Considerations when erecting pens and camps

A herd of cattle moves from a holding pen, where three pens meet, into a smaller pen.

Livestock farmers don’t have the luxury of wasting time. Each farming activity is a piece in the production puzzle and must be planned in a way that allows for a reduced workload and simplified on-farm processes. Most successful producers commit to precision farming, making every farming activity easy, economical, and efficient.

The construction of holding pens on a livestock farm is one of the activities that requires care and precision. On many farms, the handling pens have been there for decades, but experts believe that even small changes can lead to the construction of a holding pen that both simplifies and speeds up the work.

Important considerations

According to Corné Serfontein of Agritech Steelworks, producers are very cost-aware and therefore usually erect pens based on a budget. To ensure that the pens are constructed correctly from the outset, excellent planning is non-negotiable. Experience has taught him that the flagpole design is the most cost effective.

Carin Nortjé of Algar Ind CC is a master pen builder and says producers nowadays attempt to minimise the stress animals are exposed to and eliminate the risk of injury. In her experience producers are increasingly making use of clamps and crates, which help to keep the animals stationary while working with them. She explains that producers often follow a holistic route and that handling pens form part of this approach.

“The livestock farming enterprise is focused on optimal growth and, to determine how much growth is obtained from it, nutrition is monitored closely. Aspects such as daily growth and carcass weight are essential in slaughter animals. To measure these factors, animals must be tested frequently and vaccinations and supplements need to be administered to ensure adequate disease control – all in a bid to measure production results. With a good-quality crate, these functions can be performed quickly and effortlessly, without compromising the animal’s condition.”

As it is easier to handle smaller herds of livestock, the herd should be divided. Here the animals are split into a manageable group to reduce the number of animals in the crush.

Design aspects of pens

According to Corné, the bugle design is very popular among producers, because it allows the animals to calmly move through a semicircle to a tapered section, which funnels them to the crush or handling area. A vital aspect of pen design, he explains, is the number of animals the pen must accommodate at a time. This determines the size of the holding pen as well as the sorting pen.

According to Carin, pen design has undergone considerable changes over the years. The new generation of pens focus on making animals feel safe. Each farm and the environment in which pens are erected are unique and therefore designs will differ from farm to farm.

Location is an important consideration when planning new pens. The space surrounding the pen must be big enough to allow for further expansion. The pen must also be designed in such a way that the loading zone has ample space for trucks of any size to enter and turn around. “The pen must be erected in a central location on the farm so that animals need not walk too far,” she adds.

The surface also plays a big role. “The ground must be solid and fairly level. A gentle slope is good for drainage during heavy downpours. Furthermore, there should be enough water points in and around the pen. Another plus is the availability of a power source for electrical equipment, lighting and security.”

The height of the pen is equally important and needs to keep animals from jumping over the sides. Similarly, the bars on the sides of the pen should be well spaced so that animals cannot escape.

Placement of gates

The placement of gates is another factor to consider. Corné says correctly placed gates aid in the flow of animals through the pen. “Gates that allow people to move through the pen’s handling facilities are just as important, as it prevents them from having to climb over the gates.”

Carin agrees and says that animals will be reluctant to move through an incorrectly placed gate. Also, if there are not enough gates when handling a large herd, it will be difficult to move the animals safely in and out of the pen, especially calves.

“Gates also allow livestock handlers to move quickly and comfortably between the handling areas. The placement of the gates should be suitable so as not to restrict flow. Gates should ideally open to both sides. The locking mechanism must also be easy to handle in one quick action. It stands to reason that gates for a holding pen should also be stronger than those for a grazing camp.”

The gates are effective and easy to close behind the handler. This limits the number of animals in the pen and allows the front group to move safely towards the crush.

Angles, curves and flow

Modern pens are designed with minimal sharp angles where animals can injure themselves or become stuck in ‘dead’ corners. Curved pens simply work better to improve flow in the pen.

Carin explains that typical animal behaviour entails circular movement and bundling together. For that reason, the crush and pens she designs will help animals feel as though they are returning to a place of safety where they can be among their herd.

Read more about proper animal handling

“Herds want to bundle together and stay close to other members of the group. With some designs it is impossible to avoid corners but, in such cases, you can adjust it by using a curved effect to eliminate sharp angles,” she explains.

Suitable materials

Carin says they regularly experiment with new materials for pens, but steel remains top of the list because it is the most solid and durable material for this purpose.

“There are options that allow for the use of plastic, as well as the old, traditional pens made of wood, but the overall lifetime of well-maintained steel remains the best. You can galvanise the steel to extend its lifespan. There is also special paint on the market that can protect steel from the elements.”

She adds that, compared to wood, steel has a degree of mobility, which prevents it from breaking or splitting when a herd of animals push against it.

Fixed versus movable

Another important trend is that of movable pens. However, Carin and Corné believe there is a place for both fixed and movable pens on the farm. According to Corné, movable pens are useful on leased land where the producer does not want to make a huge capital outlay, or where a producer has more than one farm and does not want to set up fixed holding pens for each. It also comes in handy in places where animals are housed temporarily or where sick animals need to be treated.

Carin recommends that a central point on the farm be identified to erect the main holding pen. However, this structure does not necessarily have to be permanent. Carin and Corné agree that although there are several options producers can choose from, each farm is unique and the holding pen must therefore be erected or adapted to suit the specific needs and circumstances of the farm. –Koos du Pisanie (Photographs supplied by Algar Ind CC)

For more information, contact Carin Nortjé on 082 324 6256
or Corné Serfontein on 084 508 1011.