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Canadian rancher develops ‘calf-stripping’ as a method to sort pairs

Progressive Cattleman Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 17 May 2016
calf-stripping method

Ranchers from a traditional cow-calf operation are familiar with swinging gates, people running up and down alleyways, flailing arms and the occasional cuss word.

Whether it’s for branding or weaning, sorting pairs can be an all-day event that has been known to get at least one or two people’s blood boiling in the process. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

Dylan Biggs, a Canadian rancher from Alberta, doesn’t have the same feelings toward sorting cows and calves as most traditional operations do. He uses a method he has dubbed “calf-stripping” that has saved him time, money and a few gray hairs along the way.

To see a version of Biggs’ sorting method in action, watch the video below. Please note that these cows had been through the method before.

Video courtesy of the University of Saskatchewan.

Is it as simple as it looks?

By using the calf-stripping method, both Biggs and the University of Saskatchewan’s animal behavior expert, Joe Stookey, have been able to cut their sorting time nearly in half. Stookey says the method is “amazing, and it has so many advantages over the traditional methods.”

But as with anything, there are some fundamental principles and key configurations that have to be in place in order for it to work as smoothly as it’s described. Here are a few:

1. Where cows go in, they must come out

This is where the luxury of having very few “boots on the ground” comes in. If the cattle are brought in and moved to the back of the corral, their natural tendency is going to be to come right back out.

“When I design calf-stripping facilities for other people, it’s critical where the cows come in because it is ideal if the stripper is set up where the cows are going out,” Biggs explains. “They quite willingly go out the same gate they came in because they know where they came in as opposed to bringing them in the east and letting them out the west.”

Biggs says it’s important to let the cows exit the corral on their own terms. Sometimes people get impatient and want to get the cows started, but it disrupts the natural flow out of the corral. You can nudge them, but it’s not a continual push to get them out of the corral, he says.

2. Use slow, calm movements

Biggs further explains that if you have your cows where they feel comfortable walking out that gate and walking by you, without the need to run by you, then it’s going to be a lot easier to control the flow and direct the calves toward the calf stripper.

“Anyone who sorts a lot of cattle knows that it is easier to sort slow, calm movements that aren’t all balled up,” Biggs says. “You need these cattle with a little bit of separation. It depends on how comfortable your cows are, or I don’t really like to use the word ‘trained,’ but whether we realize it or not, whenever we are handling our cattle, we are training them. We are training them to be more at ease or confident with what we are asking of them, or more nervous and upset.”

3. Effective positioning is key

Effectively directing traffic at the gate is a dynamic process and requires that you adjust continually depending on the flight zone of the individual cattle as they come to the gate, Biggs says. Oftentimes, people tend to get “glued” to a certain position, which in turn, restricts their movement and ability to adapt to the situation.

In general you will spend most of your time on the far side or the hinge side of the gate, but there are times when you will have to move over, Biggs says.

In addition to being in the right position, it is equally important that the rail is in the right position. Stookey says you need to match the height of the rail with the age and the size of the calves you are working. If you use creep feeders on your operation, using a vertical bar set to the proper width is also an option.

“It’s just like if you walk through a doorway; if we switch the height of a doorway, you know when you’re going to hit your head,” Stookey says. “You just intuitively know the height of your body, and cattle know that too. It’s a strange movement for them to go under, but they will if they’re scared. It’s tiny little details like those that will make or break this method.”

For those who have the mindset of “chasing” cows, rather than “herding” cows, this method isn’t for you, Biggs says. Naturally, people tend to think that facility designs and facilities will solve all their handling problems – but that’s not the case. It is important that you implement good handling techniques and understand the configuration – even then, it’s important that you adapt to fit your cattle and the situation.  end mark

Cassidy Woolsey
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PHOTO: Because calves are typically more fearful than cows, a subtle movement will encourage calves to duck under the railing and into the adjacent pen. Photo provided by the University of Saskatchewan.

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