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One-man corrals reduce labor requirements

Robert Fears Published on 24 June 2015
Curved gates help sort cattle

Working cattle can require several people depending on corral design and its access routes from pastures.

Temporary help is often hired for this activity, which is usually scheduled when cowhands are available rather than optimum times to vaccinate, brand, castrate, dehorn and treat for external parasites.

Good capable ranch hands are often hard to find in today’s metropolitan world and are an expensive input. One way to reduce labor requirements is to design and build handling facilities that can be operated by one person.

Low-stress handling techniques, easy pasture access and perhaps a feed bucket can be used to pen cattle single-handed.

“I built a one-man corral system because normally, I work cattle by myself,” says Robert Koronka, who owns and operates a cow-calf operation near Milano, Texas. “A system was needed that would allow me to smoothly sort cattle and fill the crowd alley without additional help.

“About 10 years ago, I read a magazine article about one-man corrals and immediately knew that they offered a solution to my needs. Plans were ordered from New Zealand and then used to build the corrals.”

Koronka brings cattle from his pastures into a holding pen where a gate has been left open into a second pen. From the second pen, some of the animals are driven into the crowding pen.

In the circular crowding pen, cattle are moved with a single gate with a latch that can be set to allow only forward motion. If cattle try to reverse their line of travel, the gate latches and blocks their path.

There are two additional pens that have entries from the crowding pen through curved gates. These pens provide sorting capability from the crowding pen. If cattle are not being sorted, they move through the crowding pen into a crowd alley leading to a squeeze chute.

Cows leave the squeeze chute through an exit alley either into a pasture or a holding pen, depending upon how the alley gate is positioned. The exit alley encourages cattle to calmly leave the squeeze chute once they are released.

Another feature of Koronka’s corrals is escape openings. Open spaces are left in the fences at strategic locations to allow a person to leave the pen when charged by a cow or bull. The spaces are large enough for a man to slip through but too small for a cow.

“The one-man corral concept was initiated by a New Zealand farm magazine offering 10 dollars for a good farm idea,” says John Kersten of onemancorrals.com.

“I tested cattle for disease in New Zealand for 17 years and worked in hundreds of different cattle corrals. Using these experiences, I drew 11 different designs for gates, latches and chutes and mailed them to the magazine. I thought they might use a couple of them. Not only did they use all 11 ideas, they made them into a feature article and paid me $150.”

“I started taking cattle corral designing a little more seriously,” Kersten continues. “Within three years I left my secure government job to design cattle corrals full-time.”

Design principles

“Design corrals to entice,” recommends Kersten. “Cattle, like humans, would rather be enticed than forced. More carrot means less stick. Less stick means less stress, less labor needed to do the forcing and less danger to the cattle and handlers because the animals are calm.

“I design one-man and two-man corrals to use the advantages of circular design,” Kersten says. “Cattle tend to circle their handler, so curved fences perpetuate this natural flow."

"A circular corral automatically eliminates four corners, enhancing cattle flow. Circular corrals require 12 percent less perimeter fence than a square corral of the same size and 20 percent less than a rectangular one. A curved chute hides the closed end of the chute, drawing cattle forward.”

According to Ohio State University Extension Bulletin 906, a curved working alley takes advantage of an animal’s natural behavior to turn away from potential danger or unpleasant sights or sounds.

Curved working facilities prevent the animal from seeing the squeeze chute or truck until they are almost upon it. A facility with solid sides is likely to require a catwalk because cattle need to see you in order to respond to the handler’s movement.

squeeze chute

Each animal should be able to see the one ahead of it because cattle like to follow each other. Blocking gates in a chute need to be see-through gates, so cattle can see the animal ahead.

If the animal views a dead end, it will balk. Make single-file chutes at least 20 feet long to create easier cattle flow.

“Narrow pens require less labor,” Kersten states. “They make cattle handling easier and safer, especially for one man, by preventing a large mob from milling or circling. One person with a flagstick in each hand can manage the full width of a narrow pen. Cattle naturally move toward the gates at either end, so sorting cattle is easier in a narrow pen.”

Response to movement or strange sights

Regardless of corral design, cattle will respond to movement or strange sights and become hard to handle in a low-stress manner. Good stockmanship and attention to details can help alleviate these problems.

“Cattle have poor depth perception when they are moving with their heads up,” says Temple Grandin of Colorado State University. “To see depth, they have to stop and put their heads down."

"This is why they balk at shadows and strange objects on the ground. A single shadow that falls across a scale or loading chute can disrupt handling. The lead animal will often balk and refuse to cross the shadow."

“If animals continually balk at the same place, a shadow is a likely cause. Balking can also be caused by a small bright spot formed by the sun’s rays.”

“Uniform lighting can help avoid shadows,” says the Ohio State University Extension bulletin. “Cattle in the dark will move toward the light. If you are loading at night, use a frosted light in the truck or shine your flashlight into the truck. Avoid glare in their faces. Livestock tend to balk if they are forced to look into the sun. Position loading and squeeze chutes north and south for summer handling.”

Cattle balk when they see unfamiliar objects. A white Styrofoam cup in the bottom of the working chute will cause the entire herd to balk. Cattle also balk at moving or flapping objects such as chains hanging on a gate or a jacket placed on a strategic fencepost in the working area.

Use solid sides for the construction of the bottom halves of crowding pens, single-file chutes and loading chutes. Open top halves allow cattle to see the handler on the opposite side of the fence where he controls flow.

Working cattle from the outside avoids the necessity of having to get behind animals.

One-man corrals offer an opportunity to reduce labor costs and handle cattle under low-stress conditions. They will not, however, substitute for good stockmanship and management techniques.  end mark

Robert Fears is a freelance writer based in Texas.

PHOTO 1: Curved gates in the crowding pen provide cattle sorting capability.

PHOTO 2: Cows leave the squeeze chute through an exit alley either into a pasture or a holding pen. Photos courtesy of Robert Fears.

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