Range cows need to step out and cover the country when asked to. However, ranchers also need to be able to approach and handle their cattle safely and without a fight. That’s why docility is so important in breeding decisions.

Ron Torell, University of Nevada Extension livestock specialist in Elko, says both the American Angus Association (www.angus.org) and the North American Limousin Foundation (www.nalf.org/) support a considerable amount of research to study the heritability of docility and develop a docility scoring and EPD system. Docility is moderately heritable, meaning selection for that trait could be an efficient method of passing those attributes on to offspring, good or bad.

"From a practical standpoint, we’ve all seen this occur. We’ve all purchased a sour-attitude bull and watched that same attitude often show up several years later in his daughters. The same can be said about a docile bull and his resulting daughters," Torell says.

One of the authorities in the field of animal behavior, Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, has clearly shown that poor temperament in beef cattle is associated with reduced performance, health and carcass quality. It’s also documented that cattle with calmer dispositions have higher average daily gains and decreased incidence of dark cutting beef.

In addition, feedlot cattle with sour attitudes had lower immune function and tougher meat. And, from an economic standpoint, research showed that more docile feedlot cattle returned $62.19/head more than aggressive cattle, primarily due to increased feedlot performance and carcass quality.

It’s for all those economic reasons that selection for docile cattle makes sense, Torell says.

From a practical standpoint, Grandin very clearly shows the increased human safety factor associated with handling excitable cattle as well as the added cost of equipment and facility repair. This safety factor is multiplied given today’s limited labor pool for experienced livestock handlers capable and knowledgeable of handling excitable cattle in a tender way.

Researchers also studied other factors (Le Neindre et. al 2000). Pre-deposing animals to good handling practices at an early age had a lasting effect on how docility or lack of docility was expressed in that animal’s behavior later in life. The author has seen this with replacement heifers during the development phase and the pay off in how the animal responds to handling as a mature cow. By taking the time when the animal is young to positively reinforce good handling practices, the animal grows comfortable with humans and may overcome some of the inherent lack of docility.

Several breed associations currently list docility EPDs with a greater number indicating progeny with calmer behavior. The scoring systems use a 1-6 scale with one being very docile and six being very aggressive. I personally feel this is an important EPD to utilize when selecting bulls for your operation. The payback down the road could be enormous.

If docility EPDs aren’t available for a particular animal such as when selecting commercial replacement heifers, you can run your own quick test. Separate the animal from the remaining animals, hold the animal in a corner of the corral or in an alley, then encroach on the animal’s flight zone. Mentally measure the response of the animal in relation to others placed in the same situation. Generally an animal will reveal its genetic propensity for docility under this situation.
-- Ron Torell, University of Nevada Extension
(775-738-1721 or torellr@unce.unr.edu)