Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — That Darn Old Squeeze Chute

The other day I walked past our old squeeze chute, the antique one (made by a local blacksmith in 1918) that we dragged off into the bushes about 35 years ago to celebrate its retirement from use. Now it’s overgrown with vines. I paused for a moment to remember the last time we used it.

This is what our old chute looked like a few years after we dragged it
away from the end of the runway and replaced it with a new one.

That particular day we were tagging, vaccinating, and delousing our weaned replacement heifers. It was a lovely fall day, but it wasn’t a good day. It was one of those days when everything seems to go wrong. All the setbacks were particularly frustrating that afternoon because we were supposed to be at an important meeting that evening, and time was running short.

We were catching every heifer by the head to install the brisket tags and using the old squeeze chute, an ancient relic that my husband Lynn swore he would replace, every time we had to use it. The squeeze part hadn’t worked ever since we tried to use it to immobilize and brand a snorty Angus bull 8 years earlier. He broke that part of the apparatus, but it would still catch an animal’s head if two people were determined enough. There was a metal bar to pull down over the critter’s neck and a counterweight to keep the bar up out of the way when you weren’t using it. Vertical metal pipes on the sides could be let down one at a time to allow access to almost any part of the critter’s anatomy — except on the right side. That side got broken by a rambunctious cow, so all but two of the metal pipes were immobilized by a stout board that kept them in place.

I'm posing here with the old chute after a flowering vine grew over it;
I'm holding the iron bar that was part of the head-catch apparatus.

It was always a chore to work cattle with this chute, and you had to be cautious to keep from being killed by loose bars, pipes, boards, and so on. But we never had quite as many continuous catastrophes in one single cattle working as we had on that day we tagged the heifers.

We were haltering and tying their heads as they came through, rather than catching them by the bar over the neck, since we had to be able to access the dewlap skin. On about the fourth heifer, who was named Oatmeal (daughter of Cearielle, who was a daughter of Cearie), Lynn nearly broke his arm off at the wrist. He’d finished with Oatmeal and taken the halter off, but she didn’t wait for him to take out the front bar and open the little wooden door at the bottom. She rushed out the front, squeezing through the very narrow opening, catching Lynn’s arm and bending it round the bar.

That nearly ended our heifer tagging for the day. His arm swelled up and throbbed painfully, but it still worked. After a few moments (of not-so-silent) prayer on his part, we carried on. When the next heifer rushed out of the chute, Lynn cut the end off his thumb trying to shut the clumsy wooden door. I ran to the house for bandages, and after a little first aid we continued on again.

The back side of the old wooden chute

Things didn’t improve. A heifer named Prissy bellowed loudly as we punched the hole in her dewlap skin for the tag, and she leaped clear out of the chute — over the top of the front bars — doing a flip-flop through the air. So we finished the job in front of the chute, where she was still tied by the head.

Then we ran a couple of calves through that didn’t need to be tagged (because we were not going to keep them for cows). They just needed to be vaccinated and deloused, so we didn’t have to put the halter on them, just catch them by the neck with the metal bar. We were congratulating ourselves on time saved, when the metal counterweight fell down on our tag punch as we let the second calf out of the chute. The heavy weight broke both handles off the tool. Lynn had to take time out to weld it back together.

After we started again on the heifers, a wild one named Jerusha leaped out of the chute with the halter on, before we’d even begun to work on her, so we pulled her over to the fence with the halter rope and tied her up. We had to vaccinate, tag, and delouse her while she was tied to the fence, bouncing and bucking.

The new metal squeeze chute was much safer for cattle and humans!

We’d done about 30 of the 40 calves when a lively heifer named Brockadile (daughter of Brockalilly, who was a daughter of Brockalie) came charging through the chute for her turn. She was nervous and snorty, and I was trying to keep her contained when one of the metal pipes came loose and hit me smack on the nose, glancing off my nose and hitting my shoulder. I rushed to the nearby creek to douse my face in cold water and slow the blood that was gushing from my nose; then I went to the house to find something to stuff into my nostrils to halt the bleeding. My nose was very tender, oversize, and black and blue for several weeks afterward. Before we continued, I tied up all those darn pipes with baling twine so they couldn’t fall down.

At last we got Brockadile done and went on to the next heifer. It was only then that I realized my shoulder was becoming sore and stiff. Doggedly, we carried on, like robots (or dazed battle victims). A heifer named Belinda jumped over the front of the chute, but she was smaller and not too hard to handle when we tied her to the fence to tag and vaccinate her.

Lynn was very adept at getting the halter on them before they escaped. We at least had them somewhat captured even when they managed to jump out of the chute. He was able to hang onto the halter rope until he could get a dally around a fence post.

On the next-to-last heifer, I was on the other side of the chute helping Lynn capture her elusive head for the halter, when the main wooden beam at the top of the chute worked loose on one end, fell down, and hit me on the top of the head. I didn’t even see it coming.

That was the last straw. I almost bawled. It nearly knocked me out, but it wasn’t so much the hurt as just the whole idea of it. That nasty chute had wickedly waited until just the right moment to get me — the only time I happened to be on that side of the chute!

Installing brisket tags in our weaned replacement heifers is easier now,
in the squeeze chute we bought in 1975 to replace the old “killer chute.”

We did get all the heifers done. And we were only five minutes late to our meeting that evening, but we probably looked like war casualties. On the way home Lynn stopped at our vet’s place to order a new chute. It was definitely time to retire the old one, if that’s the way it felt about us!

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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