Sunday, September 29, 2013

Valhalla's quick-and-easy arched cattle panel housing units

Arched cattle panel units have proven to be invaluable here at Valhalla for housing various groups of ducks, chickens, turkeys, and goats -- they can also be used as simple garden storage lockers or even as green houses when covered with plastic during the winter. They are inexpensive to construct yet still very strong; they can be predator-proofed if needed; they can be linked together into stationary rows or mounted on wheels, and; they are extremely easy for even an inexperienced individual to build all alone (without any help at all) in less than a day.

Valhalla's Hospital Row is a secured area where injured farm animals can recover in a quiet setting, and
also where chickens, turkeys, and duck hens can safely hatch and raise their young without disruptions
from their main flocks. The two units on the left are roughly 8' wide x 8' deep x 6' high. The third unit
has an additional panel to create a 12' deep interior for housing a flock of broody duck hens with their
ducklings, while the open unit on the far right was under construction when this photo was taken.

Sergeant Jen with Iraqi war veteran Francis in front of the nearly
completed the 16' long panel unit that is described in this tutorial.
A great number of people have asked us for detailed instructions on exactly how to build these inexpensive and versatile animal housing units. Sergeant Jen therefore volunteered to demonstrate how to build one for this step-by-step tutorial on how cattle panel units are built here at Valhalla, along with notes on lessons learned in the course of constructing more than a dozen units around the property. 

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: this tutorial describes how cattle panel units are built here at Valhalla without any claims that this is the very "best" way to do it! There are many different ways to approach construction of cattle panel units. This tutorial simply describes Valhalla's current approach after a lot of trial and error.

First decide what size unit you would like to build. Standard cattle panels -- sometimes called hog panels or stock panels -- are 16' long and 50" wide (i.e., 4'2" wide) and currently cost an average of just over $20 each. Almost all of Valhalla's cattle panel units have an 8' wide footprint using these 16' long panels, which result in a 6' high structure when the panels are bent into an arch. A single standard panel thus forms an 8' wide x 4'2" deep unit, two panels linked side-by-side make an 8' wide x 8'4" deep unit, three panels results in a roomy 8' wide x 12'6" unit, and so on. 

Step 1: build a simple box frame on the ground. It
doesn't have to be level; any minor gaps underneath
the frame can be filled in with gravel or shims. If you

intend on housing animals in your new cattle panel
unit then you may want to consider lining the bottom
with poultry wire that is stapled to the frame; doing
so will keep any predators from digging underneath
and prevent your critters from digging out.
Step 1: build a simple box frame on the ground that will hold your cattle panel arches. We needed to very quickly build a long housing unit suitable for housing an unknown number of goat kids, and had a few treated 16' long pieces of 2x6" lumber to work with. Sergeant Jen cut one in half and then built this very simple box frame that is roughly 8' wide x 16' deep (give or take a few inches here and there). Even though 16' long wasn't quite long enough for four panels, we knew we still could overlap four cattle panels just a little bit to make them fit into the frame.

Note that in using the Valhalla Method described herein, your cattle panel unit box frame doesn't necessarily need to be level and there can even be some small to moderate gaps underneath the frame - unless you really have your heart set on making a textbook-perfect unit. However, perfectionists should consider this: over many different construction projects we've found that building perfectly level structures can end up looking very odd on uneven ground, while also creating unnecessary problems such as large empty spaces under housing units that attract snakes and other vermin. Precisely flattening out each small animal housing unit building site using shovels, backhoes, or even gravel or concrete simply isn't economical or practical here, so most of the animal and storage structures at Valhalla simply "hug the ground." 

Step 2: beef up your corners using L brackets
or scrap pieces of 2x4s.
Step 2: beef up the corners of your box frame using pieces of 2x4s or metal "L" brackets. 

On this particular day we didn't have any "L" corner brackets on hand so Jen just clamped a small length of 2x4 to each corner and screwed them into place. The main idea is to tightly secure both the end and the side of the frame to a reinforcement piece to make the corners as strong as possible. Since the frame might not be perfectly square or level (see the discussion in Step 1) it will be best to use a clamp to secure the 2x4 piece in against the frame as tightly as possible (much tighter than by hand). 

Step 3: bend your first panel into an arch using a come-a-long.
SAFETY FIRST: do not try to bend the panel by hand or with a
rope! You must use a come-a-long for the sake of safety
(or, if you're working alone, 
two come-a-longs)!
Step 3: Use a come-a-long to bend your first cattle panel into an arch. 

