Measuring temperament for a better beef industry
We define how cattle behave and react when being handled by several definitions. Temperament, disposition, calmness, aggressiveness and flight zone are all words or terms used to describe this interaction between cow and stockman. Recent studies discussed below all indicate that calm cattle have superior performance and tend to have improved health, leading to more desirable carcasses. In addition to these economic and performance reasons, there are several additional reasons that cattle temperament is a very important selection criteria. As an industry, we are under increased scrutiny regarding how we provide a healthy, clean environment, how we minimize injury, and how we treat and handle cattle with minimal stress. Cattle temperament is an important part of this relationship. Additionally, we are all forced to operate larger herds with less and less help in order to remain viable. Docile cattle move through processing facilities easier, are less prone to accidents and injury, and reduce wear and tear on equipment and facilities.
Measuring temperament. Current systems used to measure temperament include Pen Score, (PS) a subjective measurement based on observing cattle in the pen, where 1=nonaggressive, docile, not excited by humans or facilities to 5=very aggressive, excitable, runs into fences and toward humans. Chute Score (CS), an estimate of temperament based on observing cattle while restrained in the chute with 1=calm and no movement to 5=rearing, twisting, or struggling, and Exit Velocity (EV), how fast an animal leaves the chute after being processed, usually measured in ft/sec. Both pen score and chute score are easy measurements to take, and I've seen several operations score their cattle, especially replacement heifers, during processing. We all notice the outliers, or extremely excitable animals that are aggressive to the stock dog, but it is also important to score all cattle in order to make overall improvements in the herd.
What determines cattle temperament? Genetics definitely tell part of the story in determining cattle docility, but it's probably not the whole story. Australian research indicates that cattle temperament is highly heritable, with both exit velocity (EV) and chute score (CS) being highly heritable, with heritability estimates of 35 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Careful screening of bulls and watching specific bloodlines can definitely help with temperament.
Equally, if not more importantly, is how cattle are routinely handled. Mississippi State data suggests that there are significant differences in animal temperament between farms, or sources. This isn't just a function of genetics, but routine handling. Working cattle calmly and quietly, having an understanding of flight zone and how cattle react to perceived threats, and working cattle slowly all reduce stress on the cattle and improve overall temperament of the herd.
At home, my kids have the perfect example of this. We have a pretty good sized herd of bucket calves, a group of calves that my three kids have raised for the last nine months. These calves walk up to you in the pen and rub against you, just like a pet dog. All three of the kids can crawl on all of these calves, riding them without a halter. These calves came from various sources, but the constant contact with us resulted in very tame calves. We recently put all of our weaned heifer calves in the same pen with our bucket calves. In addition to teaching them where the water tank was, and how to eat from a bunk, the bucket calves also had a calming effect on the heifers, and within a week, the kids could even approach the heifer calves, which hadn't been handled until weaning. That is, all except for one heifer that my oldest son has named “lightning.”
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