General Design Principles

Before building any yards, make sure you look at as many set-ups as possible, on a range of properties, not just those set up for Highland cattle. Read some books on the subject and check references on the internet. Once permanent yards are in, they are not moved without a lot of trouble, and working in poorly designed yards is frustrating for us, and stressful for the animal.

When designing laneways, yards etc, always try to make it so that only one person is needed to move animals along. Don't make any area where you force cattle wider than one person can manage with a 3 foot waddy in each hand (5-7 meters max). Gates that can open both ways should always be your goal, but where this is not possible, make them able to be close behind the main direction of movement of the cattle. Gates around cattle yards generally need to be heavier duty than normal farm gates, and should be higher than normal gates, or hung off the ground a little more.


Consider mobile panels for your yards. They are economical, strong, and most importantly, can be moved easily if you need to expand or re-design the yards.

Yards are part of the necessities for safe and efficient handling of any livestock, let alone those that come with long horns. Even a small enterprise needs some way of confining the cattle to allow interventions – e.g. checking an eye, vaccinating, untangling wire from a leg, let alone a proper veterinary examination or AI.

As a general rule, the receiving yard (post & rail) should be a minimum of 135mm (4 foot 6 inches) high, but the forcing yard & race should be at least 150mm (5 foot), and ideally 180mm (6 foot) high. Another general rule is to site the yards in an area with a slight slope so that there is some drainage, rather than a dead flat area of land.

There are many different materials that yards can be made from. Posts can be treated pine or hardwood, or even railway line, but the rails should be hardwood (at least 40mm thick). Many companies make galvanised panels and gates that all slot together like Lego. Where timber is used, it needs some upkeep – diesel oil painted on every couple of years, creosote or other old transmission oil can also be used. Remember to recess the heads of any coach bolts or coach screws on the inside of the yards, to prevent any damage to the animals as they jostle around.

If you do not have proper yards and a crush, or can not use your neighbours facilities, consider immobilising them between a solid fence and a gate.

If you are building yards and do not want to spend a lot of money on a crush, a simple version of the above will suffice for most basic procedures, in the corner of a small yard (maybe 6m X 6m). A standard farm gate can be used or ideally a heavier duty farm gate would be beneficial.

Simple yard design 1. Simple yard design 2

 Good yard design uses the basic principles of cattle movement and behavior. These are:

  • Cattle run most consistently on the curve. They tend to follow each other, so avoid sudden changes in direction.

  • Cattle need to see an area of escape. Cattle need to enter a large receiving yard where they can see clear space ahead. A long deep yard is easier to fill and work cattle in, than a square yard. The yard should narrow progressively as stock move towards the forcing, or main working area.

  • Cattle tend to put their heads in corners. Eliminating corners promotes good flow.

  • Cattle move best if there is a continuous one-way flow from the entrance, through the yards, forcing area, race and exit.

Operational Hints

  • Get cattle comfortable with the yards. Feed them hay in the yards so that they associate the yards with food and “good times’. Periodically reinforce this.

  • Encourage cattle to work through the race by regularly running them through. Training stock to always work through the race before leaving the yard pays in the long run.

Work them through the yards regularly as youngsters (this is particularly important for Highlands) while their horns are small. By the time the animal is 20-24 months, their horns will start catching on the race (normally 700-750mm wide). They will learn how to tilt and angle their heads to get through so that eventually as a mature animal, they seem to manage to make their way through, albeit slowly.

The size, shape, construction and location will vary for each property according to herd size, personal preference, budget and physical space or terrain.

The laneway is to move cattle from the pasture to the yards. Usually only 5-7m wide, it provides a one-way system to move the cattle, with just one person required to force them along. Trying to get cattle from a large paddock into narrow yards where they know you will be injecting, etc, requires patience, time and cunning.

Receiving Yard

The receiving yard at the end of the laneway should be large enough to hold the largest mob of cattle that you might run on your property (consider around 80% of your herd). Highlands need more space in yards than other cattle, both because they have horns, and because of their greater tendency to enforce hierarchy with those horns. Allow approximately 3-4 times the space you would need for non-horned cattle or around 6-8 square meters per animal (e.g. a 6x12m yard would be appropriate for 8-10 adult Highlands). This sort of spacing might seem extreme but will see your animals more comfortable, and less stressed, in the yards, especially those at the lower end of the pecking order.

Forcing Yards

Design the forcing yard so that when half filled, it accommodates enough cattle to fill the race and crush. Where shadows or distractions in adjacent yards could be a problem, clad the forcing yard to provide a visual barrier and to eliminate shadows. Forcing yards can vary between conventional triangular shapes to circular ones with revolving gates.

Where access is limited in small yards the receiving yard can act as a forcing yard as well, and you can control the entry angle with the gate.

It is preferable to create a design with the ability to load the force area, so that stock will move into the race without the need for the handler to get in with the cattle. If there is a need to get in, then it is useful to provide access gates or a foot rail with solid sided forcing yards.


The race should be as long as possible – enough for at least 2 animals (at about 2.1-2.4m per animal). Use a sliding gate (either solid or see through) at the entrance to the race. If sliding gates are installed along the race, it is best if cattle can see through them. The width is 700-750mm – too wide and smaller animals will turn around too easily. The more spinning around that smaller Highlands do in the race or the crush, the greater the chance that they will damage their horns.


