For some, it’s hard to pinpoint the most important piece of small livestock equipment that’s a “can’t live without” item. You may argue it’s utility tractors due to moving hay bales and mowing pastures plus other benefits when adding an array of attachments.

That’s fair. Tractors set the bigger picture for everything else when handling sheep, goats or pigs. Then again, you have the assortment of feeders, milking stands, hayracks and other items that are multifunctional. In a way, they’re the unsung heroes of small livestock equipment: sometimes overlooked, but much appreciated when needed.

As essential as these pieces of equipment are, however, it’s hard to deny the importance of working chutes. They allow the livestock to move in an orderly manner toward their respective trailer beds. Of course, at times it can be easier said than done, especially with pigs.

“When you’re moving pigs you need to have some thought to how you’re going to get them on a livestock trailer,” said Bob Mikesell, Program Coordinator, Animal Sciences Major Senior Instructor, Penn State University, Animal Science. “They don’t like to go downhill, don’t like a barrier like a door jam or hose that’s going across. You don’t want anything that indicates a change in elevation or step down for them. It will cause them to balk.”

Excessive elevation can be hazardous for your livestock. According to a white paper published by Colorado State University, “Behavioral Principles of Livestock Handling,”

“The maximum recommended steepness for a stationary cattle or pig ramp is 20 degrees for market weight animals. If space permits a 15-degree slope is recommended for pigs. Stair steps are recommended on concrete ramps because they still provide good footing when dirty or worn.”

Photo courtesy mschowe/istock

Mikesell suggested eliminating any possible distraction. For instance, solid chute panels block the side views from livestock allowing them to move forward toward the intended exit.

“It certainly makes a big difference. The person moving the pigs should have a solid hurdle or handheld board behind them,” he said, “so if the pig turns around and has to go back where it came from that can be set in front of it and stop the process.”

Mikesell said the sorting boards and hurdles are worth the value since they can double as a portable wall. “If you don’t have that you don’t have a chance,” he noted. “The best case scenario is that it slows things down depending on the load. Worst case, you’re chasing livestock across the landscape.”

Behavior of the livestock plays a big part in chute management. With solid chute panels, pigs aren’t distracted by their peripheral vision. If a pig can see beyond the gate, Mikesell noted, they’ll surely think they can go through it. Like pigs, goats and sheep also have exceptional sight perception and a penchant to move from dark to light.

“Any livestock likes to see where they are going,” he said. “At night, if there’s light to show where they need to go, they’ll follow.

Behavior wise, it’s best to keep the livestock calm as possible, advised Melanie Barkley, extension educator in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.

“You want to be as quiet and efficient as possible,” she said. “Animals are much more calm when you put them through the chute system. They understand what is happening and they would be able to go quickly.”

Barkley noted that sheep have a flocking instinct to stay together in a group much more than the other species. Goats, on the other hand, have that tendency but can have aggressive tendencies.

“With goats, they can jump. You may need taller gates,” she said. “If you get them in a tighter group, they are less likely.”

Barkley recommends a 4- or 5-foot long gate (hinged hurdle) to corral sheep and goats to a corner.

Chutes for sheep and goats, Barkley said, are useful for treating problems concerning hoofs or regular procedures such as vaccinations, trimming or shearing of sheep.

In most cases, treated livestock are moved to separate pens at the chute exit. In such cases, scales that are part of a typical chute system are used to monitor weight and growth prior to the livestock sale. Scales, in Barkley’s opinion as well as Mikesell’s, are one of the most underrated small livestock items.

“It relates to the performance of the animal. If you are in the pen and you look through your lambs, you really don’t know who the best performers are,” she said. “I recommend that folks have adjusted weaning weight of lambs, so they can sort through and have lambs meet a certain minimum and go back into the barn and visually appraisal them.”

Barkley also suggests that small livestock handers should not overlook tools such as hoof trimmers, drench guns, and lambing and kidding supplies.

The best way to make sure your chute system is effective, Mikesell noted, is to, quite frankly, treat your small livestock to some manners.

“There are some people that like yell and shout and slap pigs. Move pigs effectively in silence,” he said. “The calmer you are, the calmer they are. They have time to investigate their environment. Trying to force them just defeats the purpose.”

Cover photo courtesy diephosi/istock