Vol. 3, #3 Temperament in Cattle

Farm Update  

All the cows and calves went out on pasture March 27 and I don’t know who was happier—me or them.  Our calves were all born by March 15 except for our Boa Kae Royal Oak heifer calf that was born April 17, a calf we really like for her looks and potential.  We have started AI ing to produce next year’s calf crop and will be using some really interesting older Heritage Shorthorn bulls—some have not sired a calf for 40 years.  Hopefully we can get most of the cows bred AI.


Bi-monthly Topic:  Temperament In Cattle

Following up on a recent issue of the Shorthorn Bulletin, a discussion of the importance of selecting cattle that have a good temperament seems appropriate.  As a Bovine Veterinarian, I am well qualified to discuss this subject because unfortunately I have had to deal with more than one fractious cow/bull.   The injury rate for Veterinarians who work primarily with cattle exceeds 10% per year.  Not all of the injuries result from unruly cattle but the great majority do.  Recently there has been extensive data published about the negative economic impact of keeping cows that have “bad attitudes”.  A change in a cow's status, such as having a newborn calf, can cause her to go from being anxious & flighty to dangerously aggressive.  The implications of retaining and propagating refractory cattle should be foremost in the minds of cattle breeders particularly, seedstock producers.

Temperament Defined

Temperament in cattle can be characterized as the response of an individual animal to sudden changes in their environment (new facility, new owner, new calf etc.) or challenges incurred through handling (chutes, loading, transportation, vaccination, etc.).  Temperament also affects how the cow/bull fits into the herd.  Certain cows can be very disruptive within a herd causing ongoing stress for other cows—they are bullies.  Those type of cows should be at the top of the list for removal from the herd because of damage to overall herd tranquility.  I can guarantee that if the other cows had a vote, that type of cow would be “voted off the island”.  Some bulls can be aggressive to the point where they can injure cows.  That type of aggression is not what a breeder should be instilling in their herd regardless of the other merits of the bull.

Temperament Measurement

Genetics and life experiences both play a role in the temperament of cattle.  The experience factor can be broken down into two categories:  1) what they see (how their dam and other cattle react to novel stimuli) and 2) by their own interactions with humans through handling. Measurement of temperament has been attempted by various means such as: chute exit speed, flight time, chute score (excitability within the chute), cattle pen scores, and speed exiting weigh scales.  I believe the two that are the most valuable are the chute exit speed and the chute score.  Most evaluation systems will rank them from one to five, with one being the calmest and five being the most excitable.  The best approach is to develop one’s own parameters in assigning scores and then use them as a culling/keeping tool—a customized  temperament measuring system within a herd is more likely to select for temperaments that fit a particular herd’s management system i.e. range herd, seedstock cattle, family farm cows, etc.

Impact of Bad Temperament

Besides the obvious danger of working with bad tempered cattle there are many other negative side effects of ill-tempered cattle.  Included in this list would be poor reproductive performance, reduced milk production in nursing cows, reduced growth rates in both heifers and steers, less resistance to disease, and decreased meat quality (decreased tenderness). All these negative effects carry over to produce economic losses.  In today’s world, with the narrow profit margins in the beef and dairy industries, few producers have the luxury of ignoring the importance of temperament.

Temperament Selection Process

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Several research studies have shown that temperament is moderately to significantly inheritable.  Therefore utilization of temperament scores can have a meaningful impact on the overall attitude of a herd and how they react to both change and to humans.  For large herds in range conditions selection for temperament has to be moderated by survival instincts.  Some research also suggests that selecting for totally placid cattle can also have a negative impact since selection of overly tranquil cattle can reduce foraging ability and mothering instinct.  However, I cannot emphasize enough that placing pedigree and physical appearance over attitude is a prescription for disaster.  Obviously, in a small herd or family farm (especially with children) selecting for a calm temperament should be a high priority.

Anyone who has been in the cattle business for any length can recite stories about the adventures of dealing with bad attitude cattle.  When bad tempered cattle show up in a herd, the quicker they are eliminated the better it will for the herd and the breeder.  Less stress and more profit.

Joseph Schallberger, DVM, PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants