cattle handling

Handling system makes working with cattle a breeze

A farmer’s perfect cattle handling facility (or kraal, as it is known in South Africa) took three years of research and thousands of kilometres of travelling. Using just one worker, more than 700 head of cattle can be handled in a day. Theuns Botha asked him about it.

It wasn’t so much that he was having problems with his workers but rather because he liked to be in control of a situation that resulted in Mr Louis van der Vyver of the farm Vlakfontein near Queenstown in South Africa undertaking a long quest to find the perfect system of crushes and pens.

Farming with more than 900 red Santa Gertrudis cattle is one thing. But being able to dip them all in one day and prevent them from crushing each other and jumping out of the narrow crush, is quite another.

An exceptional facility with superior design standards was needed. In addition, his background in mechanical engineering and his passion for precision left him frustrated and tired of struggling with his cattle in the wooden pens on Vlakfontein.

After seeing a schematic representation of a cattle facility in Australia in an agricultural magazine, Louis visited several bull stations, feedlots and railway loading pens in South Africa to determine the most important elements of a successful cattle handling facility. It was soon evident that a facility with a circular or stirrup-shaped design was the answer. Once he had a few conceptual ideas, he asked an architect friend to lend him a hand.

Back on the farm, Louis used waste materials to build the first prototype. Based on its success and because his other cattle were on a farm about 25km away, he built a second facility on the main road between Tarkastad and Queenstown.

cattle handling
The cattle handling facility that Louis van der Vyver designed and built all on his own.

The main elements of his kraal are:

Containment pens. The design is stirrup-shaped with four separate handling areas that get smaller and narrower the closer they get to the crush.

Herding kraal. The angle at which the two sides narrow towards the crush is crucial for preventing the cattle from turning around. It’s important that the cattle’s one flank should be in line with the crush.

Crush. This must be semi-circular in shape so the cattle cannot see the end. It should be small enough to prevent one animal from turning around or two animals from pushing next to each other. In addition, it must be designed in such a way (ideally 680mm at a height of 1m) that it can be used for calves and big bulls. To overcome this problem, the crush which Louis designed is in a V-shape. The lower two-thirds is made of concrete to prevent the cattle’s hooves from pushing through the horizontal railings. The crush is also designed in seven sections, the first of which is slightly wider to accommodate huge bulls in tip-top condition. There is also a cat walk outside the crush that rotates to the right. This facilitates pregnancy checks that are always carried out with the left hand.

Holding pens. There are three receiving and holding areas to facilitate the handling of larger herds of cattle. These areas also provide access to the handling pens.

Crush gate. The crush gate at the back of the crush is designed in a triangular shape. Once the crush is full, the gate is closed with a single movement and it forms an effective back stop to prevent an animal from reversing.

Exit. The exit from the crush is divided by a swing gate in two directions. The one corridor leads the cattle to a scale and from there to the loading ramp. The other leads to a neck clamp. The cattle can be herded directly to the camp or to the central circular kraal, from where they can be moved back to any of four pens.

Loading ramp. It should be built with stairs, be height adjustable and able to extend outwards to handle trucks of all sizes. Triple-decker trucks must also be loaded from the sides.

Cat walk. Like the loading ramp, this should be height adjustable so that the person who helps with loading the cattle back into the truck can do so at a comfortable height and is well protected.

Relationship between gate- and kraal size. If the gates are too big, the arc takes up too much space in the kraal. If they’re too small, they hamper the efficient flow of cattle. Gates that are 2.1m in size are generally used.

General. Less labour is required to make each moveable option between the different pens possible. No animal should ever get in the way of another. It should, for example, be possible to herd the last animal effortlessly past all the others already in the kraal into the crush without moving the other animals.

cattle handling
The crush is V-shaped. The lower two-thirds is made of concrete.

Louis says if new pens are built, they don’t cut corners. The 99 anchor posts he used consist of iron railway tracks. The horizontal poles are old galvanised irrigation pipes and iron telephone poles that were affixed between these uprights instead of next to them. This means that the uprights don’t create an obstruction or stick out. This reduces the risk of injury and facilitates the flow of cattle. The anchor posts are planted 700mm deep in concrete.

Most of the kraal has a soil surface, but the floor of the herding kraal, crush, the corridor to the loading ramp and the neck clamp are all made of concrete. This ensures that the cattle can’t step out.

For practical and aesthetic reasons, the inside of the crush is also paved.

The 20-litre container which holds the dipping solution is hung at a central point from which it is administered with a syringe and a long pipe. This also eliminates wastage when it is poured into other containers. Up to 10 animals at a time can be herded into the crush and 120 cattle can be treated within 15 to 20 minutes.

A veterinarian has already been able to give 172 cows a pregnancy checks in an hour.

cattle handling
The crush gate at the back of the crush is in a triangular shape. It is an effective back stop that prevents cattle from reversing.

When he built the system, the construction (site preparation, labour, welding material, concrete and travel expenses) cost him about R30 000 (ZMW22 300). However, he was fortunate to have the most expensive materials, such as railway tracks, pipes and telephone poles, already available on the farm.

Louis says that if he’d had to buy the system it probably would have cost him about R100 000 (ZMW75 000) to R150 000 (ZMW110 000).

ENQUIRIES: Mr Louis van der Vyfer, email:

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