If I were king for a day, I would make it mandatory that before anyone could have cattle, they would have to prove the existence of an appropriate handling system on their farm. There are some significant reasons for having a handling system: It’s the only way to humanely handle cattle, and it’s the only safe way for the handler to handle cattle.

Without it, cattle that become sick or injured do not get treated. Vaccines, which prevent disease, do not get administered, so the cattle get sick and not treated (and therefore suffer) or die.

When cattle need to be gathered for sale or slaughter, they are more difficult to handle because the experience of being in a confined space is new. If you are selling meat to a consumer, this stress of being confined can increase toughness and off flavor.

When needed, a veterinarian may not come to your farm, because your cattle cannot afford to get hurt. Veterinarians charge by the hour, so if it takes longer to work the cattle due to a poor or nonexistent facility, your expenses will go up. It’s no fun to work cattle if it is a struggle to get them captured and restrained.

I hope I’m clear as to why this is extremely needed.

Head gates are arguably the most important part of a handling system, or at least one of the key, yet most expensive, components. Whether mounted on posts at the front of the alley or the front of a squeeze chute, the head gate’s ease of use is the single most important factor in determining how effectively the cattle handling job is executed. Let’s consider some items.

Deciding between lock-ups vs. head gates

When working in West Virginia, I never saw cattle lock-ups. The two counties I worked in had a total of two dairies. Coming to New York, that changed. I began to see lock-ups on beef operations. My first reaction was, “Beef producers don’t do it that way!” Today, I still have a few qualms about their use in a beef operation, but in certain situations they do have a place.

To work most effectively, the cattle must be accustomed to using them. If the first time they are caught, they have an unpleasant experience, the party may be over. Use of lock-ups requires training. First, feed through the lock-ups without catching the cattle. Once they are accustomed to eating and not getting caught, flip the mechanism and catch them, but do not do anything unpleasant. After they realize that this is OK, then you can give vaccines, ear tag, synchronize estrous, artificially inseminate, palpate and so on.

If you are going to work from the rear, then the cattle on either end of the row may be more difficult to manage as they can swing from side to side.

Another disadvantage is control of the head is more difficult. Treating pink eye, for example, could be a challenge.

Beef Quality Assurance recommended neck injections have to be administered with care, or the handler can injure his or her arm.

Interestingly, a study with dairy cattle at Cornell University showed a reduction in intake for cows eating through lock-ups compared with those eating through a feed rail. That being the case, in finishing operations where maximizing intake is the goal, this system may not be the best choice.

Finally, there is always the ornery cow that is too smart and will not put her head in the lock-up, which can be very frustrating.

For operations with relatively calm cows that are willing to take the time to train the herd, lock-ups may be worth considering.

Self vs. manual catch

The self-catch or automatic head gate relies on the animal pushing the head gate with its shoulders with enough force to trip the spring-controlled catch mechanism. Herein lies the challenge: If you are working cattle of different sizes the head gate must be adjusted so that the opening is not too wide or too narrow. Too wide and the animal either escapes or is caught on the hips. Too narrow and the animal will not put its head in the head gate. Now that you’ve taken the time to get the adjustment correct, the animal needs to hit the head gate hard enough to trip the catch.

This works okay for cattle that have not been worked very often. But for the brood cow that has been through this facility many times and usually ends up with an unpleasant experience, she’s not in any hurry to push that head gate closed. Therefore you end up using the “cheater bar” and pulling it closed. So much for self-catching! So between adjusting the head gate frequently, losing animals, trying to get them out of a hip lock and manually catching the stubborn (or educated) ones, you can generally work cattle more easily and quickly with a manual head gate.

This being said, in all operations, there are times when an automatic head gate does come in handy. When you go to the barn and find a calf or cow that is sick and needs to be treated and no one is around to help, an automatic head gate can be an asset. A head gate that offers the operator the option to switch between automatic and manual would be an advantage. However, I have not seen a head gate model that does this very well.

If choosing an automatic head gate, Dr. Clyde Lane, University of Tennessee offers these tips:

  1. Choose a model that is easy to adjust, given that this will be done often. Pulling out the wrenches each time an adjustment has to be made becomes very aggravating.
  2. The mechanism used to hold the head gate closed should be protected so an animal cannot cause the head gate to open. On older models a cow could trip the self-catch by throwing her head up while in the head gate.
  3. Look at the bottom of the head gate to see if there is the potential for an animal to catch its feet when pulling back. The head gate should be constructed in a manner that will prevent an animal from putting its feet through an opening where the feet will have to be removed prior to opening the head gate.
  4. Do not purchase a head gate with curved bars. This may offer more head control, but when an animal goes down, it only takes seconds for it to die. Contrary to the belief that the animal is not choking – if it were it would struggle giving the operator warning that something is wrong. What actually happens is that the blood supply to the brain is restricted, there is no struggling and in less than 60 seconds the animal could be dead. Always purchase a head gate with straight bars.

In closing, it’s very important to spend some time “kicking the tires” so that you know which head gate works best. Each year at Empire Farm Days they host a Beef Handling Demonstration. Cattle are worked through three facilities. This allows participants to see which system best suits their needs and which are easiest to use. As most of us are part-time producers, our work is done in the evenings and on weekends. It has to go well and not be a complete energy drain.

Don’t get lulled into nondecision because of cost. Although a squeeze chute is a “nice to have,” it is not a “have to have.” For small operations, it can be cost prohibitive ($2,000-plus). A head gate (starting at $550) mounted on two sturdy posts or head gate stand will provide the safety and animal husbandry benefits needed until you can work into a squeeze chute.