Ranchers know that excitable, hard-to-handle cattle increase their work load and potentially create safety hazards. But the problem can extend even further, as research increasingly shows a relationship between cattle temperament, health, performance and meat quality.
At the Beef Improvement Federation conference in early June, Mississippi State University animal scientist Rhonda Vann, PhD., outlined those relationships and the opportunity to effectively use temperament in genetic selection.
Vonn notes that throughout the lives of beef cattle, they are subjected to potentially stressful events, including branding, castration, vaccination, weaning, social mixing, and transportation. Research has shown that these incidents of acute, or short-term stress are not necessarily detrimental to the health of an animal, but chronic stress can negatively impact growth, reproductive function, and immune function.
Cattlemen can minimize stress with good management and handling methods, but an individual animal’s genetically influenced temperament can play a role in determining how it responds to handling, processing, transport or other activities.
Vonn cites results of numerous studies showing that more flighty or excitable cattle produce more of the hormones associated with stress than calm cattle, with negative effects on long term health and performance.
In a Mississippi trial, researchers evaluated 210 cattle producers consigned to the Farm to Feedlot program. They rated each animal’s temperament using chute score, pen score and exit velocity prior to shipment to the feedlot. Vonn notes that chute and pen scores are subjective measures of temperament, while exit velocity is an objective measurement that records the rate in meters per second at which cattle exit a working chute. A combined temperament score that averages subjective and objective measures provides a more complete assessment than individual scores because it accounts for more than one aspect of cattle behavior, she says.
The researchers evaluated cattle for daily gains, treatment costs, net returns and carcass quality. They observed the following trends:
- Individual treatment costs increased as pen score and exit velocity increased.
- As exit velocity increased, final body weight, total gain, and ADG decreased.
- As exit velocity increased, net returns decreased along with an increase in the number of days cattle were treated for sickness.
The researchers concluded that cattle that possess more excitable temperaments have increased treatment costs and lower net profits compared to cattle with calmer temperaments.
Vonn notes that cattle temperament is a moderately heritable trait, and producers can use identification of excitable animals in a herd in management, marketing and breeding decisions, such as by selling excitable heifers as feeder calves rather than retaining them for breeding. Future research she says will involve more in-depth exploration of the interactions of temperament, transportation and immune function as well as cattle feeding behavior and its relationship to overall animal health, productivity, and profitability.