How to Build Durable Pipe Corrals
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By Spencer Smith – It’s important to know how to build pipe corrals because of the availability of material and, if done correctly, it will only need to be done once in a lifetime.
When my family moved to Springs Ranch in Fort Bidwell, California, in the early 1990s, the 20-year-old corrals were in rough shape. We went to work improving the corrals by replacing the rotted railroad ties and nailing on new lodgepoles. Fast forward to today, we are confronted with the situation that the corrals need a serious facelift again. This time we are not going to repeat the habit of building out of wood. We are replacing them all with drill stem and sucker rod. My goal is to never rebuild these corrals again.
The facelift I am doing on our corrals at Springs Ranch will take about five years to complete as time and budget allow. We are able to use the corrals as we build them. It does not have to be completed all at once. Make sure to time your project to suit your budget and homestead or ranch needs.
How to Build Pipe Corrals – Tools Needed
- Welder – either Arc or MIG/wire feed
- Metal cut-off saw, plasma cutter, oxy-acetylene, or handheld bandsaw
- Post hole digger, auger, or shovel
- Wheelbarrow for mixing concrete
- Some good levels
- Chalk line
We went ahead at the onset of this project and bought all of these tools. We thought we could put all of them to work regardless of how much we used them on this specific project. This was our first mistake. The best tool that we have found for cutting the 2 ⅞” drill stem to the exact angles needed, is a Milwaukee portable band-saw. This tool costs about $300 and is the one cutting tool that we simply cannot live without. We spent about two and a half times that much on a metal cutting chop-saw that we found to be much less effective and precise when making any cut for this project. If you are looking for a cutting tool specifically for building metal pipe corrals, I would get this before the $800 chop saw or the $1,500 plasma cutter that we bought. The plasma cutter has proven to be a useful tool, but not as essential for building corrals.
Corral Layout and Build Out
Corral layout is the most important part of building new corrals out of metal. When the project is complete, the corrals will be concreted and welded in place. You do not want to have any second thoughts about design. I am not a big fan of sweeps or tubs that push cattle into a space that then gets compressed. I find this too stressful and counter-intuitive for how livestock wants to move. I am a believer in the Bud Box that allows livestock to search for a way out and allows them to move fast and fluidly through the corrals without getting jammed up and stressed out.
When rebuilding an existing set of corrals you should know what already works well, and what you want to change. When designing a layout of the corrals, I mark my layout with a chalk line. I can measure and mark where all of my posts and gates will go. After my layout is completed, I set my corner posts, then tighten a guide string line and set the other posts in the line. You will need to make sure that your posts are in a perfect line so that the top pipe sets correctly in the saddle cuts.
I like to concrete all the posts in my corrals, my line posts get one bag of concrete and the gate posts get two or more depending on how much pressure that point is likely to see from livestock. If you would like to make archways or bow gates over the span, you can get away with less concrete and have plenty of stability. I like archways in sorting alleys or loading chutes for protection against cattle spreading the corrals. Be careful that the arches are high enough that a cowboy doesn’t hit his head when following or sorting cattle.
Using a band saw, you can cut perfect copes or saddle cuts for each of the rungs you are putting between the posts. There is a little trick to this and once you have it, your corrals will go up fast.
For 2 ⅞” pipe corrals, measure your span two inches longer than what you want and mark the top of the pipe with a straight edge so your copes line up. Then, make the lines around the pipe at the exact length to fill the span. So if the distance between given posts is eight feet, first cut the pipe 8’ 2” and mark a plumb line to ensure your saddles line up perfectly. Then mark one inch off the edge and you are ready to cut your saddles. Now take your band saw and cut a diagonal line from the center of the post to the back of the one-inch line and repeat so that you have a saddle cut that will perfectly go around the post where it needs to match. This method will take you about ten minutes to master and will produce the perfect cut every time. If working with 2 ⅔” pipes, do the same thing but make the line ¾ inches off the end of the pipe.
Many use sucker rod for their spans because they’re cheap and relatively strong. I suggest you either weld clips onto the post that will allow the sucker rod to free float or blow through the posts with a plasma cutter or oxy-acetylene torch and run the sucker rod through and weld tight. The second option gives the best looking and strongest option for a set of pens. I warn against welding the sucker rod to the outside of the post as these tend to pop off when cattle crowd it or during temperature fluctuations.
There are many options for ranch or homestead fencing and it’s important to find the best material at the best price. If budget is a concern, tap into your support network to brainstorm creative and cheap fencing ideas.
For my loading chute, I used pipe and sheet metal because I do not want my cattle able to look out when I am shipping them. Typically, when we ship we have somewhere between five and 10 trucks hauling cattle to and from the ranch. That means five or 10 truck drivers standing at the end of the corrals making eye contact with the cattle. To deal with my frustrations for cow haulers to be in the way, I made my chute solid and without a catwalk for the truckers. This eliminates the occurrence of a trucker sticking his head over the top of the chute and slowing down the cattle.
If you design your corrals well and allow the cattle to flow through them, then there is no need for hollering or hot shots in most cases. In the crowding alley leading to the chute, I chose to use highway guardrail because it is stout and wide enough that livestock won’t try to challenge it. It also has rounded edges to make sure nothing gets caught on a sharp edge.
Knowing how to build pipe corrals is a rewarding endeavor that can benefit generations to come. DIY fence installation makes for a happy homestead or ranch!