Lay the panel flat on the ground, clip the come-a-long steel cable to the middle of one end, extend the cable as far out as it will go, clip it into place near the opposite end of the panel, and then start cranking the panel into an arch. 

The average come-a-long cable won't reach 16' so you have two options. You could have someone carefully lift the end of the panel up as you clip the cable as close as you can to the other end of the panel. Or, if you're working alone, you can bend the panel upwards until it's curled up just enough to safely attach a second come-a-long to both ends. 

Step 4: carefully tip the arched panel up onto it's side.
Step 4: carefully tip the arched panel up onto it's side. Valhalla's second come-a-long was in use elsewhere on the property so I just stepped in to give Jen a hand. Notice that we didn't clip the come-a-long all the way to the end of the panel but it still arched enough for us to safely tip it onto its side. Cattle panels are fairly light but still very awkward to handle.

Step 5: carefully walk each upright panel into the frame.
Step 5: tip the panel until it is upright and then walk it into position within the box frame that you built.

Take your time, watch your step, don't trip over anything, and don't be too surprised if you end up waddling around like a duck while wrestling the arched panel into position within the box frame. This is really the fun part of building a panel unit! Of course it's easier for two people to move the arched panel into the frame, although one person can also do it alone by walking back and forth to adjust the ends while relying on the come-a-long to hold the arch together. 

Step 6: sandwich each panel between the box frame
and a length of 2x4 using a clamp, then secure
everything into place with screws.
Step 6: sandwich each panel between the frame and a length of 2x4 using a clamp before securing it. 

Butt your first arched panel up tightly against the end of the box frame (that is, against the 8' wide end part of the frame) before clamping it inside the frame using a 3' or 4' piece of 2x4 and screwing everything securely into place. Repeat at the bottom of each panel, on both sides, that you install.

Please notice that the come-a-long may have some stack in it after the panel has been positioned inside the frame. It's a good idea to leave it in place as a fail-safe device and only remove it after you properly secure each panel with screws to the frame. 

Step 7: secure neighboring arched panels to each other using
zip ties or hose clamps. Zip ties will probably break down
over periods of years but they are strong, inexpensive, and
very easy to use, thus making them a favorite choice
for countless projects here at Valhalla.
Step 7: secure neighboring arched panels to each other using zip-ties or hose clamps. Zip-ties are almost always used here at Valhalla because they are not only very strong but also inexpensive and easy to use, although over a period of years of being exposed to weather they will probably need to be replaced. We also occasionally use hose clamps to mechanically tighten any panels that need to be pulled up tight to each other against gravity - for example, when one panel is slightly downhill on uneven ground from the next panel next to it.

Step 8: begin building door frames to also stabilize the unit. Notice
how the vertical door frame sides extend up into the air beyond
the highest point of the first arched panel.
Step 8: begin building the door frames to stabilize your new panel unit.

Don't worry if your new panel unit is leaning a bit to the left or right at this point: to stabilize it, all you need to do is feed two 2x4s vertically through the top of one end of the unit and secure them to the interior of the box frame.

These two vertical 2x4s will also become the sides of the door frame where you'll mount your first door.

How far apart should these two vertical 2x4s be from each other? That depends on how wide you want the opening to be, and the size and types of doors that you want to use. A three foot wide door is fine, so is a four foot door. Valhalla's Hospital Row even has a cattle panel unit with a single 6' wide barn door and it works just as well as much narrower doors. Step 12 of this tutorial describes the process of building panel unit doors in further detail, although the size of your doors is really up to you. 
The top of the vertical door frame 2x4s *must*
extend skyward beyond the top of the first
arched panel, so that the door frame will
be above the tallest part of the arched panels.

Several other details also become very important while building the first door frame for your panel unit. First, you'll want to be sure to cut the two vertical 2x4 door frame sides so that they extend above the curve of the arched panel. Why? Because the top of the door frame must clear the top of the arched cattle panel frame. And why is having the frame above the unit such a big deal?  Because very soon you'll be balancing a 2x6" on top of the two vertical pieces to form the upper door frame. You will also want the upper portion of the door frame to be above the unit so that you won't bang your head every time that it's necessary to go inside the unit to clean it, or tend to an animal, or to get something that's stored inside.

Due to slopes or other uneven ground issues you'll
want to adjust the height of each vertical door frame
to fit before clamping and screwing it into place.
When building irregular structures that "hug the ground,"
take care to measure and install each piece to fit the space
rather than pre-cutting and duplicating as you would for
traditionally squared-off structures.
Another point to take into account is exactly where to secure the bottom of the two vertical door frame 2x4s to the bottom of the unit. You'll want to mount these pieces on the inside of the box frame because the arched panels are already flush on the inside, not the outside. That said, because the ground is probably sloping or otherwise uneven, you'll want to slide the vertical 2x4s up and down a little until the tops are even. If you have a buddy available you could even have him or her balance a 2x6" on top of the verticals while making sure it doesn't fall and bop you on the head while you are busy making the necessary adjustments before clamping and securing everything into place.

