For any apparatus to evolve, the element of need and change has to be there. With Alberta’s regulations, the need to restrain our deer was there right from the beginning. Because of the need to do things better and the need to keep abreast with changes within our industry, improvements to our equipment were necessary.
Picture a 2′ wide x 3’6″ high x 4’6″ long plywood box with a guillotine gate at one end and a padded hole big enough for a deer to put its head through at the other end. The end with the padded hole was cut in thirds vertically. One third was stationary, and the other two-thirds were installed in tracks top and bottom long enough to slide wide open to let a deer out, or close past the cut line. This allowed a reduction in the size of the hole, making it impossible for the deer to pull its head back. Small sliding doors were installed on one side wall to allow for inspections and injections. The floor was made of wood planking on skids running lengthwise to prevent the deer from gaining too much traction. This “hole in a box squeeze,” as we called it, was placed in front of a series of tunnels, which also ended up changing considerably.
Our first tunnels were too high, too long and too narrow, which encouraged the deer to jump up and prevented them from turning around comfortably. They felt trapped in these tunnels. Today, we know it’s important to keep our deer comfortable and stress-free as much as possible by allowing them to move freely till it’s time to restrain them.
Like most other deer farmers at that time, we built our deer handling system outside. Upon lifting the guillotine gate on the “hole in the box squeeze,” the deer in the dark tunnel would see daylight. In most cases, its head was through the hole and its shoulders against the padding immediately. They would often pull back just as fast, so if the operator of the sliding head gate wasn’t on the ball, you would end up with a jack, I mean, a deer in a box.
A second chance to catch it often became an exercise in patience. Once you were successful in closing the head gate in time, the deer’s first reaction was to pull back. Instantly, you would end up with a very still head, but, in most cases, a not-so-still body. Tagging was easy, but anything else was next to impossible. That’s when we decided to make one sliding wall, so we could apply pressure and squeeze the deer against the other wall. That helped to keep the deer more secure. But access to the animal was still very limited and it was still only done through openings in the walls where deer legs would often poke through. For just a few animals, it was not too bad, and at least we could comply with the regulations.
As our herd grew, so did my impatience with the “hole in the box squeeze.” We were extremely limited when performing different tasks on our animals, such as cutting antlers, trimming feet and undertaking general care. I remember one of my pet peeves was when you would catch a fawn, and it would often immediately sit down. The first thing you need to do is determine its sex. At Delclayna we install the large dangle tag in the left ear for males and in the right ear for females. If you can’t confirm that a fawn has buttons, proving it’s a male, you need to check under the tail. If the deer is sitting down and covering the evidence, what do you do? Our policy has been the same since the beginning. If you cannot guarantee that it’s a male from the head, you have to check the other end. That meant that with the “hole in the box squeeze,” you would have to skid it ahead to be able to access the back. You would then lift the deer’s behind, hoping you could see proof before you got kicked. Today we are proud to say we have never registered the wrong sex of an animal.
Another pet peeve for us was that you ended up working in a crouched position most of the time. Can you imagine having to TB test 500 deer with the “hole in the box squeeze”? As much as I was getting to hate that box, there was one aspect that was pretty handy for us at the beginning. If you wanted to relocate a deer to a certain pen, you would just hook up the quad to the back of the box and skid both of them to the pasture, release the deer, and come back full-speed with the little, ugly, good-for-nothing “hole in the box squeeze.” Are you detecting residual frustration and anger here? How times have changed! Can you picture us doing this today? One good thing about our “hole in the box squeeze” is that it made me really mad, which motivated me to do something about the situation.
Our second attempt was a cross between a cattle chute, the “hole in the box chute” and a rotunda. This apparatus turned out to be no better than the “hole in the box squeeze.” The only advantage was that we could bring in bucks with antlers, and with some wrestling, we managed to cut the antlers off if needed. Maybe another time I could tell you stories about this, too.
