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
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: 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.
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.
A working chute will also have a tail gate, where the yak
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Most reputable, newly manufactured chutes now have Diamond-plate flooring. These floors offer traction even when wet. The irregular surface with Diamond-plate makes it more difficult for an ice-sheet to form.
Many older chutes have floors that offer very poor traction; some older chutes even have wooden floors. It is possible to resurface a slippery floor. We once covered a wooden floor on a working chute by cutting sections out of a discarded tractor tire. Welding rebar across the floor can add some footing stability.
A squeeze chute is equipped with movable sides that squeeze together, holding your yak in place. Although squeezing a yak is not very practical during combing, it’s very handy in some minor veterinary procedures. A nervous yak frequently finds being squeezed to be calming. Sometimes a superficial combing is accomplished while a yak is squeezed. The amount of squeeze is adjustable; a lightly squeezed chute can be used to deliberately slow a yak’s progress through the chute.
There are two variations in the squeeze mechanics; both are acceptable when working with yaks. One variation is hinged at the bottom. The bottom width is adjustable, although it is usually not easy to adjust. The top walls fold outward from the bottom hinges, so that an open chute has somewhat of a V shape when the squeeze is open. The other variation has completely vertical walls in either the open or closed positions.
V Squeeze (Scissors Squeeze): The V squeeze design has walls that are hinged at the bottom. When you pull a lever, the top portion of the chute walls move together, squeezing the sides of your yak. The walls squeeze much like the scissors head gate. This design operates quickly without much physical effort, and is considerably cheaper than the parallel wall design.
The apparent narrowness of the V walls can appear somewhat uninviting to a reluctant yak considering voluntarily entering the chute. The narrower base can make it more difficult to physically remove a collapsed yak, if that should ever become necessary.
Vertical Side Squeeze (Parallel Side Squeeze): In this design the walls of the chute are always vertical and parallel. When the squeeze lever is pulled, the distance between the walls is narrowed. The vertical side squeeze designs normally have wider openings and are more inviting to yaks considering entry. The greater width in this design allows for easier access to the lower sides of the yak and therefore easier combing. This design requires considerably more effort to actuate than the V squeeze.
Hybrid squeeze: A hybrid variation features one vertical side and one side hinged at the bottom that squeezes like the V squeeze. The vertical wall is sometimes hinged on the side and opens outward to provide a side exit from the chute.
Access and other Features:
Bottom Access Panels: Working chutes normally come with doors or panels that enable you to access the lower half of the side of your yak. This is how you will access the
feet or belly of your yaks. If you are placing a newborn under a first time mother who needs encouragement, you will either use the bottom access panels or a side door. For bottom access for yaks, there are several panel designs which are perfectly functional. I’ve shown three well- designed hinged systems in the pictures. An inconvenient but acceptable variation has sideboards that are completely removable.
On older chutes you may find bottom access panels that are hinged on top, and are lifted upward for side access. This design has some obvious disadvantages: it can get in the way of the operator or if it falls unexpectedly, it could hit the operator or the ankle of a yak.
Side access wing panels or bars: To access the upper sides of your yak, chutes come with wing panels or bars. Panels can be hinged on the bottom and fold down, or they can be hinged
on the side and open like a door. Wing panels that open like a door are usually completely removable. Fold-down bars are sometimes folded down individually or as a unit of two or three bars. All of these systems work well for yaks.
Poorly designed panels or bars that fold downward are sometimes susceptible to rust and lock in place if not maintained. Check for this if you are considering a used chute.
Nervous yaks sometimes balk at entry if the operator is in plain view. Some chutes have blinders available that keep
the chute operator out of view. Some wing gates are completely solid, making the chute operator invisible to entering yaks. If you train your calves to go through the chute, they will rarely balk as adults.
Access to the side of a yak is important for veterinary care and for combing. Whatever design you select, it should operate easily and not get in your way. Most yak owners find blinders or solid wing gates to be unnecessary.
Common Drop Sides
Side Exit: Your chute may have zero, one, or two side exit(s). You can sort your yaks from your working chute if the chute has more than one exit. A downed yak can be easily extricated from your chute if it opens on the side. Side gates are very handy when combing or introducing a reluctant mother to its newborn.
Neck Panels: A neck panel is a narrow chute-height hinged door located directly behind the head catch. Neck panels are available in many larger chutes with parallel side squeeze. The neck panel gives easy access when trimming front toes or when combing the chest and underside of the neck. Cattle owners frequently use neck panels for easy cattle branding.
Palpation cage: Most new chutes will come with an option of purchasing an attached palpation cage. This add-on allows easy door access to the back end of your yak. Cattle
Scale and Palpation Cage
ranchers use a palpation cage for artificial insemination and for pregnancy screening. A longish and narrow palpation cage can also be a convenient way to hold the next yak in its place in line. If a palpation cage is too wide, a yak can completely turn around in the palpation cage and end up facing the wrong way.
Yaks are much shorter in the body than cattle. The short body length means that pregnancy testing can be easily done in a larger chute without a palpation cage.
If you have an older or shorter chute you can easily build your own gated rear access extension.
Hydraulics: Chutes can be either manually operated or operated by hydraulics. With a hydraulic chute all of the squeezing and head-gating is done for you; you just push a button. The hydraulics of these chutes operate the chute very quickly; consequently, the squeezing is very powerful. If your timing is off by only half a second, it is easy to break a yak’s horn by catching its head in the head gate. If you decide to buy a hydraulically operated chute, I suggest that you definitely also have a crash gate.
The Longhorn Chute: Some yak ranchers choose to use a chute designed for Longhorn cattle instead of any of the classic squeeze chute designs. In traditional designs you will have a forcing gate in a sweep tub that moves your yaks into a narrow alley leading to the squeeze chute. With the longhorn chute, the forcing gate will force the yak against another gate that is hinged near to, but separately from, the forcing gate. Normally the yak is released by opening the gate on the other side.
There are several similar designs for these chutes. You can just look for “longhorn chute” using your favorite search engine. One favorite brand is Bry. Many manufacturers have posted videos that show these chutes in operation. I have never used one.
Our Chute: If you’ve gotten this far, you probably want to know what chute we’ve settled on.
Our first two chutes were V-squeeze designs with scissors head catch. For the second chute, I built a poor man’s version of a crash gate and built an extension on the rear of the chute to hold the next yak in line. When our herd size was only about 20 yaks, this arrangement was completely workable.
We currently have a herd of more than 100 yaks, and except during combing, I am the only person working the yaks. Some of the inconveniences of my previous chutes eventually led me to a used Pearson Buffalo Chute. It will be my final chute.
The orange metal contraption at the back of the Pearson chute is a holding chute for the next yak in line. The holding chute has front and rear overhead rolling-design gates. The front gate on the holding chute is used as the tail gate on the Pearson chute. The up-and-down tail gate on the Pearson chute is kept permanently locked in the up position. The Pearson chute has parallel wall squeeze, full stanchion head gate, one side exit, and a crash gate. One side of the chute has solid wing gates. The other side has traditional see-through wing gates. The bottom panels are removable boards (it’s the only thing I would change).
The picture shows that I’ve built a gated wooden cage on one side of the chute. This is to keep other yaks from visiting during combing. The other side of the chute has a gate between a barn and the chute that serves the same purpose.