An on-farm feedlot setup: The basics

An example of a feedlot for cattle as seen from the side.

A well-designed feedlot handling facility where animals can be safely kept and controlled, usually makes use of several different structures as well as equipment. Stockfarm spoke to experts at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and Molatek/Epol to provide us with a brief overview of some of these structures and equipment that producers can incorporate in their own on-farm setups. A similar article is available in Afrikaans here.

Loading ramp

A loading ramp simplifies the loading and unloading of animals. It can be part of the feedlot facility, or a mobile unit if there is more than one loading or offloading point.

Among other things, loading ramps must be placed in such a way that sufficient access is provided for a vehicle, for both rear and side loading. The ramp must have a non-slip floor and smooth sides without protrusions to prevent possible injuries. There should not be any gaps between the loading ramp and the vehicle.

Loading ramps are an essential element of a farm feedlot and can be either fixed or mobile. The fixed unit in this illustration was designed by the Agricultural Research Council.

A loading platform built at a steep angle causes injuries. The gradient therefore must not exceed 16°. This is equal to a one-meter increase over 3,5m horizontal distance.

Holding pens

The area in front of the loading ramp is used to keep groups of animals together for loading or, in the case of newly arrived animals, to keep them together before further handling takes place.

An offloading area is needed for newly arrived animals. A corner with a 30-degree angle will assist in providing a good flow for handling lambs onto the loading ramp.

Adapting pens

Adapting pens can be placed close to the handling pens. Animals in adapting pens have free access to hay, concentrates and/or silage. Animals can be kept separately or mixed in the pen for the adaptation period. Animals that have previously been fed silage or other balanced rations, respond faster to the new ration and can be transferred to the finishing pens much sooner. After finishing, animals are ready to move out of the feedlot.

Processing facility

At the complex, new animals are received, processed and handled and those that are market-ready are shipped from here. The design of this handling facility should simplify the execution of important tasks in the unit. The work area should preferably have a roof and rough concrete floor. Earthen floors must allow for drainage and must be compacted thoroughly.

The handling area components must be arranged in such a way, and combined with openings and gates, so that access to animals is possible. In feedlots, it is convenient to control all the equipment hydraulically, which simplifies the process and saves time.

Gathering pens and crowding pens

Gathering pens are pens in which animals are let through to further activities. These pens are usually round or funnel shaped. It is preferable to use solid gates and sides for the gathering pens, especially in a feedlot, as the only exit visible to the animals is the specific exit gate. Steel plates or rubber (e.g. old conveyor belts) can be used for the sides. Peepholes can be fitted for handlers.

Sorting pens and sorting gates

Sorting pens and sorting gates are used to separate certain animals from others during the production process. The sorting pen will therefore be used to sort new animals, such as separating lambs from ewes, or to separate animals to be sold from the rest. In cattle, approximately 2m² is provided for each animal in the sorting pen.

An example of a feedlot for cattle as seen from the side.

Sorting is done from the crush and usually towards the scales using several gates that control access to specific camps. Sorting pens are used for relatively short periods, after which the animals move back to the feeding pens.

Crushes and work alleys

A crush is an integral part of a feedlot and the design must simplify handling and reduce stress in animals. It should also be sturdy and durable.

Where cattle are concerned, the length of the crush is determined by the number of cattle that must stand in the crush simultaneously. The rule of thumb is 1,5m per animal.

The crush should preferably be constructed with a rising incline towards the front, as cattle are more likely to move uphill in a narrow passage than downhill. The slope will also help with run-off and will prevent trampling.

This feedlot belonging to Kobus Dannhauser, is conveniently located against a slope, so that water can flow off without causing pollution. The feed mixing facility is also at hand.

The width of the crush requires careful consideration as a crush that is too wide, will allow animals to turn around. There are no fixed rules in terms of crush width, but normally the inner dimension should be around 750mm.

For sheep, a distinction is made between crushes of 600mm or narrower and working alleys of roughly 1 000mm wide. Where V-shaped crushes are used, a base width of 200 to 300mm and a top width of 450 to 675mm is recommended. A gap of 75 to 100mm between the floor and the sides provides space for the handler’s feet, allows drainage and feet inspection, and prevents young lambs from suffocating.

