Animal handling: Combi Clamp

Sheep and beef farms are increasing in size and farmers are increasing in age so something has to give, but it shouldn’t be your body. This month I went out into the field to visit a farmer who’s changing the way he handles his livestock.

If your Saturday nights are regularly spent in front of the telly, you may recognise Rex Roadley and his wife, Rae, who featured on Country Calendar back in August. That episode not only caught my attention because of the beautiful landscape, the grand old Batley villa they live in and the couple’s captivating love story, but also the fact that this farming couple were using animal handling equipment – a refreshing sight to see for a farmer’s daughter, whose 65-plus-year-old father is still bending over dagging sheep, while complaining about a bad back!

Rex and Rae farm a 1200-acre sheep and beef farm on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour near Maungaturoto. The farm has been in the family for over three generations, with Rex’s grandfather moving to the property in 1913.

Rex runs around 700 cattle, buying in bulls as weaners and finishing them at 2/1/2. He has been steadily increasing his sheep numbers, but says with the way prices have been going lately, this may not be sustainable.

For years now, Rex has been growing his Coopworth flock and now has a 150 percent lambing rate. Rex’s brother, Sterl, recently joined him on the farm and with a particular interest in sheep breeding, encouraged Rex to buy in Texel and Suffolk terminal sires for their meat attributes and Romney rams to add more weight to the wool.

Recognising that he wasn’t getting any younger (although he made it very clear to me he’s younger than the ‘average’ farmer), combined with the fact that his sheep numbers were on the increase, Rex decided it was time he purchased some innovative technology to assist him with his increasing workload.

So in 2011, Rex set off to the Northland Field Days in Dargaville in search of an animal handling device. He investigated a range of options but it was the Combi Clamp that appealed the most.

Rex says two things really stood out for him, first the Combi Clamp’s versatility: he could use it for drenching, dagging, vaccinating, foot rot, weighing and drafting, to name a few. Second, its simplicity.

“The fact that it didn’t have an air compressor was a real plus. This made the machine quieter and eliminated the need for power and all the cords that go with it. Having a whole lot of electronics just makes things more complicated and more can go wrong with the equipment,” he comments.

Rex’s set-up

In February this year, Rex purchased the basic Combi Clamp model, with the addition of load bar fittings to accommodate his electronic weighing system and a three-way manual drafting gate. Rex’s weigh bars sit permanently under the Combi Clamp but the Tru-Test monitor which hangs above it is shared between the sheep yards and the cattle yards.

Originally, Rex set up the Combi Clamp next to his wool shed with temporary yards. The idea of the temporary yards was to experiment with the layout and positioning of the Combi Clamp before setting it in concrete, so to speak.

Some things worth considering when you’re setting up a Combi Clamp include the direction you want the sheep to enter and if you’re planning on dagging, it makes a difference whether you’re left or right handed as to the way the sheep need to come in. How many pens are required is another consideration. Perhaps three? One for lambs, ewes and heavy lambs.

Once Rex had mastered the layout and flow of his yards, he set about building the permanent yards and concreting the floor pad, something he insisted on after years of battling copious amounts of mud in the cattle yards. A lean-to roof was also built overhead to ensure he had an all-weather workspace.

How it works

Before the unit can be used for the first time, it’s important that adjustments are made to suit the size of the sheep and the operator. To accommodate different sheep sizes, the width of the handler can be adjusted. Pressure adjustment also needs to suit the body weight of the operator and there are four settings to cater for those lighter than the sheep, the same weight, slightly heavier and one for those a lot heavier.

Also, for weighing, it’s important that the operator’s weight is tared down to zero to ensure it’s only the weight of the sheep that’s being recorded, not the operator’s as well.

The day I visited the Roadleys they were drenching ewes and drafting off the lambs ready for docking, so it was a great opportunity to see the machine in action. Rex tells me that in the past, this task would have taken twice as long, but today he can drench and draft all in one pass thanks to the Combi Clamp.

The Combi Clamp is a small, compact unit that comprises an up-sloping entry ramp, the main holding section in the middle (about as long as an adult sheep) and an exit ramping. A key feature of the Combi Clamp is that it doesn’t have a door at the end of the holding section, so the animal entering the unit sees a clear run through, which keeps the flow running smoothly. With the help of a good, reliable dog, it’s a one-man job.

On this day, Rex was running the ewes and lambs through the Combi Clamp together. Rex was standing on the outside of the holding section and as a ewe entered, he pressed his foot down gently on the pressure plate, hinging one of the side panels inwards to create a clamp which stops the ewe in its tracks. This is not as aggressive as it might sound because the hinged ‘cushion’ panel is made of flexible rubber which gently engulfs the ewe, following its contours. The rubber face of this panel has dimples which work as grip to help hold the ewe in place.

With each ewe safely clamped, Rex then drenched it, took his foot off the pressure plate and released the ewe into its pen.

When the lambs came through the race, Rex simply drafted them off into another pen. This required some fast reflexes as Rex was using a manual drafting gate for the lambs.

Another option for Combi Clamp is a three-way automatic drafting gate but as Rex explained, he was looking for a machine with minimal power requirements and cords.

As well as drenching, Rex has used the clamp for weighing and drafting purposes.

“The last lambs we sent away were sorted into heavy lambs for the export market and the lighter ones for local trade. Being able to weigh, drench and draft at the same time was quick and easy,” he says.

He has also bought a dagging plant to use in conjunction with the Combi Clamp which will hang above it.

Benefits for your body

Rex estimates that he can now drench approximately 500 lambs every hour – a near impossible achievement before he owned the Combi Clamp. Physically, it would have been unattainable.

“You do not have to bend down to drench and dag and it reduces the strain on your back,” Rex explains.

“And it certainly reduces the bad language,” Rae is quick to point out.

As well as saving his back, Rex says his knees avoid the knocks they’d normally endure when wading through pens of ewes and lambs. Having a machine that takes all the knocks and lifts the heavy loads for you has made a significant impact on this farming operation.

When I asked Rex what he’d say to some farmers who are considering purchasing a sheep handler but can’t bear to part with the money, his response was straight to the point: “Pay the money and get over it.”

He says you can’t put a price on your health and you certainly can’t afford to have back problems.

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Photography: Rachel Pratt

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