The one thing it had in common with our first handler was that we were still trying to handle our deer with their feet on the ground. If you study how the back leg of a deer is constructed, you will find that it has an extra bone with another joint to give them more jumping power. This unique design gives them more leverage: for their size, deer possess the most hind leg strength of any animal in the world. If there is one thing this no-name squeeze did right, it was to convince me that I should look at ways to handle these animals with their feet off the ground. After some research, I discovered that the most popular way to handle deer in New Zealand was with a drop floor cradle that kept the deer’s feet off the ground and held them up at a level that allowed people to work standing straight. Back to the drawing board, this time working with a different concept in mind.
The first prototype drop floor chute was built and tested. Picture our very first old blue model with no curtains, no shoulder pads, no backpress, no roof and only a sliding gate at the front. The first deer entered the chute nicely by just walking in, so we tripped the floor and opened the front slider to grab the head. Before we could do that, it wiggled its way out, but we still liked what we saw. Deer number two did the same thing. Deer number three shot for the roof and when it came down, we tripped the floor. This one we handled from one side of the chute, with the front slider closed. It was easy enough to hold it down, but we didn’t like the way its neck was bent and its head pressed against the front sliding gate. Before handling number four, we covered the top of the chute with plywood. No more rockets; so we finished handling the other 20 or so deer with the front slider closed.
To the drawing board once more. This time, it was not to change the concept, but to make improvements upon it. Now convinced that keeping the deer off their feet was the way to go, we decided to give our invention a name by trademarking it the deer handler.” Convinced that a drop floor would prove to be the fastest, safest and most efficient way to take the footing away from under a deer’s feet, we made the decision to keep that concept.
Our first improvement was to remove the front slider and install shoulder pads to serve as body stops, preventing the deer from wiggling their way out. Then we went back to handle more deer and test our new idea. Again, we were very encouraged by our first trials. The shoulder pads solved the problem, and today they’re a very important component of the deer handler. A few deer jumped right over and straight through the deer handler, so we added the vinyl curtains that hang down from the top to the shoulder pads. This solved most of the problems with deer jumping through. The more deer we handled, the better we became at it. Our confidence was also increasing. It got to a point that it was fairly common to process 25 to 30 deer per hour without missing one.
With a few things still bugging us, like the noise, and having to press down on the deer’s back to hold it still, we set out to make more improvements. First we decided to deal with the noise. The deer hitting the side walls of the cradle with its hooves generated most of the noise. The deer handler at the time was constructed entirely out of metal, which made the noise worse. It didn’t bother the deer much, but it was somewhat annoying for the people handling the deer. Our solution was to spray a thick coating of urethane insulation on the outside of the deer handler. The reduction in noise was very significant, and from then on we sprayed every unit we manufactured.
Still not happy with having to hold the deer down manually, we decided to do something about that. When discussing this problem with some of our customers, most agreed that a device installed to hold the bigger animals would be a real asset. Within a few days, we had a device designed and installed, which we called a backpress. All this was happening in the fall, at a time when we usually handle lots of deer. Anxious to try out our new backpress, we picked a day when we had to run one hundred and four bucks through to cut antlers, wash tags, deworm and sort. Test trials of new or improved equipment were becoming routine at our farm. With the first buck in the blue deer handler by 9:00 am, we were all anxious to see how our new backpress would work. Well, it was unbelievable! Once that backpress was clamped down on that deer’s back, it didn’t move a bit. On a roll, and totally impressed at how easily and smoothly things were going, we were sure our problems were solved.
Well, sometimes things are just too good to be true. All of a sudden, around the fifteenth deer, one leaves the deer handler with a busted back leg. This was something we had never seen before. Trying to figure out what went wrong was very difficult. Had it been broken in the tunnels, or the crowding pen? The break was at the knee on the left back leg; the joint had been dislocated, and the bone had punctured through the skin on the inside of the leg. Stumped for answers as to what could have happened, we decided to continue. Everything was going very smoothly once again.
All of a sudden, after processing another 20 or so deer, we noticed another broken back leg. The injury was exactly the same, except that this time it was on the right leg. Convinced that this deer had been injured in the deer handler, or when leaving the deer handler, we started thinking about what had changed, or what we were doing differently from before. These injuries were something we had never experienced before in all the years we had been handling deer. The thinking caps went on and a process of elimination took place. We came to the conclusion that our problem was probably the new wooden floor upon which we were working. Until now, we had always handled our deer right on the ground. All agreeing that it was probably the floor, we decided to delay handling in order to install some rubber matting.
