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Bespoke beef handling system increases efficiency and safety

Having rebuilt the family farm on a greenfield site over the past 10 years, father and son team Mike and Sam Roberts recently decided to upgrade the farm’s cattle handling setup. Alex Heath reports.

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Based between Wadebridge and Padstow, Cornwall, the Roberts family has spent the last decade building winter accommodation on their 200-hectare beef farm, most of it done in-house.

 

Mike Roberts explains the last piece of the jigsaw was to install a state-of-the-art cattle handling system which could be run by one person.

 

The farm is spread across downland used for grazing and arable grade soils, which were previously let. However, the arable land is gradually being put down to herbal leys to feed the herd of 180 Stabiliser-bred cows.

 

Calving is split, with 30 calving in autumn and the remaining 150 calving in spring. Steer calves are sold as stores at 12 months old, while heifer calves are fattened by 22 months, before heading to the Kepak abattoir at Bodmin.

 

The new handling system had been in its planning stages since May 2015, when the family approached manufacturer L.M. Bateman’s area representative Wes Hall with a host of ideas for the new setup.

 

A small capital grant was used for the main handling setup, with Leader grants used for the hydraulic crush with electronic identification (EID) and weighing systems, as well as LED lighting.

 

Wes says the system is one of the most bespoke the manufacturer has produced, with lots of features added at Mike’s request.

 

Over the course of four years, the Roberts visited many farms across the UK to gather inspiration for their project and the finer details were worked out of how best to utilise the space the shed, which was erected in 2016, would provide.


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This 25-metre by 18m (85ft by 60ft) portal frame building was erected by Mike and his son Sam. Significant groundwork was needed, particularly concerning drainage, as the shed is recessed into a rock face with plenty of water seeping out and underneath the shed base.

 

Concrete walls were poured in 2017, with the handling system delivered in January 2019.

 

The handling system itself occupies half of the shed with penning in the other half, separated by a concrete wall. Cattle enter the shed through galvanised sheeted gates, before turning right into the main holding pen.

 

A quarter circle forcing gate is behind them to ensure they move up. This pen measures 4.2m-wide and runs the width of the shed.

 

One of Mike’s design criteria was to ensure cattle always had water nearby, so a shrouded water trough was recessed into one of the panels.

 

Cattle then move on to the main forcing circle. This half circle ratcheted gate is 6m in diameter, leading to a non-return gate. There are then two race options depending on the size of cattle being handled.

 

For large animals, an 830mm race is used, while for calves it is 500mm-wide. Both races have a slight curve to them, said to aid flow, and are about four large animals in length.

All panels are clad in plastic boards, standing at 1.75m tall, with a 250mm gap at the bottom to aid cleaning.

 

Mike says the flow of stock is impressive, rarely needing to coax cattle around the system.

 

However, calves can be a bit stubborn and, although the sides of their race are 250mm lower, they are still slightly too high to push them on.

 

At the front of the handling system is a Clwydian Big 8 hydraulic crush. Mike says the crush was chosen for the standard features it has, being fully hydraulic and operable from both sides.

 

It will close down to hold the smallest of calves at 350mm and open up to 800mm, sufficient for the largest of his cows. The head scoop at the front is also hydraulic and a good feature, says Mike, especially when bolusing or drenching cattle.

 

Underneath are weigh cells, and on the side is an EID reader, enabling weights to be recorded automatically.

 

Along the side of the race is a concrete walkway, 900mm high, which connects the two halves of the shed.

 

Once out of the crush, cattle can be diverted various ways.

 

Often, they will be directed into the other half of the shed. This area is made up of four 3.6m by 4.8m pens which are used as a lairage ahead of morning travel, or if needed as calving pens.

 

Feed rails with diagonal and locking yolks and water troughs ensure cattle are sated. When calving, gates can be added either side of the cow to keep her steady.

 

As a lairage, the 3.6m gates are closed, moving cattle in the rear of the pens.

 

The 1.2m gates are then folded round and the cattle move up to another forcing circle, which leads to a single-width curved chute on an incline to the loading bay. Again, at the rear there is a non-return gate.

 

Mike says cattle are very quiet when moving up the ramp to the trailer, flowing with ease, adding that this feature allows one of the duo to load the cattle single-handedly in the morning.

There is a personnel gate either side of the race which is used to access the shed from the farmhouse.

 

Because the walkway is raised, a little bridge is lowered for easier access.

 

Across from the lairage pens are five 3.3m-wide pens used for bull housing and small groups of calves. Squeeze gaps are located throughout the handling shed, but the bull pens feature one at the feed barrier and one at the rear of the pens for safety.

 

The family has put significant investment into the setup, in line with the cost of a new tractor, which Mike says should future-proof the farm.

 

He says doing a lot of the work themselves ensures the quality is where he wants it to be, safe in the knowledge no corners have been cut and the best materials and methods have been used.

 

Sam says: “Now we have the system and know it is always ready to use, it gets used frequently, with more routine weighing, clipping and general husbandry tasks carried out as it is easier and not a chore to do.”

 

Blable Farm facts

  • 200 hectares of arable and down land
  • 180 mainly spring calving Stabiliser cows
  • Steers sold as 12-month-old stores, heifers fattened for slaughter by 22 months
  • Bespoke handling setup installed in January 2019
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