by: Heather Smith Thomas

Chutes and calf tables have made livestock handling easier—on the animals, and for the people doing the job, whether branding, castrating, dehorning, implanting calves, etc. Tilt-tables for working calves have been in use a long time, and today some producers are using hydraulic calf tables and finding advantages, similar to the advantages of a hydraulic squeeze chute for adult cattle.

Heidi Carroll, Livestock Stewardship Extension Associate, South Dakota State University, says one of the main things to keep in mind whenever you are using hydraulic equipment is to make sure you know how to set it, to get the right amount of pressure. “This is especially important regarding calf size; make sure it is adjusted to the right width and height of the calves and that the pressure is appropriate,” she says.

“Check your settings based on manual recommendations. Similar to a hydraulic squeeze chute, you have a range of control in which you can make small adjustments to the pressure. It's often a matter of just being conscious that you don't always have to hold the hydraulic lever down as long to catch some of the bigger calves effectively; you just need to get it closed. If the calf is still fighting a bit, tap the lever a little more to find the right pressure that enables the calf to relax. Usually the animal's behavior will be a clue. If there are a lot of calves vocalizing, this is usually an indication of pain and distress. You need to check your pressure setting, or look for a sharp edge,” says Carroll.

There are several different styles of hydraulic calf tables, varying with the manufacturer. When comparing styles, and figuring out what might work best for your own operation, look at the sidebars. “Evaluate the amount of access and how quickly you can access the animal to do the tasks you need to do. If you only need to brand an animal it will be different than if you also have to castrate. Make sure the sidebars give access to the portion of the animal needed for the tasks you'll have to do. Make sure the headcatch is appropriate, as well,” she says.

Some of the tables have an extra piece or shelf to support the calf's head when the chute is tilted, and some do not. “If you are going to use the equipment as a tilt-table rather than just a chute, having that extra piece for the head to rest on can give more security and support to that animal,” Carroll explains.

“Many calf tables are transportable and have their own hydraulic pack to run them. Some can operate off a tractor or bale bed in addition to a remote hydraulic unit. Others may be more suitably installed in a permanent place in a handling system. This will be producer-dependent,” says Carroll.

“Are you needing to work hundreds of calves or just a small herd? This is a consideration when looking at the cost of a hydraulic calf table. The table you select will also depend on the weight of the calves you'll be needing to work. Fit the table to the weight of the calves.” Some tables are designed for calves up to 300 pounds while others can handle calves up to 800 pounds, for instance.

“From a handler safety perspective, it also depends on how many people you'll have on your crew, working calves. It's important to make sure everyone understands where the moving parts are, that they need to stay away from,” says Carroll. It's always a good idea to have a “walk-through” demonstration before you start doing the calves, so people will know how the equipment works, how to use it, and where to be.

One reason people might select a hydraulic unit rather than a manual calf table is that it's easier on your back; the equipment does the “labor” rather than a person having to tip the calf, etc.

“If you are working small calves, maybe it's not such a big deal, and even larger ones may not be too difficult if you are strong and physically fit. But if you are getting up in years or have had some injuries, or have to work a lot of cattle, a hydraulic calf table may be a good investment.” If might be a big help—especially if you don't have younger, stronger crew members when working the cattle.

“A hydraulic table may improve the efficiency in processing calves, no matter who is on the team. I am a small-framed person who will do all I can to help with a task, but if I have to throw my 125 pounds into the job to accomplish this it may put me at risk of injury. Give consideration to the people on the processing crew and their physical limitations. A hydraulic table doesn't put as many limitations on who may be capable of operating it. There are many females in the cattle industry today,” she says.

“A good hydraulic table might make sense as a long-term investment, especially if the next generation is going to take over the ranch. Make sure it fits your operation, to justify the cost of the hydraulic unit versus a manual calf table, and how much you are going to use it,” says Carroll.

Renting one might also be a possibility, depending on where you are located. If you only have to work a few cattle, and maybe only once a year, this might be something to consider—so you are not looking at the up-front cost of purchasing a hydraulic table. A person could also rent one to try out, to see if you might like it enough to purchase one. Some dealers, and some veterinary clinics, occasionally rent this equipment. Another option would be for several ranchers to go in together on one.

“If you will be transporting it to various locations, rather than using it as a permanent part of your facility, look at how easy (or not) it is to transport and get set up. In general, a calf table of some kind is always useful when working calves. If you only have a full-size chute, a calf table will make things easier—more customized for the fit of smaller animals. It will definitely help prevent unintentional injuries to calves that can't be squeezed appropriately in a full-size chute, and minimize the amount of man-handling necessary,” says Carroll. Having the option to tip them on their sides is also a benefit for certain procedures.

“Having something that fits the calves also protects the handler as well, and gives you more time to take care of the calf, especially if you have a sick one or one with an injury that needs more attention than just running it through for branding or castrating. A good calf table restrains the animal much better, and safely, so you can adequately attend to it.” The calf will likely be more comfortable for the period of time you need to be working on it, and this is true whether it's a hydraulic chute or a manual one.

Maintenance will probably be similar to that of any full-size working chute. “Clean out all the pivot points and remove any manure. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations on the hydraulic maintenance, checking fluids, etc. A simple thing to do is protect your hoses from damage or pinching; you don't want those hydraulic hoses to leak or break.”

Your main goal is to find the right size table to fit the calves you are going to be working, figuring out which table might restrain the head best for whatever husbandry practices you need to perform. If it's hydraulic, make sure the people using it understand how to set all the hydraulics appropriately to minimize extra stress on the animal,” she says. This will help ensure the safety of the animals and people working, and make the most of this investment.

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