Selecting a Working Chute

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Tim Hardy, Hay Springs Yaks

Sooner or later you’ll want a working chute for your yaks. You will probably want to vaccinate; you may want to comb your yaks for fiber at a time when your yaks prefer another activity. You may need to put a newborn calf under its confused first-time mother, or perhaps a vet won’t treat a sick yak unless she feels that the yak is adequately restrained.

If you visit your local retailer you’ll find the chute models that are favored by the local cattle breeders. It might be the case that a locally available chute is well suited for yaks, but if you don’t know what to look for, you could end up making a bad decision. I’m now using my third chute. Each choice that I’ve made has been an improvement over the previous one. I’m writing this to share my experience and help make you an informed consumer.

All squeeze chutes have a lot in common. They all feature a mechanism to lock the head in place; they all have a rear door to keep your yak from backing out of the chute; they all have at least one way out of the chute that differs from the way in; they all have a means of accessing the sides of the yak’s body once it is in the chute. There is a lot of variability in each of those features. Some features work well with yaks, and some do not.  Your local chute distributor probably won’t know anything about yaks.

The Functionality Basics

Entering the chute: If the rear opening is wide, yaks are more willing to enter the chute. If the chute is too narrow, yaks may touch their horns on both sides and balk. If the rear gate opens and closes vertically, a falling gate can be a health hazard to calves. (You can read more about tail gates later.)

Leaving the chute: Yaks will exit your chute either through the head gate or a side gate if available. Yaks’ horns are wider than their shoulders, so catching a speedy yak around the neck after its horns have passed through the head gate is an art. (You can read about head gates next.) You will need your head gate to operate smoothly and quickly, or better yet, install a crash gate or build a substitute (There is a section on crash gates.) If your chute has both a front and a side exit, it will be easier to use your chute system for sorting yaks.

Combing: After a yak has entered the chute it is normally locked in the head gate for combing. All working chutes have sides that open to allow you to reach in and access the sides of your yak. If the side access panels extend to the lower portion of your yak’s side, it will provide for easier combing. Also, if the chute is wide you will be able to comb lower on the yak’s body, and even on the belly. A wide chute with a side door is a luxury that will allow you to enter the chute with a head-gated yak during combing.

Toenail trimming: Yak toenails sometimes need to be trimmed. You may choose to use a tilt table if you have one, but very few yak owners have one. Most often toenail trimming is done in the working chute while the yak is head-gated. For front toenails, a loop of rope goes around the ankle, and the ankle is pulled straight up near the yak’s neck. For rear toenails, the rear ankle is pulled straight back and upward so that the leg is extended and there is no kicking hazard. For toenail trimming you would like to have easy access to all four of the yak’s ankles and easy tie-off points on the top of the chute. You would prefer that the chute be long enough that the rear leg can be fully extended without opening the tail gate.

Veterinary care: Most ranchers vaccinate their yaks, and this is normally done in the chute without head-gating. Your yaks also need professional veterinary care. Yaks traveling out of state will need to have blood drawn. Yaks are normally ear-tagged for identification and tagged for proof of Bang’s vaccination. These tasks normally require a head gate.

A yak that is normally very docile may behave aggressively when it is feeling poorly. It is good practice to attend to sick yaks while they are in the chute. It is possible that a yak could collapse from illness or even die while in your chute. If that should ever happen, you will wish that your head gate was a full stanchion head gate or that your chute had a side exit.

Beyond the Basics

Self Catch Head Gate

The Head Catch:

Let’s begin with a discussion of the head gate (also called head catch). Head gates come in four basic designs: Self-Catch, Guillotine, Scissors Stanchion, and Full Stanchion. I’ll discuss each of them.

Self Catch Head Gate

Self-Catch Head Gate: The self-catch head catch, if properly adjusted, is a tremendous labor saving device for HORNLESS bovines.  The gates work on the principle that the animal’s shoulders are wider than the animal’s head. The animal puts its head through the head gate and tries to exit forward. As the animal presses through, its shoulders then force the gate closed around the animal’s neck. A yak’s horns are wider than its shoulders, so these gates can’t work with yaks.

Guillotine Head Catch

Guillotine Head Catch: The guillotine head gate gets its name from the French guillotine. Whereas, the self-catch head gates closes onto the sides of neck, the guillotine head gate closes down on the neck from above.

In some designs after the yak is released from the head catch, it will exit the chute from the side. In other designs, the yak is released from the head catch and is forced to back up, whereupon the hinged front is opened.

The guillotine design has one very distinct advantage over the side-closing designs. A side-closing design requires the operator to allow the yak’s head to pass through and then quickly catch the neck before the shoulders have passed. When a yak enters a chute with a guillotine-designed head catch, it won’t get out without having its head caught.

There are several disadvantages to the guillotine head catch system.

  • The neck opening is normally set at a particular height in these systems and allows for no (or very limited) adjustment. You will need to use the same neck opening height for 1800 pound bulls and 100 pound calves. Your smallest and largest animals will be very uncomfortable in this head catch.Examine the picture and imagine what will happen if one of your animals collapses while constrained in the guillotine head catch. In most guillotine designs the lower portion of the head catch system is locked permanently in place. If a yak collapses, its horns will pull back into the top of the guillotine, and the operator will have insufficient strength to lift the top portion of the catch against the weight of the yak. Bovines do occasionally go down in chutes. The usual causes are boredom, fear, exhaustion, and illness. If one of your yaks collapses while in head restraint, you probably don’t want the result to be a disaster.

