The Cattle Yard
Dad liked building sturdy structures out of wood. He got as much satisfaction making in-built bookcases to house his many books as he did reading them. He’d make bookcases that went from the ceiling to halfway down the wall of the old, high stud houses we lived in. Once finished, he’d tightly grip a shelf at eye level and do several pull-ups: the acid test.
There’s a great deal of weight in the extra wood added to a bookcase when you fill it with books, so I hesitate to call Dad’s handiwork over-engineered. I too, like to build sizeable structures out of wood that will go the distance – including built-in bookcases, and, in this case, a stockyard.
A cattle yard hadn’t been high on my list of priorities during the first couple of decades when it was just a matter of a “most of the time” biddable house cow and her calf. Even when a local farmer loaned us a bull, we got by without yards. Led to a couple of memorable incidents though!
One young bull, freshly separated from running with his mates and unceremoniously coerced off the back of a stock truck and onto our loading bank, ignored Sophie, our very first house cow, and went walk-about in search of his herd. Treating our fences with contempt by half-striding, half-bounding over them and hightailing it up the neighbour’s hilly paddock behind our place. Much, much later the same day we managed to entice him back by stationing Sophie in the farmer’s big open-fronted barn that’s only our vege garden and a small paddock distance from our house. Not finding a single mate to hook-up with, he must have felt he’d been too hasty in his first glance dismissal of Sophie’s charms.
Another time, a Hereford, getting on in years and bulked up like a front row prop of the bull world, had somehow to be persuaded that he had no option but to saunter down to the loading bank and hop on the truck. The farmer turned up with seven or eight chain link gates and some baling twine. An instant wee pen and loading channel for the boyo!
Off we went to get the bull from the paddock he and Sophie were in, me tagging on behind and the farmer armed with a short 15 millimetre diameter aluminium shepherd’s crook. The bull, backed up against a fence at one point, a shake, a slight lowering of the head and the murmur of a rumble; the instinctual urge to charge quelled by the farmer, up close and personal and with a wide stance, pointing the crook towards the bull’s head and giving a brief, low pitched and no-nonsense command to the bull to settle down. Phew! The instinctual nature of the dominance hierarchy, farmer at the top, proving to be the stronger instinct yet again. From then on, the bull ambled along to the loading bank where he was easily manouevered onto the truck deck through a miniscule, low-sided and very temporary ‘yard’ made of those propped up and twine-tied chainlink gates.
While I can imagine an over-engineered bookcase, I refuse to entertain such a thing when it comes to cattle yards, despite seeming superfluous when it came to getting that particularly well-mannered bull onto a stock truck! A small block lifestyle farmer in the district, in a tone that suggested he could barely bring himself to believe it had actually happened, told me that he’d had a few yearling Angus steers off-loaded and they’d completely wrecked his yards.
Whenever I see the latest in large, state-of-the-art yards, with heavy gauge galvanised steel tube holding races, and automated crushes and headbails to restrain the animal, I think, good on the farmer for investing in them – that’ll make cattle of all ages, sizes, numbers, and probably most importantly, temperaments, vastly easier and safer to handle.
There’s nothing state-of-the-art about my cattle yards. For starters, there’s just the one yard. No cage-like crushes or headbails that rely on automated mechanisms for their effectiveness. No Temple Grandin* inspired rails sweeping around in a generous curve to imitate the natural flow patterns of a cattle herd. But of course, you don’t need any of that when you’re talking small numbers.
For my wooden structure, I slavishly followed the design and advice provided in a book titled Lifestyle Farming in New Zealand – Managing Livestock on a Small Holding by Paul Martin, a New Zealand vet who was brought up on a small holding and now lives on a commercial farm. In his words: “It is a no-frills affair and can be considered as the bare minimum should you intend to keep cattle.”
Big enough when I used to have a breeding herd of four Dexter cows. I’d corral them for the TB tester, or run them through there when I needed to separate out one or two, or disbud calves and castrate the males at four weeks of age.
The stockyard a real boon when I had to get the vet out a couple of times – both times for the same Dexter. I bought her as a weaner at five months old and she hadn’t been disbudded so the vet used a scalpel (after applying a local anaesthetic) to remove the horn growth. Several weeks later the vet was back, dealing with an obstruction in the throat that had caused the young heifer’s stomach to blow up like a balloon. Parafin oil funneled through a plastic tube eventually got whatever was causing the blockage to slither down into the forestomach.
Both times we wedged and tied her up against the yard’s 50 x 150-millimetre planks that I used for the side rails. A small animal with a good temperament, restraining her was not difficult.
A while later, I purchased a manually operated galvanised steel headbail. The vertical arm that slides in against the neck can be adjusted to hold calves as well as mature cattle. When I had the four Dexter cows, it made disbudding, castrating and ear tagging their calves a safe and straightforward operation. The bail also doubles as a gateway to the short channel that feeds the animals onto a stock truck. No need for a loading ramp – the truck backs up to a low roadside bank that’s the same height as the truck’s deck.
It’s not just the cattle that slam your yards around – I’ve had trucks come up to the bank too fast and send mighty shudders throughout the structure as the back edge of their deck hit the 150 x 50 millimetre wooden nudge bar that’s nailed to the loading channel’s end posts to prevent them being hit and to dampen the impact of a ‘nudge’ that is sometimes a euphemism for ‘heavy blow’.
I’m also pleased I added an exit gate that the vet suggested as an “improvement” to the “no-frills” structure. I read somewhere that it’s much harder to keep cattle in the yards long enough to close the gate behind them if they learn that they can get out the same way they got in. So, I sprint to get that gate shut behind them and make sure they go out through the exit gate.
Another improvement, and one that vastly increases my chances of getting the gate shut before they bolt out again – a narrow holding pen paddock with electric wire outriggers that channels the animals to the yard’s entrance gate.
It’s a stockyard with posts 200-millimetres in diameter and 1.5 metres below ground; rails hammered in place using 150-millimetre, flat-head, galvanised nails; gates assembled using galvanised bolts, and through-post gudgeon pins to hang them by. Cattle have rammed their rumps and heaved their sides against the rails, fought the bail’s hold with all their might, and trucks have set the whole shebang a shuddering but failed to alter the alignment of a single gate one iota: all this and more tells me my cattle yard should last the distance. Last the distance, yes, but nothing about it screams out: “Over-engineered!”
*”Grandin is a consultant to the livestock industry, where she offers advice on animal behavior.” From Temple Grandin – Wikipedia