How to handle your beef cattle

Part 11: Building water troughs, fencing, gates, pens and roads

beef cattle

The devil is in the detail and keeping this in mind is especially important when designing your feedlot. You can save yourself a lot of trouble, time and money if you spend a good part of your project on planning the nitty-gritty parts of your feedlot.

We thank the ARC Institute for Agricultural Engineering in South Africa who made their manual on handling facilities available to the readers of ProAgri Zambia.

Water troughs

Water troughs are placed approximately two-thirds of the camp length from the feeding troughs and on the border between two pens, so that both pens can be served by one trough.

Water troughs must be cleaned regularly. For this purpose, a 50 mm tap can be provided at the lowest end for drainage as shown in Figure 1. The water for washing the trough causes muddy conditions in the pens. Provide the pen with a concrete trench to drain the water from the pen, or use PVC pipe or quick couple pipe when troughs are being drained.

Provide a concrete slab (75 to 100mm thick) around the trough, extending two metres on the long sides and 0,5m on the short sides. The purpose of the concrete slab is to prevent trampling around the troughs.

The ball valve must be well protected against possible damage by the cattle. Figure 2 shows a typical plan of a water trough.

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Figure 1: Water trough with drainage.
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Figure 2: Typical water trough


Feedlot fences differ from the usual camp fences. In feedlots there is a higher concentration of cattle and the fences must therefore be sturdier.

Fences in these pens are 1,5 m high and consist of five cross wires. Barbed wire injures the cattle and ordinary wire is not strong enough. Steel cables instead of cross wires are recommended.

Another possibility is to make a cable from galvanised wire and steel wire. One 4 mm galvanised wire is used with two 2,24 mm high tensile steel wires. The length of the wire is slightly longer than the distance it has to span. The loose ends of the wire are tied to the power take-off shaft of a tractor by pulling the ends through the hole on the power take-off shaft. The other ends are tied in position to a corner post. The wires are tightened slightly. Ensure that the tractor’s brakes are disengaged and that the gears are in neutral. At idling speed, get the power take-off shaft in operation for 2 to 3 seconds, to wind up the cable slightly. This cable can now be spanned tight and used as fencing cable

Wood or steel can be used for the standard poles and droppers. Standard poles must be placed three metres apart in the earth and one dropper can be placed between them. If wood is used for standard poles, the diameter must be 100/125 mm, while 32/50 mm droppers can be used. If steel is used for standard poles, pipes with a 100 mm diameter, 100 mm IPI-I-beams, or railway sleepers can be used, depending on the cost. If sturdier poles are used, such as metal train rails, the tandards can be placed 4,6 m apart, with two droppers between them. All poles must be planted firmly into concrete. Figure 3 shows the construction of a typical fence.

The top cross wire in the fence can also be replaced with a pipe to ensure sturdiness of the fence, as shown in Figure 4.

If round pipe standards are used, the bottom part must protrude from under the concrete into the soil to ensure drainage and prevent rust. Poles must be sealed at the top to prevent rainwater from collecting inside the pole and causing erosion.

The concrete anchor blocks should be built slightly higher than the soil surface and tapered away from the pole. This is to protect the poles from erosion because of the high urine concentration and water collection around the pole.

At gates and at the end of the fence, the standards must always be anchored.

Fences must be maintained regularly to ensure long life. If wooden poles are used, they must at least be treated with bitumen or a similar substance to make them more durable.  Steel poles must be treated with an anti-corrosive substance, if it has not been done by the manufacturers. Treat the poles before planting, it will be easier and will ensure that it is done thoroughly.

Figure 3: Fencing construction for pens.
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Figure 4: Alternative fencing construction for feedlots.


If the cattle walkway is used as an access to the pens at the lower side of the pens, the walkway must be wide enough to allow cleaning machinery to turn easily into the pens. Alternatively the gates must be adapted, as in Figure 5, or larger gates must be used. It is, however, advisable to rather use the gates at the feeding trough.

Standard 3,5 m wide gates are not strong enough to inhibit cattle effectively and must be strengthened, or heavy duty gates must be used. The locking mechanism of the gate must be such that it can be easily opened and closed, but not by the cattle.

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Figure 5: Fence adaptation for entrance to pens

Preparation of pens

Before building work can begin, the site must be cleaned and graded according to slope. It is worth doing a complete survey and grading the inclines correctly from the onset. Roof runoff water or any other water from the site around and above the pens must be drained separately from the pen run-off. Make special drainage canals so that the water does not run through the pens. Prevent the water from running from one pen to another. Figure 6 shows a practical solution for drainage of pens.

Pen surfaces must be finished neatly, so that rain water cannot dam up. The pen surface must preferably be compacted by means of a roller. In high rainfall areas hills are often constructed in pens. The hills provide a drier place to lie down. The hills must however be constructed in the centre and not at the sides of the pens. This will slow down wear and tear on fences because the poles will not be standing in the mud. Pen maintenance must be done regularly during production. By constructing a sufficient number of pens, pens will be able to rest for a week or two.

Next month we shall look at the office complex, flow of cattle, feeding facilities and the water supply.

Published with acknowledgement to the ARC Institute for Agricultural Engineering for the use of their Beef Cattle Handling Manual. Visit for more information.

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