Crush (with vet section), 2 panel race to left (4.2m)
& doulbe opening gates in front (right).

It is advisable to concrete the race and crush area to prevent boggy conditions affecting the passage of the cattle and to provide an easier area to work in. To prevent races spreading, tie posts at ground level, or even overhead. Where panels are used, a 'race bow' will serve this purpose.

If constructing your own yards of post and rail (as opposed to using pre-fabricated galvanised panels), make sure the gaps at the bottom are closer together than the gaps higher up so as to prevent calves getting through.

In general, a curved race will promote better flow than a straight race. It promotes steady movement around the race, has an anti-backing effect and tends to be self-feeding.

Calf Race

For calf marking or other treatments, a specialised calf race 350mm wide is useful (if you do not have a crush with 'squeeze gates') where the calf can be prevented from turning around. A calf race can be sited on the outside of the main race, thus using the main forcing yard, or it can be built along an internal fence line, with its own forcing yard facility. A fully clad side is desirable for optimum flow. The top of the calf race should be at about waist height, allowing you to bend over into the race. To prevent larger calves rearing and jumping out of the race, a removable single pipe or timber rail can be suspended along the centre of the race, level with the top rail.


This is probably the single most important part of your yards. While you can get by with a gate up against a fence, if you have more than a couple of animals, or expect to be doing AI for example, a decent crush will be money well spent. A good crush also makes things easier on the animal.

Options for crushes:

  • walk-through head bale (essential - the only type suitable for Highlands)

  • a rear operated arm to open & close the head bail is much more user friendly

  • vet section at the rear (very useful for getting access to their rear ends, but not essential, as the name suggests, your vet will appreciate it)

  • squeeze gates (very useful for handling calves)

  • split side gates (great for access to parts of the animal with safety preserved)

  • slam catches (latches that are sprung to lock when slammed closed)

  • chin bar (not essential but very handy for handling their heads – ear tagging, nose ringing)

  • all galvanised steel (an additional cost but makes the crush last longer)

  • baulk gate (very handy for non-horned cattle, but can be difficult to use with Highlands)

    Walk-through head bale (closed) Walk-through head bale (open) Slam catch

There are a number of other little features that different crushes will have, and you are best to look at different crushes and manufacturers to see what might suit you. Highlands, not being a large breed, and being a quieter type, will normally allow you to get by without having to go to the heavy duty, more expensive set-ups.

It is desirable to have the capability to draft two ways at the end of the crush, so two swing gates at the front of the crush will be very useful and would get around the need for a baulk gate as well.

** Remember to lubricate all working parts of the crush on a regular basis. **

As mentioned earlier, a walk-through head bail is essential for Highlands – a “parallel scissor” type that has two vertical “jaws” that fully retract right out of the way and then can be closed quickly on the neck. Some head bails have a curved profile that make it harder for an animal to lower it's head when caught.

Loading Ramp

A loading ramp, again connected to the yards, is necessary for both loading and unloading cattle. It can be located after the crush (separated by 2 swing gates), or it can come off the side of the race. The location will likely be determined by truck access limitations.

The ramp may have to accommodate both a full size livestock truck (1000mm or 1.0m above ground level) or a small livestock trailer (300-400mm above ground level). So an adjustable ramp is ideal. A fixed height ramp at truck height would suffice as cattle can be trained to jump in and out of trailers. The width of the ramp should be 700-800mm.

The slope of the ramp should be 1 in 3 at the most, but obviously the more gentle the slope, the easier cattle will move up it. So most are 3-5 meters long. The floor should be non-slip of course, so roughened concrete or dirt ideally, but manufactured ones will have a reinforced galvinised floor that is not ideal. A few shovels full of dirt thrown on this floor will help to stop cattle baulking at this.


Adjustable loading ramp (300mm to 1,000mm). Gal steel ramp floor. Gate at start of ramp.

There needs to be truck access to the ramp, in all but the smallest of set-ups. Trucks have large turning circles and you need plenty of room to allow them enough space to back up to your ramp. You will also need to make sure they are only driving over solid ground, ideally crushed rock. It is nice to not have to cancel a truck after heavy rain, when the ground is too boggy and you are worried about the truck becoming bogged.

Luxuries in Cattle Yards

Y-shaped races and crushes are an engineering possibility and certainly make it easier for mature Highland cattle to make their way through. They are not essential as all Highlands can make their way through standard yards. Their additional cost is also an issue.

Covered yards are a pleasure to work in, and remove weather as an excuse for getting angry when working with your animals.

Power to the yards, and lighting are handy. Power is essential for some of the things you do in cattle yards, but at a push, a couple of extension leads or a generator will get you by.

Water is also very handy, but a bucket of water can get around a number of issues. A trough for cattle, or water to be able to fill a bath tub or the like for sick animals that need to stay in the yards for a few days.

A table near to the crush / working area is great to keep things off the ground, but needs to be solid as cattle will bump it at different times.

It is a good idea to have 1-2 smaller paddocks feeding off the yards to keep animals in for short periods of time. These paddocks only need to be up to an acre in size, but you will be amazed how often you will use them.


  1. Cattle Yards.. Design, Materials and Construction. Evan Powell and John Lapworth. Queensland Beef Industry Institute

  2. Beef Cattle Yard Design for Less than 100 Head (DPI) -