This year I switched from being a year-round cow-calf operation to being a seasonal heifer developer, one of the biggest issues I had was with temperament. Heifers that are new to my operation can be flighty and less calm than a herd I’ve worked with over the years. Here is part 3 of the skills and techniques I’ve acquired for dealing with smart, ornery cattle and how I set up corrals using inexpensive materials. (If you missed them, here’s Part 1 and here’s Part 2.)
Here’s how I get my herd into the corral for pregnancy checks, loading onto trucks, or whatever I need to do. I build a lane with polywire leading up to the corral, about 20 feet wide, tapering down to the width of the corral opening. The perimeter fence often serves as one side of the lane. For the last one hundred or so feet before the corral, I use two strands of polywire with step-in posts placed closer together than usual. The polywire is of course electrified. The lane must be long enough that the cattle enter and begin moving down it before they realize they are headed for the corral (while they still think it’s just a paddock shift).
More people around to help is not necessarily better. My cattle don’t see anyone but me for most of the grazing season, so they panic when new people come around. A show of force will often produce the opposite result from what you want. I’ve had better luck walking cattle silently into the corral with one other helper, than I have with five people whistling and running and waving their arms around.
Once cattle go in the corral and realize there’s nothing cool in there, they won’t want to go back in. That’s why it’s so important to get them caught on your first attempt. I use what I call the “Trash Compactor” strategy. Myself and one other person follow the herd down the lane with a length of white poly tape stretched between us. Without the poly tape, the cattle seem to try to turn back and run past us more because they see the spaces between us. The poly tape closes that space. Move the cattle slow enough that they don’t run. Don’t get so close behind them that they panic and crowd. If you push them too hard, they will stumble through the lane wire or push calves out under it. But do not give them too much time to think and stop and turn around.
With flighty cattle that will jump the polywire to avoid going into the corral, move the herd very slowly. Put up two or three offset lane wires instead of just one wire. Bait the herd along the lane and into the corral using really good hay or baleage. As soon as one picks its head up and/or turns to face you, freeze and wait for its attention to turn back to the herd. When a cow is focusing on you, she has completely forgotten about whatever it is you want her to do. She is only thinking about how to escape from the threat that is you.
Construct your corral and working facility so that cattle can’t get their noses under panels and lift them up. Once the nose lifts the panel, the rest of the body will follow. I have seen heifers upwards of 800 pounds turn a 12” gap into an escape route. Setting your corral in concrete would fix this issue, but I farm on a rented property and want to be able to move my corral. I attached box wire concrete form sheets to the bottoms of my tube panels to keep noses out from under the panels. This worked fine while custom grazing cow-calf pairs, but was no match for a frustrated Angus heifer. Now my panels have junkyard metal roofing attached to the bottom halves, making them solid. No nose room and no visibility! If you want to nose-proof your corral without buying solid material for the bottoms of the panels, flip your panels upside down, so the “feet” are in the air. With the first bar directly on the ground, the cattle can’t lift it from the bottom. Even if they lift it from the second or third bar, they can’t keep it off the ground and get their noses under it at the same time.
I don’t try to crowd a group of cattle onto a trailer with the whole back door open. Instead, I back my rear slider door directly up to my chute. I run cattle through the chute and onto the trailer. I can drop the back chute gate to keep an animal from backing up, so the only way she can go is forward onto the trailer. She can’t turn around either, and once she gets on the trailer, it’s harder for her to get back off than it is when the whole rear door is open.
I once had a foul-tempered Galloway cow that wouldn’t get on the trailer with the group. She wound up alone in the corral, and started attacking anyone who tried to go in the corral. (Cattle go insane when they are alone, being herd animals. Try to never let one get away from the group!) Here’s how I caught this cow. I put hay and water in front of the automatic head catch on the chute and left her in the pen overnight. The next day, she got hungry and thirsty enough to go into the chute and stick her head through the headgate, locking herself in. I dropped the rear chute gate to trap her, let her head out of the headgate and then shut it again. I backed my trailer slider right up to the chute, opened the headgate, and she charged onto the trailer. Off to the sale barn she went!
Corrals and Chutes
If you want to, you can get by with temporary, inexpensive facilities. Here are some examples:
This is the arrival pen I put together for my heifers, which was completed 30 seconds before they showed up. Woven wire on fiberglass posts with 1×4 lumber woven through the wire, and 2 strands hot polywire around the inside.
Here is the scale mock-up I made with pieces of paper on my kitchen floor of the new corral I built in the fall for preg checking/truck loading. It has a holding area, bud box, alley and chute, and truck loading alley (which can double as a sorting pen).
Here is my Dad and I working on making alley frames out of junkyard steel square tubing. Priefert sells them for around $100, and I made them for less than $4.
A lot of this experience came from my first attempt at developing yearling heifers this past year. My next article will review how it went, what I did right, and what I better not do again next year.
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When a cow is focusing on you, she has completely forgotten about whatever it is you want her to do. She is only thinking about how to escape from the threat that is you.
A great article Meg. I love your courage to try & your ingenuity to solve issues with the resources available! As you have demonstrated, panels & poly wire are effective tools to build handling facilities on rented land. For me, spending the money on free standing panels really reduced my stress. It would have been nice to have the money for them when we first started out!
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