Half Scissors Variation

Scissors Stanchion: The scissors stanchion head gate is named because it closes around the neck like a pair of scissors. In a scissors stanchion, the head gate is hinged in place (sometimes the place is somewhat adjustable) at the bottom of the head gate. The top of the head gate swings wide.

The first mage shows a working chute with forward and side exits. The pictured head catch is a scissors stanchion. In the open position the head catch opening is far wider on the top than on the bottom. The second picture shows a variation called a half-scissors stanchion. The half-scissors variation is frequently used on portable grooming chutes, infrequently on working chutes.

Both of these styles of scissors stanchions can work well with yaks. The scissors-action head gates normally close with less effort than the full stanchion design. Because the scissors stanchion closes more quickly, it works faster if you have yaks that jump out of the chute, instead of calmly walking out

Both of the scissors-style head gates pictured above are well designed. Some scissors stanchions narrow down to only an inch or two of width at the bottom, forming a narrow V shape. A yak that collapses into a narrow V risks suffocation as in the guillotine design.

Full Stanchion Head Gate

Full Stanchion: In the full stanchion head gate the bottom of the head catch and the top of the head catch both slide outward. In the open position the bottom of the head gate is equally as wide as the top.

The action on these head catches is a less robust than on the scissors style, but this style offers some advantages.

  • Some yaks reach the back end of the chute and are reluctant to enter. Yaks do not like to enter into areas of confinement, so they may balk. If your working chute opens wide, and your head catch is full stanchion, yaks generally regard entering the chute as their path to freedom. A full stanchion offers greater incentive for a yak to enter the chute.

  • If an ill yak collapses while in your chute, a full stanchion head catch will not result in suffocation. If a yak dies or collapses from illness while under veterinary treatment, a yak can be pulled forward through a wide, full-stanchion head gate system.

Tail Gates:

Drop-Down Tail Gate

A working chute will also have a tail gate, where the yak

Hinged Door Tail Gate

enters. There are a variety of tail gate designs. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Each design can work well for yaks. Individual manufacturer variations can end up being awkward or undesirable.

Hinged Door Tail Gate Drop-Down Tail Gate

Up-Down Tail gates: Tail gates that open upward and close downward are normally operated by a rope or cable. The rope or cable rolls over a pulley system. The gate can be made of steel or aluminum; the gates normally lock in both the up and down positions.

These systems are relatively cheap and operate quickly and easily, which makes them attractive to many buyers. You pull on a rope which disengages a latch, and the gate falls down. However, the gates normally fall under the force of gravity. If operated inattentively these gates have the potential of falling upon and killing or injuring a small calf.  If the gate is left in the down position, it can freeze in place after a winter storm.

There are no protruding parts to this sort of system, so you won’t knock your head on overhead rollers or turn quickly and bump into an open tail gate.

Horizontal Rolling Tail Gate

Horizontal Rolling Design: Another tail gate design has the tailgate on rollers and suspended on a horizontal beam. The tail gate slides outward to the side of the chute. This system, when properly lubricated, allows a bit more finesse in opening and closing, and there is little or no risk of injury to the yaks.

The horizontal beam extends outward from the chute. On a large well-designed chute the beam is above head level, so you won’t constantly be knocking your head on it. The pictured Pearson chute has the horizontal beam above head level. Many other chutes with horizontal rolling design offer a significant head hazard to the user.

The sliding gate needs to be tall enough to keep a yak from jumping over the gate and into the chute. The gate also needs to extend nearly to ground level to keep calves from slipping under the gate, or tempting a larger yak from getting its horns under the gate and lifting.

Horizontal Sliding Tail Gate

Horizontal Sliding Design: The horizontal sliding design lacks the overhead beam, so there is no head hazard to the user. These gates are normally a bit smaller than the horizontal gates that are mounted on overhead rollers. If you choose a smaller horizontal operating gate, make sure that the gate is impermeable to determined calves and adults.

One variation on this design has the gate mounted on a single hinge. The gate swings on the hinge outward or inward to close and open.

Double Door Hinged Design: The double door hinged design is available on some of the more expensive chutes. The gates are operated by a lever that can be a bit of a head hazard when the gate is in the open position. These gates are easily operated and impermeable.

Crash Gate:

Built-In Crash Gate

The built-in crash gate is an expensive option that is only available on expensive chutes.

The picture shows a crash gate mounted on the front of a Pearson chute. A crash gate enables the operator to leave the head gate entirely open while the yak enters the chute. After the tail gate is closed the yak is moved forward until its neck extends past the head gate. The head gate is then closed. With a crash gate you won’t need to be concerned with catching a yak after its horns have exited and before its shoulders have exited.

These gates were originally designed for bison. Bison generally rush into the chute, and they frequently will even bounce off of the crash gate and are caught in the head gate as they rebound.

A poor man’s version with similar functionality is easily built for yaks. Set two wooden posts about two feet ahead of the head gate that are about three or four feet apart. Put a gate on one of the wooden posts. The presence of the gate discourages a yak from leaving the chute quickly, and the neck is caught when the yak extends its head to investigate. If your homemade crash gate is too far from the head gate, calves will still manage to get out.

The Floor:

Yaks do not like to walk on a slick surface, so the nature of the floor of your chute is important and frequently overlooked.

In the winter you will need to keep your floor free of an ice sheet. Snow pack does not bother yaks. In the summer, some floors are slippery when wet.