Nuances of Today’s Calving Pens

Published on Tue, 12/01/2020 - 10:19am

Nuances of Today’s Calving Pens.

 By Maura Keller.

As new calving management methods have increased in popularity, so too has the need for safer, more mobile calving pen systems. Designed with animal, farmer, and rancher safety in mind, today’s calving pens are now equipped with features that provide greater animal control and accessibility in critical situations while minimizing stress and risk to the handler and animal alike.

Known as Arrowquip’s resident cattle handling expert, Steve Langrell is also a key member of the Arrowquip research and development team. Because of his long-standing experience of cow-calf and ranching operations, he understands the nuances of today’s proper calving pens in order to keep handlers and cattle safe.

Back in 1971, the year Langrell was born, not many people talked much about calving pens. “We  just used a lariat with quick-release honda, so if a cow went down, with just a quick flick of the honda the cow could be released,” Langrell says. “The only upside was you usually had lots of room for the calf puller in a tough pull.” In the early days of calving pen production, the first pens were square and a stanchion-type headgate was common. But gradually ¼ circle calving pens came into the market, which is the biggest trend in the market today.

And when it comes to today’s calving pens, there are far more choices available than ever before. From mobile, rectangular-shaped contraptions to oversized square pens to semi-circular designs, today’s calving pens offer farmers and ranchers a wealth of options from which to choose. And while the best size and dimensions of today’s calving pans are bandied about by many in the industry, one thing’s for sure: safety is paramount when it comes to today’s calving pens.

Evolutionary Design
Scott Schutt, sales representative at Apache Equipment, says today’s calving pens have advanced far beyond the contraptions used in previous generations. Now although many ranchers continue to use the traditional 10’x10’ pens, a lot of companies have changed to a half-sweep model or 180-degree model.

“These types of calving pens are seen as safer for the operator to have that type of system,” Schutt says. “I haven’t personally used one of these half-sweep models, so I can’t be certain they ae safer but they are becoming popular.” Apache Equipment currently offers a 10’x10’ square pen with a manual catching head gate.

“Most pens out there are self-catching,” Schutt says. “We offer a manual catch headgate because we feel it is safer for the cow. That way if she does go down in the calving pen you don’t have to cut that machine apart to get it off of her.”

As Alan Winkel, vice president at Winkle Manufacturing explains, calving pens have changed quite a bit in recent years. “In the past, a manual headgate on two posts and two Winkel panels hooked to a post was it,” Winkel says. “Now the biggest trend is safety for the rancher and cow and the calf, because a lot of the time, the rancher is by himself assisting a heifer having a calf.”
Today’s Winkel Calving Pens have a full rubber floor in the bottom and a heavy-duty swing out gate on both sides from the main frame. In addition, a milking gate on the left side and a gate in the back left side allows handlers to come in from the back of the cow with the side gates closed.

The pen also features a self-catching head gate and the main frame is 34”x 13 feet long. As Winkel explains, it comes with two panels and one gate panel that hook up to the main frame, allowing farmers and ranchers the ability to make a pen on the left side or move it to the ride side or even hook panels to the back of the main frame and bring a cow in from the back. The 30”-wide, removeable vertical bars allow for C-sections. Winkel also offers a new calving pen on wheels, giving a cow-calf operator the flexibility to quickly changing locations as needed.

Safety First
Regardless of shape or size, today’s calving pens are certainly built for maximum safety and control in high-pressure situations. For instance, Arrowquip’s calving pen is designed as a circular pen to ensures that cattle are led safely into the head gate with the assistance of the sweep. For added security, the sweep gate features lock-out points to prevent cattle from pushing back against the gate. To access different parts of the animal, top and bottom individually locked doors are located on both sides of the pen. In the event that a calf needs to be pulled, Arrowquip’s wide 7.5’ back gate provides handlers with enough space to perform safe delivery. Animals placed in the calving pen often need time to recuperate after a procedure. That’s why Arrowquip’s self-catch head gate is designed to allow the rancher to closely monitor the animal while it is in recovery by opening back into the pen to keep the animal inside.

Because safety components are so paramount with calving pens, producers need to make sure the calving pen latches are easy to use as you don’t want to be fiddling with the latch when cow is in there, as the handler or the animal could get injured. Also make sure the pen’s side access gates can be locked individually. And whatever kind of headgate you go with, ensure the cow can’t choke if she goes down, and make sure the back gate, when opened, is large enough to use a puller.

To meet the above recommended calving pen design, Arrowquip made their pen ¼ circle as they believe from using both that these are safer because there is no corner that the cow can get around when the handler is crowding it up. In addition, the Arrowquip has slam latches on all gates and spring-loaded latches on top and bottom crowd gates. In addition to featuring a floor behind headgate, this particular calving pen offers access gates on both sides of the cow, allowing the calf to suck from either side. Arrowquip also has improved the chain latch so that it is easier to use when needing those fine increments—particularly when the crowd gate is up against the cow.

“We designed our back gate so that when it opens it gives you a wide area for access for using the puller etc. and we tried to make the pen high enough and the rail big enough to try and keep the cow from trying to jump as much as possible,” Langrell says. “Keep in mind though if a cow gets worked up enough it will try and jump anything.”

