Numerous studies show that selecting beef cattle for a calm temperament improves weight gain and meat quality. Over the years, however, several ranchers have reported an increase in poor mothering among their cows. Perhaps this is the result of intensive selection during the last decade for calmer, more docile cows.

Colorado State University (CSU) graduate student Cornelia Flörcke recently spent three months on a Red Angus ranch in Colorado to learn more about how different cows protect their newborn calves. Good protective behaviors will become increasingly important as wolves spread into more and more states.

Flörcke evaluated a total of 341 cow-calf pairs, with behavioral testing performed on each cow-calf pair that had a fully mobile calf within 24 hours after calving. To test how each pair responded to a potential threat, the pair was circled in a gradually tightening spiral by a strange vehicle. This movement resembled that of an approaching predator.

The gray GMC utility vehicle, which was totally different than the ranch’s white trucks, circled slowly, gradually drawing closer to the pair. A hunter’s range finder was used to measure the distance between the vehicle and the cow-calf pair at which different behaviors were observed.

Only three really poor mothers abandoned their calves; the other cows placed themselves between their calf and the vehicle upon perceiving the presence of the vehicle as a potential threat.

As the vehicle approached, 78% of the cows called their calf by vocalizing (mooing). The three really poor mothers failed to vocalize. In addition, 13% of the cows reacted to the vehicle by lowering their heads and acting aggressively.

There was also an interesting age effect, as older, more experienced cows reacted to the vehicle when it was at a greater distance than younger cows.