Step 9: install the top of the door frame before adding
short horizontal 2x4 supports through the panel sides.
Step 9: Install the top of the door frame above the two vertical 2x4 supports before securing horizontal framing through the panel unit sides. 

Look just above Jen's head in this photograph to see how a length of 2x6" lumber was cut to fit on top of the vertical door frame pieces, then by standing on a ladder one can secure the top piece into place with screws. 

Once the simple three-piece door frame is completed, it takes only a few minutes to balance lengths of 2x4s from within the sides of the panels and screw them into the back of the door frame, thus locking the front half of the unit into place so it won't move. We use a total of four 2x4 horizontal supports on each end of the structure: two on the left side of the door frame and another two on the right side of the door frame. 

Step 10: build a second door frame on the opposite
side of the panel unit.
Step 10: build a second door frame on the opposite side of the unit. A second set of doors will not only stabilize the structure but also provide a great deal of flexibility in how the unit can be used over time.

Examples: One door can lead to a fenced in area for animals while the other can be used to easily access the unit for feeding, watering, and cleaning from the unfenced side. Placing a divider inside the unit can also allow different animals that must be separated to still live in the same unit, with their own private entrances.

Step 11: use a small piece of 1x6 to pin each
end panel upwards to the top of each door frame.
Step 11: pin the top of each end panel to the top of each door frame.
By now your panel unit will be mostly stable, yet you'll still notice that the tops of the panels will be an inch or two below the top of the door frames. Simply clamp a 4" or 6" long flat piece of scrap lumber underneath the very top of each panel. Use a clamp to squeeze it tight to the top of the door frame, and screw it in. A thin piece of 1x6 scrap works best here since you'll certainly bang your head when entering the unit if you use a 2x4 or anything thicker.

Step 12: Build and install the doors. This is not as frightening as it sounds. Making doors can be very, very easy if you are willing to live with simple yet functional doors instead of architectural works of art. For purposes of this tutorial former Army Captain Nat agreed to quickly summarize how incredibly easy it is to make a simple door using the Valhalla Method, via this single explanatory photograph:

Former Army Captain Nat demonstrating how to make
a basic animal housing door in roughly 15 minutes.
This poultry wire lined door was installed to a unit inside
Valhalla's secured Hospital Row, yet it could also be
predator-proofed by using heavy welded wire -- the
kind used for rabbit hutches -- if necessary.

To make the frame Nat first cut two pieces of lumber that were as tall as the door he wanted, then cut two more as wide as the door needed to be. Afterwards he laid the two longer pieces flat on the ground before stacking the shorter two pieces on top of them at the corners, roughly squared the corners together into 90 degree angles by touch (i.e., by using his finger tips to check-check-double-check that each board was properly aligned side-and-top to it's assigned neighbor), then Nat carefully stepped on the shorter pieces on the top near the corners to clamp them down, and finally screwed in the long pieces below to the short pieces above to make a door frame. If this written description is not clear to you, just look at the picture carefully: how Nat made this door frame will then become very obvious to you.

Nat finished the door by laying poultry wire from a roll over the door frame, as shown in the photograph. Off-camera Nat then cut the sheet of wire off to fit using clippers, swiftly stapled the wire sheet to the frame, and eventually (after inspecting his own work for any possible flaws) dubbed the results to be a completed door. And, in fact, this very same door has successfully been in service for many months now, without any unauthorized entries or escapees.

Now that you realize that custom building your own doors can be very easy, what kinds of doors would you like to have for your new cattle panel unit? Here are three basic easy-to-build options (out of thousands of other much more complicated designs) that you might consider:

French doors made from 1x6s. Notice that this unit
also has an additional low 6' wide, 2' high interior
mini-fence just inside the front doors to prevent tiny
turkey poults from wiggling passed their mothers and
between the small gap between the doors. This low
safety barrier is still easy for humans to step over.
French doors: when we initially started building panel units here at Valhalla we made every mistake in the book, starting with door frames that were mounted *below* the arched panels (everybody has constantly banged their heads on them ever since). At first we just couldn't figure out how to make oversized single doors for these low, double-wide door frames, and that's why many of Valhalla's first panel units used double French doors like these. However, there are real advantages to French doors: one door can stay closed to prevent escapes by birds and animals that need to stay inside, or to help prevent those on the outside from getting in. They're very easy to build and lightweight to boot.

