With plenty of research, new equipment and recycling of existing components, one Yorkshire farmer has built a versatile and efficient handling setup for his heifer rearing and store cattle business. Alex Heath finds out more.
Following a fire that devastated the milking parlour in 2019, Rob Smirthwaite turned away from milking cows to rearing dairy heifers and store cattle on his 162 hectare farm in Well, Yorkshire.
With limited handling facilities to manage his 800 head of cattle, a significant proportion of which are dairy replacements, he set about researching and installing a bespoke system, designed to make husbandry tasks simpler.
While the base of the new facility is Canadian-built Arrowquip equipment, plenty of fabrication has been done around the system, improving cattle flow and handling safety.
The handling system sits on the site of the old parlour, with a new portal frame building housing it, providing shelter from the worst of weather and lighting for jobs that run into the night.
Mr Smirthwaite explains; “We wanted to have a system that was easy to use and could handle everything from weanlings to stock bulls with relative ease. Having it enclosed means we can keep working even when the natural light goes, such as when we are TB testing the herd.”
With cattle housed around the handling system, they enter the handling system through the old holding yard, before turning 90 degrees into a circular forcing pen. A neighbour of Mr Smirthwaite has fabricated several gates to fit into the shed, directing cattle flow and making it safe for those working. The first gate has an integral personnel gate that provides easy entry to the holding pen and, crucially, quick egress if an animal turns.
“While the dairy heifers are generally easy to work with, the occasional suckler bred beast can be temperamental, so having a quick escape is important. Once they are in the forcing pen, they can only travel in one direction, towards the crush,” says Mr Smirthwaite.
Close attention has been paid to the positioning of the system, deliberately orientated so cattle travel towards the light. “Initially we were going to have the cattle enter through the existing doorway, however, after some research we thought the flow would be better heading towards the light.”
The system was supplied by Richmond-based dealer Wise Agriculture, which sent various configuration designs to Mr Smirthwaite. The key to the design was making it versatile, by incorporating two crushes into the system; Mr Smirthwaite’s existing Bateman crush, used for foot trimming, and a new Arrowquip Q-Power 106 Series hydraulic squeeze crush, complete with weigh bars.
To facilitate both crushes, a splitting gate was positioned immediately after the forcing circle. Cattle heading to the squeeze crush have a straight run through two, 2.4 metre race sections, while those heading to the foot trimming crush branch off at 45 degrees, before the race straightens and runs parallel to the other.
“It was important for us to have both crushes, as the squeeze does not lend itself to foot work. We get the odd case of digital dermatitis which requires quick treatment to clear it up, so having a crush that can easily lift a foot is needed,” he says.
Mr Smirthwaite says the squeeze crush is well designed and easy to use. “I really like the design of the crush. It has pieces of rubber throughout; on the hinges, bars and floor which stops any rattles and is near silent in operation. The configuration of gates is excellent, allowing access to all areas of the animal, ideal for the range of tasks we carry out, and having the hydraulic squeeze function means we can nip the sides in if an animal starts wriggling. The only thing I will be adding to it is a sternum bar to stop some of the steers dropping to their knees when nearing the head yoke,” he says.
The hydraulic motor used to run the rear gate, head yoke and squeeze function is housed in the old dairy room, with oil piped to the crush.
The width of the Arrowquip races can be altered by way of pins and five holes on either side of the top of the race, taking the width from 750mm to 458mm, allowing all cattle on the premise to use the system, without the room to turn around.
Mr Smirthwaite says the farm made the conscious decision not to concrete any of the elements into the ground, in case they wanted to reconfigure it at any point. In addition, he says the £30,000 investment would be hard to remove in the future, if they wanted to replace any of the elements. Likewise, he did not want to drill into any of the steel work and allow muck to contact unprotected steel work. Instead, he fabricated a series of bracket that wrap around the bottom rails and are bolted into the floor, holding the system in place.
Underneath the crush, Tru-Test weigh bars have been installed. “We buy and sell a lot of the cattle privately, so knowing the weight give us and the buyer a fairer price for the cattle. It is also good to see the performance of the dairy heifers and allows us to make decisions about the quality of the stock we are buying and where the best performing stock comes from,” adds Mr Smirthwaite.
Dairy heifers are served to Aberdeen Angus bulls at 14 months. The aim is to have them sold and calving in their new herds before two years old. The Angus is used for calving ease and high calf value, says Mr Smirthwaite.
With more cattle to load than previously experienced, Mr Smirthwaite says the loading area had to be addressed. “We used to load out of the holding yard, but it was always awkward to get an artic lorry backed in properly. Coupled to that, the cattle never really wanted to go up the ramp and having a large group could prove troublesome.
“While researching the handling system, I noticed in the US, New Zealand and Australia the lorries generally had a single door for loading and a single file chute. Cattle flow looked good so we thought of ways we could incorporate that into our setup.”
Using existing rails from the milking days, a single file walkway was made. Lorries back up the chute and cattle walk up the ramp with little encouragement, reports Mr Smirthwaite. “Because the cattle follow each other through the loading chute, they seem calmer and once the first animal is up the ramp, the rest follow, which has made loading much quicker and easier.”
Washing down also came under scrutiny. With the bulk tank now surplus to requirements, Mr Smirthwaite fitted a volume pump to the top, allowing him to give the handling system a quick wash each time it is used, keeping it looking fresh. In addition, LED lighting was installed in the roof of the shed, providing plenty of light when natural light disappears, he says.
Through a combination of purchased equipment and recycling of existing infrastructure, Mr Smirthwaite says he has developed an easy to use handling system that take the stress out of doing husbandry tasks. A bit of thought on how to fit all the elements together has resulted in an effective and efficient way of handling and loading cattle. “If jobs are easy to do, as they now are through our system, they get done on time, without any stress to the cattle, my helpers and myself,” concludes Mr Smirthwaite.