Weighing scale

In a feedlot, animals are usually weighed and processed upon arrival. Depending on the setup, a scale can be placed in the working area or in a separate passage. Feedlots sometimes prefer large scales that can weigh several animals simultaneously.

It is essential that the scale is calibrated at regular intervals. Scales must be tested with weights of the same size as the average animal handled there – bags of fertiliser, cement or grain can be used for this purpose.

Neck clamp

A neck clamp is one of the most essential items in the handling area and is used to hold the animal in position while work is being done. Quite a few neck clamps are available on the market, with different opening mechanisms and differently shaped neck openings. Neck clamps must be sturdy and made from durable material.

Dip facilities

The most effective method of controlling ticks is to dip animals regularly. In South Africa, spray or immersion dipping, pour-on remedies, hand or tractor spraying, hoof dipping, draining pens, or a combination thereof is used.

Dipping must comply with certain requirements, including that animals must be thoroughly drenched without wasting dipping fluid.

Hospital facility

At feedlots, provision must be made for separate hospital facilities for sick or injured animals.


Feedlot fences differ from normal camp fences. Feedlots have a higher concentration of cattle, for example, and the fences must therefore be sturdier. Fences in these pens are 1,5m high and consist of five crosswires. Barbed wire can injure animals and ordinary wire is not strong enough, hence steel cables are recommended instead of crosswires. Another possibility is to construct a cable from galvanised wire and steel wire. Wood or steel can be used for the standard poles and droppers.


Typical design of a feedlot operation on a farm. (Source: Beef Cattle Management Guide, ARC-Agricultural Engineering)

Roads in and around the feedlot must be of high quality, as they carry a lot of traffic daily (e.g. cattle, feed wagons and cleaning wagons). Roads in poor condition will slow down the overall flow of activities. Gravel roads can be considered if the configuration allows it and it is compacted thoroughly.

Office complex

In large feedlot operations, the offices will usually be separate from the feedlot and handling facilities. At smaller units it would be sensible to have a small office at the processing facility. The office complex can consist of an office, storeroom in which equipment and medicines are kept, and dressing room. Some medicines must be kept cool; a refrigerator is therefore a necessity. The office must be positioned in such a way that a good view on the entire handling area is possible.

Feed facilities

The size of the facility in which feed is kept will be determined by the number of animals to be fed. Animals’ daily diets consist of many components that have to be kept in storage, usually in silos or barns with dividing walls, until needed. From here, all ingredients are placed in feed wagons, according to finely calculated formulas, mixed and transferred to feed troughs.

This design entails a single-line trough layout in a feedlot. Note the importance of the slope that allows for run-off away from the feed troughs. (Source: Beef Cattle Management Guide, ARC-Agricultural Engineering)

Manure handling practices

Cattle produce roughly 63kg of wet manure per 1 000kg live weight per day. Natural processes of evaporation and biological breakdown decrease this weight to around one ton of solid manure from each animal that remains in the feedlot for 150 days.

Rain and mud not only has a significant impact on the performance of animals in a feedlot but can also give rise to diseases such as acidosis, footrot and laminitis. Provision should be made for runoff from the feedlot.

Weirs in feedlots will prevent run-off as no contamination of public water is allowed. It is generally accepted that, if less than 12mm of rain has fallen on a feedlot area, the area contains 12mm of moisture, except if there was precipitation during the preceding 72 hours. The earth beneath the manure layer is compacted by trampling, which allows very little water to penetrate the layer of manure.

This sketch illustrates how sheep waste can be handled in an open feedlot system. In open feedlots, liquids are collected by means of a run-off control system, after which the solids are separated from the liquids in a sedimentation dam. (Source: Sheep Facilities Manual, ARC-Agricultural Engineering)

Quantities to be removed vary from 60% of this average figure, depending on the ration, number of cattle per square metre, feedlot surface, etc. The tempo of manure removal from a feedlot is determined partly by climate conditions, animal comfort, available labour, as well as water and air pollution.

For enquiries, contact Francois Swanepoel of the ARC on 012 842 4066 or, or Elmarie Stoltz on 012 842 4017 or, and JC Vollgraaff of Molatek/Epol on 079 264 7965 or – Carin Venter, Stockfarm

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