A single 6' wide oversized "barn door" supported
by a wheel to prevent sagging (the red arrow is
pointing at the wheel - click the photo to enlarge).
Giant single "barn door": it took a period of time but we finally figured out that we could mount a huge 6' wide single barn door to a panel unit by attaching a wheel to the bottom of the door itself. The wheel supports the weight of the oversized door that would (and certainly did) otherwise sag on its hinges.

A single big barn door is useful for chicken or duck flocks that all want to get inside at once (i.e., at dinner time) or all want to exit at once (i.e., to be let out in the morning). An oversized door like this prevents traffic jams and also allows the unit to be used with much larger animals in a pinch.

Click (or peck) to see a closeup
of this wheel mounted on the door
As an added bonus, both the oversized barn door and the panel unit depth itself are big enough to serve as a covered parking garage for Valhalla's riding mower in the bad weather months. All the chickens and ducks are moving to separate quarters closer to the Valhalla Main House for the winter, so this specific unit has been earmarked for garden equipment storage until their return in the spring.

Step 12: build and install doors to both ends
of your panel unit.

Dutch-style doors: knowing that the new panel unit would house young goat kids, it made sense to build double Dutch-style doors so that food and water bowls could be filled from above while preventing the kids from escaping into the front yard.

The two halves of Dutch doors can be latched to the door frame separately or locked to each other using a bolt and some eye hooks. Simply attach one eye hook to the top half of the door, align two eye hooks below it on the bottom half of the door, and drop a large bolt through all three eye hooks as shown in the photograph below.
Eye hooks and a bolt can be
used to lock the Dutch door
halves to each other.

LAST STEP: Finish your cattle panel unit by covering it with wire and a tarp. Secure the wire to the unit by stapling it to the frame and attaching it to the cattle panels with zip ties.

Valhalla has livestock protection dogs to keep predators away so we therefore opted to use lightweight, inexpensive poultry wire for our cattle panel units. However, in any other circumstances it would be a very good idea to use welded wire to keep raccoons, weasels, and other predators from reaching inside your cattle panel unit (at least if you intend to keep animals or birds inside). You may even want to line the ground inside of a stationary unit with poultry wire to prevent predators from digging under the frame - and of course to keep your critters from digging out.

Important: If you found this tutorial to be helpful or interesting then please take a moment to support our work by making a donation to Valhalla. Your small $5 donation will help us to determine whether there is any real interest in tutorials like this one since they take a days to prepare while our time is in fact very limited. We are a nonprofit organization recognized by the IRS (EIN 36-4699799), and your donation in response to this cattle panel tutorial will go directly into the purchase of building supplies and materials. Please press this button to show your interest and support for our many projects and the transitioning combat veterans who come to Valhalla:
A second cattle panel unit for the goat kids was added after Sergeant Jen had to report back for active
duty. Sadie the Great Pyrenees is one of two livestock protection dogs pulling security duties here at
Valhalla, and a total of four goats are now living in the new cattle panel units under her watchful eyes.

* * *
The Valhalla Project needs your help and support
Just getting a project like Valhalla up and running has required a significant investment in time, money, and labor. With roughly $500,000 already invested over the last two years into the Valhalla Project for property acquisition, feeding and housing Soldier participants, infrastructure and facility improvements, animal purchases and feed, tools and building supplies, forest and pasture management expenses, and much much more, resources are running thin. We need YOUR help to keep Valhalla functioning efficiently - while at the same time expanding vitally important programs to assist post-9/11 combat Soldiers and war zone civilian workers to transition back into the civilian world. 

The Valhalla Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity recognized by the IRS.
Nobody, including cadre or board members, draws a paycheck here, nor will they ever: we simply give everything we have to make Valhalla possible. 100% of your donation via Paypal will go directly to program expenses, period. If you'd prefer to instead directly donate four new tractor tire, a truckload of straw bales, a pallet of dimension lumber, or even a few dozen 10' sheets of forest green tin roofing, that would be absolutely wonderful - yet perhaps polking the "Donate" button above to contribute $10, $20, 
$50 or even more might be a little easier and more practical!


  1. this is your good site.i like your site.cattle panels . i found it very informative site.

  2. waoh...this blog is excellent i reading your article. chicken coops i like it.keep up the great work.

  3. I would like to incorporate a cattle panels arch into my vegetable garden. I am just afraid it would create too much shade for the surrounding plants. There are lots of things you can do with cattle panel if you are creative