Research at CSU in 1996 found a correlation between hair whorl patterns on cattle’s foreheads and temperament. Cattle with a high spiral hair whorl above the eyes became more agitated when handled in a squeeze chute or in the auction ring (see illustration).

In that study, 14% of 1,500 cattle in a Colorado feedlot had high hair whorls above their eyes. In Flörcke’s recent study on mothering, only 8% of the mother cows had a high hair whorl, while 37% had a middle hair whorl and 26% had a hair whorl below the eyes. Interestingly, 11% of the cows had multiple hair whorls, 7% had abnormal flare patterns, and 11% had no hair whorl. This may be reflective of years of selection for calm temperament.

Flörcke also found that the height of the spiral hair whorl pattern and the type of hair whorl pattern were associated with cow behavior. Cows with high whorls above the eyes, or multiple hair whorls on the forehead, reacted at a greater distance by orienting themselves toward the vehicle. These animals were more vigilant.

Cows with a hair whorl above the eyes also called their calf when the vehicle was at a greater distance. There was no relationship between hair whorl type and position on cattle aggressively lowering their heads.

Ranchers often make such comments as, “she’s a wild cow but she’s given me a calf every year.” Other anecdotal observations on ranches indicate that the valuable protective traits that protect the calf may be due to vigilance, not aggression.

Cows with high hair whorls have been observed as friendly toward people. The rancher had selected his cows for a calf every year and a willingness to approach people.

More information is needed on how genetics affects mothering behavior and protectiveness. Possibly there may be two aspects of mothering behavior that may be controlled by separate genetic mechanisms. The two traits may be vigilance and differences in the strength of maternal bonding with the calf.

The beef industry definitely doesn’t want cows like the three bad mothers that abandoned their calves. These cows walked away without calling their calf or positioning themselves between the vehicle and their calf. The ideal mother cow protects her calf against predators without becoming dangerously aggressive toward people. 

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins. Cornelia Flörcke is a CSU graduate research assistant.