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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Working Pens

For the last year, we have been raising 30 stocker steers for the first of our grass fed beef. In some posts ago, I pointed out that our initial vision was to be a producer of fine grass fed beef using stocker steers from a breeder who raised his calves only on grass up until weaning. Then we would get them at weaning time, he would wean them for us using hay, and then we would finish them out on our pastures.

Well, our beliefs in sustainability grew more and more. Land management became the core of our beliefs along with herd management. I quickly learned that if you don't have complete control of your heard, from birth, you will always be inheriting someone elses poor land and herd management problems. Hence the reason we decided to convert over to a closed herd of Red Brangus cows.

We got ourselves into the egg business, thinking that 100 layers would be good, then decided that we would want to finish out 20-40 hogs a year. Well, now we have about 400 layers that will start laying end of August, we are set up to finish out 120-150 hogs a year, we are converting from stocker beeves to a closed herd of Red Brangus, and are in the works of getting an on farm outside poultry processing area built.

So in the next year, a lot of new things will be taking place here as we go from production phase to actually having product to sell. This has finally led us to getting our official set of working pens.

Over the last year, I have learned that cows simply allow us to control them but at anytime, could actually leave the property and never come back if they so desired. No fence, be it an 8' game fence with welded panels on 4' centers, could actually keep a full grown cow in if it really wanted out. Hence the reason for a good set of pens. Plus, my cows haven't yet been trained to simply walk up to a trailer in the middle of the pasture as I point them out and tell them to load up, its time to walk the final leg of your journey. I think they would look at me like I was a bit loony and continue to eat grass.

Naturally, as a cow gets moved to a new environment, they begin to get anxious, stressed, and act a bit whiley (sp?). I know this. And I know that the first time I introduce them to the pens, it will be a bit of a shock for them. But my remedy for that will be through routine and familiarization.

I have found that just like kids enjoy, and need structure, ( you may feel that your kids do not feel that way but that may be the problem, they lack structure) cows are the same way. They like to know things will be the same over and over. Things just go better when it happens this way. You explain the rules and guidelines, and they do their best to follow them. They know what to expect day in and day out. Soon they learn that the handle side of the rope is where they go to move from paddock to paddock. A lead cow immerges and leads the cows each and every time. It makes them comfortable. After a while, they know the system up and down and will perform like clockwork if the time is invested early on.

So my plan is to always allow the cows to rotate through the pens even if I don't intend on working them. Just to let them get use to the routine of going in and out of them. That means that every 30-40 days, they will walk in and out of them. We will gather weights and data, every 90 days, so that we will be able to tell what type of Average Daily Gains (ADG) we are getting. By rotating them through each time, they get use to the gates, the tub, the alley, and the chute. Hearing the sound of the metal rattle and echoes of the moos. Without structure and routine, there is mass confusion, and when working cattle by yourself, you just can't allow that.

We will be getting a pole barn built over the top so that they will be out of the sun and it will be a great place for when we go to wean our calves next year.
****Note to all who have never weaned calves----you really need to have a good set of high panel pens for weaning your calves. If not, they will jump over them or go through them and be back to their mamas by day end.

Here is a little tour of the new set up. From a cows perspective. MOOOOOOO

This is the gate where the cows will enter

Once inside, the will be in a catch pen

They will walk around in a clockwise motion around the partition

Once around the partition, they will go towards the tub

The tub has a gate that comes out and allows the cows to walk in a half moon shape.

As the cows enter the tub, a swing gate is closed behind them and it locks each time they move forward so they cant reverse back.

At the end of the tub, they go into the Alley. You can adjust the width for bulls, cows, or calves so that they cant turn around once inside.

The alley leads to the chute. I like that they are closed panels because it helps the cattle not get scared by movement on the outside of the alley.

This is the chute where we will have our scale so that we can weigh the beeves every 90 days or so. We don't vaccinate, use chemical dewormers, fly repellents, or antibiotics, so the main reason will be for weighing the animals.

This is the work area that can also be used as an alternate pen

Once out of the chute, they will either go to the going to processor side.

Or through this next gate

Where they will go into this next pen to be turned back out to pasture.

The holding pens are pretty good size, 20'x40'

Whether loading in the trailer or going back out to pasture, this will be the gate you leave out.

I really like the idea of semi permanent portable pens because they really are easy to set up and move around.

I was at the fire station when they came out and put them up where I told them to over the phone. Well, when I got home and started to look at them, I realized where I told them to put them was underneath the power lines. I can't put a pole barn in the easement so right away, I got to take them apart and move them. I moved the whole set of pens about 150' away by myself using a tractor of course in about 6 hrs. So I highly recommend them.

So this is the new addition to the farm which I am so excited to get to use. I have about 2 weeks till they rotate around to them. Come on guys, hurry up and eat already.


Rich said...

Which one of the Powder River systems did you chose?

I've been needing to build some new working pens, but all the options and variations when building and/or buying working pens/chutes/crowding tubs are enough to make your head spin.

I would like to have something simple that could be easily expanded or altered in the future, but haven't found a satisfactory set of plans or a system yet.

A working pen system built of movable panels (similar to your system) seems like it would be more "flexible" in redesigning to fit future needs (and correcting initial design flaws).

It would be interesting to see you post about how your chute system actually works in the real world, what you would change, what parts worked perfectly, and the parts of the design that you absolutely hate.

If you build a barn over your pens, it would also be interesting to see the details of the construction, I've always been particularly interested in the different ways people build and/or modify their stuff.

Kramer said...


I didn't really know which system to get because as you said, there are just too many ways that you can do it.

So I first knew I needed a tub and alley with a working chute. So that is what I started with and worked everything around it.

The best thing I can say is to find the closest dealer and go talk to them. I sat down, and we drew up what I was wanting then they got me an itemized list and an estimate of what it would cost.

I will tell you that the system we have is fairly pricey, but after setting it up, tearing it down, moving it, and putting it back up again, this stuff is solid. I would have to say the next best thing to a set of permanent pipe working pens.

The great thing about it is that as we expand, we just add simple panels and gates. The main expense is done and we can even just move panels around to maximize our space if we need it.

I will be moving the cows through it this week so I will post about how it worked out. We set it up so that I should be able to do it by myself so we will see.

Thanks for your insight and I hope this helps.

buzzsaw said...

Farmer Jason,

I'm thinking of starting my own farm and was wondering about your decision to move off of weaned stocker steers. Is this a totally wrong way to provide grass finished beef to consumers? I don't know if I'll be ready to invest in a closed herd right away. I was hoping to get used to managing cattle before taking on the issues that come up with actually managing a herd. What has your experience taught you?

I'm also very curious to know how you manage your herds water needs since you move them around so much every day.

Nice pens by the way.