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Handling System Design and Use


Handling System Design and Use

by Sue Whittlesey


In the beginning, elk breeders used dart guns as a means of handling their elk for testing and treatment. This meant that animals sometimes went without care because darting animals was difficult, time-consuming and, occasionally, fatal. Therefore, out of necessity breeders started experimenting with different types of systems for handing elk.

The first-generation handling systems used a series of catwalks. The operator was above the elk. This was not completely satisfactory because animals would balk, and it could be impossible to get them to move into the next pen without getting in the pen with them, an idea that is never appealing. Some people tried cattle systems, using a very narrow alleyway. This doesn’t work for elk because they refuse to move, due to the narrow sides. Through experimentation, the industry has discovered the “psychology of elk” dictates that the size of a handling cubicle needs to be between 5’ x 5’ and 8’ x 16’ (bulls with antlers need a minimum of 6' x 6' with over 8' of clearance). In a cubicle any smaller than this, the animal feels too confined and will fight and refuse to move.   In a larger enclosure, a group of animals will pile into a back corner, making it difficult to move them out of the pen without injury.  Within this range elk seem to be calm, alert, and easy to handle.

There are a number of parts to a complete elk handling system. Typically, a system will include fenced pastures, a raceway connecting the pastures to a corral or holding pen(s), a barn or shed with cubicle system and a squeeze, a way to load animals for shipment, plus a way to sort animals into different groups.

There are many different ways to construct such a system. I recommend that you visit several different farms to see animals worked in various systems before you decide what is right for you. If you are purchasing a system, the vendor should help you in designing the system that fits your needs.

Keep in mind that it takes some degree of skill on the part of the operator to make even the best system work smoothly and safely. In all systems you need to work slowly and patiently, and learn how to read or communicate with your elk.  If the animals start running in the pasture, then they will probably be to nervous in the handling system, so you would be better off waiting until they calm down. Also, it is amazing to see the difference in how an elk will work through a system when you are nervous and stressed versus when you are calm and at ease. 

Generally, you move elk from a bigger space to a smaller space. But you cannot go directly from a several-acre pasture into a barn very easily. There must be some intermediate steps. Normally, you begin with a raceway between 12’ and 30’ wide; ideally, this will connect all the pastures to the corral and the barn. How wide you make the raceway depends on such factors as driving equipment in it and snow requirements. If you have to have a long raceway, it works best to have some bends in it so the elk can go around a corner thinking they have escaped from you, and they will stop or slow down so you can catch up.

A section of raceway 28’ to 30’ wide and 300 or more feet long can be used to sort animals. This means you don’t have to bring in a big group of animals when you only have to work a few. This type of sorting is accomplished by pushing one group of elk to one end of this section of alleyway.  If you stand up against the fence on one side and look away from them, they will go around you single file. When you turn and face them they will stop going by you. In this way, you can send small groups to the other end of the lane where your helper can open and close gates and send them back into a pasture or into the corral. 

The raceway should lead to a corral or holding pen adjacent to the barn.  This needs to be constructed of something more visible that woven wire. You can put shade cloth on the woven wire or use corral poles or boards. If you choose to use poles or boards I recommend that they be hung horizontally so that the operator can climb out in an emergency. A corral can be as small as 40’ x 40’. If it is much larger than this, you will need a wing in the corral to help herd the elk into the barn. 

When you go into the corral with the elk, they will look for a way to get away from you. First, they will check the perimeter. Then they will go into the barn, especially if they can go around the corner where they cannot see you. At this point, if you have to run toward them to shut the door, they may panic and run back out. So I recommend that you rig up a rope running along the top of the corral fence so that you can stand about 30’ away from the gate and close it by pulling the rope. Make sure that the animals cannot get tangled up in the rope. 

When the elk go into the barn, they should be in a space no more than 8’ wide. The walls should be solid on the back side and at least 8’ tall. The front side should be a series of swing gates 8’ wide and 8’ tall with solid wood on the bottom and bars on the top. When you are working elk in the barn, they will be much calmer when they can see you at ground level from only one side of the pen they are in. These gates should swing in so you can move the elk forward in the system. You can also use sliding gates to separate the space into 8’ x 8’ pens.

As the animals move toward the squeeze, the pens or cubicles should get smaller, ending at the last pen which is 5 or 6’ square. This makes it easy to separate the elk until there is just one animal waiting to go into the squeeze.  This cubicle is a good place to put a scale. To move an animal in this type of system, you will open a slide gate and slowly push a swing gate in toward the elk until it steps into the next cubicle. Then, close the slide gate and pull the swing gate back and latch it. Normally, you will not be physically pushing the elk, but if you move slowly, they will move away from you. The gate is for your safety, and it is important that the latch be able to stop the gate in case the elk should push it back toward you.

The barn itself does not have to be fancy or big. A 24’ by 40’ building is big enough for a small or medium handling system. Another helpful hint is to have gravel or small rock (1” to 2”) in the barn where the elk will be walking. Besides keeping the dust down, it also tends to slow down the elk. I do not recommend concrete as a floor because it is too slippery and unforgiving.

There are a number of types of squeezes available, with a wide range of prices. There are two basic types of squeezes: manual and hydraulic. Some work quite well, and improved versions come out regularly. You need to determine what your needs are when looking for a squeeze. If you are working hundreds of animals in a day, you may want to consider a hydraulic squeeze. But the average elk operator should consider a well-made manual squeeze. You should look for  good accessibility to all parts of the animal and pay special attention to safety for both you and your elk. Try to see animals being worked in a squeeze before you buy it so that you can familiarize yourself with its operation. Also, try having someone with experience help you work it the first time.

When animals come out of the squeeze, they should go directly out into a sorting pen (which may be the corral) or into a trailer, if they are being shipped.  From this pen you should be able to move or regroup animals into different pastures. A well-designed and operated system makes handling elk easy, safe and enjoyable.



Sue Whittlesey and her husband, Dave, have been raising elk since 1987. Both Sue and Dave have been officers and directors of NAEBA and are very active in the elk industry. Currently, Sue is director and chief financial officer of the Elk Research Council and communications coordinator for the Western States Elk Alliance. Dave and Sue have been presenting "Beginner Elk Farmer" seminars throughout the country since 1995. They are former owners of The Elk and Bison Company, LLC which designs and manufactures handling systems for elk. Guests are always welcome at their High Wire Ranch. You may contact them at (970) 835-7600 or email at Look them up on the web at




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