Matt Johnson, marketing manager at Powder River agrees that safety is the first and foremost attribute that needs to be looked at when producers are looking for new calving pens.

“Safety for the animal and for the producer are of paramount importance,” Johnson says. “There is no sense in getting banged up trying pull a calf or hurting an animal while trying to help her. Buying quality equipment that has been designed and built to be safer is a great step in keeping producers and animals safe.”
Dan Hoolman with Livestock Equipment & Manufacturing believes all producers should always consider safety above all else when looking at purchasing new equipment of any sort.

“Safety for the operator is vital to any productions continued operation,” Hoolman says. “Safety for the animal provides a strong foundation for that animal’s life and production. It’s about the safety of the cow and the calves to keep the herd growing.” As such Livestock Equipment & Manufacturing (LEM) offers calving pens that include a headgate in the pen that will safely hold the cow while pulling the calf, if needed. Also, these pens enable the newborn calf to nurse due to the lower gate swinging out of the way. LEM offers calving pens from Canada-based Arrowquip as well as pens from TitanWest, which are produced in Kansas.  

“The pens from TitalWest offer greater flexibility in set up because of their piece-part style,” Hoolman says. Because of this piece part style, LEM is able to customize the calving pen for the individual operations’ needs.
“The calving pens manufactured by Arrowquip are a circular shape rather than a square,” Hoolman says. “This feature provides more control for the operator when bringing a cow into the pen.”

Other Key Attributes
So what other attributes should farm or ranch operators look for in calving pens? Winkel advises that they need to look at the size of the pen and the type of headgate—either manual or self-catching. “You also need room behind the cow to work when the cow is in the head gate, as well as a full floor,” Winkel says “And we are seeing an increase in mobility in calving pens, with wheel kits allowing it to move to multiple locations.”

Another key attribute that ranchers should look at is usability. Some key questions that need to be asked include: Is the calving pen going to be able to do what it was designed to do? Are you going to be able to get an animal that needs attention in there easily? Does it have the necessary features that you are looking for? Is it easy to use and can you operate it by yourself at 2 o’clock in the morning? These are some important questions that producers should consider when looking at a calving pen.

Finally, it is important to evaluate the durability and the company that you are buying it from. As Johnson explains, the last thing that anyone wants to happen is to spend 15 minutes fighting a heifer into a pen, finally get her in there, have an equipment failure and have her take off with a breech calf halfway out.

“Buying quality products from a company that has a good reputation and that stands behind their products will greatly increase your success,” Johnson says. “Additionally, nobody wants to have to repair or replace a brand-new piece of equipment.”

Powder River offers two different calving pens: The Homesteader Calving Deluxe Pen which utilizes a 1/4 sweep gate along with the 10’ split sweep gate to give incredible access. In addition, Powder Rivers’ 10’x10’ Calving-Health Pen is ideal for calving cows or can be used as a sick pen.

Both are designed to be easy to use, highly functional and safe. Strong well-built head gates ensure that the animal stays securely where she needs to be. Heavy-duty swing gates provide a secure barrier between the animal and the rancher, and to keep the animal confined to one area of the calving pen. These pens are designed to be easy to access and can easily be cleaned out. Also, these pens provide adequate space for both the cow and the calf and are easy to move and can easily integrate with existing facilities.

And for those looking for a decent headgate on a calving pen, the most popular is a self-catch but a stanchion type works as well.
“Just make sure you can somehow run it from the back so that you can close it as you crowd the cow up and make sure the bottom cross bar is not to high so that when the cow goes down she doesn’t choke,” Langrell says.

It is also recommended that handlers have some kind of floor behind the headgate as this make the pen much more secure. A good spring loaded latching system is also highly recommended on the crowd gate so that it automatically ratchets on stops on your curved panels as you crowd the cow up.

“Also try and have an easy-to-use latching system for the top crowd gate when you are doing that last little bit of crowding up the cow,” Langrell says. “You want to go in finer increments than your crowd gate latches can give you.”

It is very important that when you open your back gate to calve your cow, that it is big enough to use a calf puller in case of a hard pull. It is also a good idea to have slam latches so that you can throw the gate shut behind the cow when putting her in.

“And keep your panel height high enough. Remember, you have the cow in a very confined space and sometimes they want to jump,” Langrell says. And as far as what is most beneficial for the calf, make sure you have the heights with your access panels close to right, so that when you open up the bottom gate to help the calf suck, your top gate isn’t too high or too low.

Mistakes To Avoid
When selecting calving pens, some common mistakes that producers make include selecting pens that are too small to allow a cow or heifer to comfortably lay down with her calf after a hard pull, and pen designs that are not easy to clean. As Johnson explains, small pens that don’t allow animals the ability to lay down after hard pulls can put additional stress on them and can be dangerous for the new-born calf. Also, if the pen in not easy to clean can mean that it gets neglected and can be source of disease for calves.

“The future of calving pens will always be focused on making the process easier, safer, and helping to contribute to the success of the rancher,” Johnson says. “As the benefits of having a dedicated calving pen becomes more evident, and as new calving management methods evolve and take hold, we see more producers going to systems that are designed to offer unique benefits.”