method described here is the best and even if you do not have your pens set up perfectly as described, it may take only a small investment to make a big difference. One or two changes may be all that is needed.
    Something to remember when working cattle. It is not how fast you go, but how smooth you go.

    Great series.

    • Angus Johnson says:

      Its the flow, less stress on the cattle is what I look for .thanks for posting. .

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