A couple of hours later, we were back handling deer, and we really liked how much more smoothly the deer were leaving the deer handler. Enjoying our new backpress and our new floor, again we thought for sure our problems were solved. Just when we were all so confident and nearly finished handling, one more buck leaves the deer handler with a broken left hind leg. We could tell that this injury was identical to the other two. Again, we were stumped for answers, refusing to relate the problem to our new backpress because it was working so well. We decided to blame it on bad luck, or lack of minerals, and resumed handling our animals until all one hundred and four were done. With three injured deer out of one hundred and four, we were all very disappointed. On the other hand, we were all impressed with how our new backpress had performed.
I spent the next forty-eight hours trying to come up with some answers. It was hard to admit, but once I explained my theory to my partners, they all agreed that our problem was probably the backpress. As I mentioned previously, this was all happening in the fall when there’s always lots of deer to handle, so we decided that when it was time to handle more deer, we would not use the backpress. Sure enough, after handling the next group of seventy- some deer without using the backpress and experiencing no injuries, we knew we had finally identified our culprit. This wasn’t very good news for us because we wanted to introduce the backpress as an improvement to our deer handler. Refusing to let go of the idea of our backpress, I started dissecting the whole design of the deer handler.
The theory behind my thinking went back to how a deer’s leg is constructed. Picture a deer cradled in a “V” with a solid vertical wall on each side of his legs approximately four inches apart, like the old blue model deer handler. When a deer is suspended like that, its back legs want to cross. When you apply pressure on the deer’s back that has no leniency at all, and with a deer’s strong back legs, it can pop that joint as it exerts pressure to try and straighten its legs when attempting to jump. The problem had never occurred before when everyone was holding their deer down manually: with that method, there was always enough give. Therefore, if anyone is thinking of installing a backpress on our old blue model deer handler, or any cradle with a similar design, I would recommend that it be a mechanism that has some give to it so you can adjust the pressure. By then, I could tell that I was headed for many more sleepless nights.
Giving up on the idea of developing a backpress that would yield under pressure, we started our thinking with a solid backpress. From there we deleted the walls under the cradle that were holding the narrow, one-plank floor, which were partly responsible for the injuries. We then designed a different floor that spanned the full width of the deer handler, and covered it with rubber matting. This permitted a portion of the floor to be hinged and raised vertically to serve as a kick wall. This also let us make room for a palpation door on one side, big enough for a person to enter the deer handler right behind the animal, yet safe behind our new kick wall. Finally, a rough prototype was built incorporating these new ideas.
Another trial run at handling deer with a new and very different drop floor chute proved to be very encouraging. Not only did it solve the problem of back leg injuries, it also solved our noise problem. With the nice wide rubber matted floor upon which the deer had to leave the chute, and with all the other features that this design would offer, we decided to start production of our new deer handler. The most recent improvement, introduced last year, was our automatic head gate, which has been received very well. Our next improvement will be to design a mechanism operated by an electric eye that can trip the floor at the right time. This, we hope, will be sold as a kit that can be installed on all existing Deerhandlers™; in other words, “The Green Machines.”
Today, our 2001 model deer handler is the most advanced deer cradle, squeeze, crush (for my American friends), chute, or whatever you want to call it, in the world. With our new modular tunnel system and our many different portable deer handling products all designed for compact shipping and ease of assembly, a customer anywhere in the world could be handling deer within two hours of receiving an order. On the drawing board now is an “Extra Large deer handler” that will handle deer of all sizes, from fallow deer to elk, without hydraulics.
Here at Delclayna, we are always looking for ways to improve the lives of deer farmers and their animals. Our dedication is exemplified through the semen collection research in which we have been involved. We recently held a semen collecting experiment without anesthesia on our farm, and the deer handler restrained the bucks so all technicians could easily access them where required. The above experiment is making history, and will prove to be the most efficient and safest way to collect semen.
By Len Jubinville