Stockmen know that wild, temperamental cattle present a danger to handlers, facilities and other cattle. They’ve also learned that cattle behavior can play a role in performance, health and carcass value, making selection for calmer cattle a worthwhile effort.
At the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) conference last week in Houston, Texas A&M animal scientist Ron Randel, PhD, outlined methods for objectively measuring temperament in cattle and applying that information to genetic decisions.
Although handling and environmental factors also influence cattle behavior, temperament is a moderately heritable trait, and several breed associations have developed EPDs for temperament and genomics companies have identified genetic markers associated with temperament.
Scientists generally define temperament in cattle as the reactivity or fear response to humans. Stressful events such as weaning, ear tagging, branding, castration, vaccination and transportation have the potential to create that stress and fear response, but some cattle will react more than others, resulting in risk of injury, reduced growth, poor immune response and at the packing plant, more bruised carcasses, dark cutters and tougher beef.
For the cow-calf producer, measuring temperament can be a useful tool in selecting replacement heifers, helping them avoid the most aggressive heifers that could pass that trait to future generations.
Researchers have developed several methods for evaluating temperament. Randel notes that each method has some limitations, as temperament is a complex mixture of behaviors. Each, however, can be useful for meaningful measurements.
The Beef Improvement Federation guidelines include a method called a docility score or chute score. This involves catching each animal, ideally at about weaning weight, in a squeeze chute, but without applying the squeeze. The 1-to-6 scoring system awards a score of 1 to animals that are docile, gentle and unexcited in the chute, and a 6 to animals that become extremely aggressive when confined. Randel says this method has advantages in that it is easy to use in routine handling and research shows the scores are correlated with other measures of temperament. The scores are not, however, correlated with cortisol levels in the blood, which indicate stress.
Another method, also listed in the BIF guidelines, is a pen score. This involves placing a group of about five calves, also at about weaning weight, in a small pen, approximately 24 feet x 24 feet. Two observers approach the pen and rank calves on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 indicating very calm and not excited by humans and 5 indicating very aggressive, excited and dangerous behavior. This method requires some additional handling, but the scores are positively correlated with cortisol levels and other measures of temperament.
A third method is to measure exit velocity or flight speed as cattle exit the chute. This typically involves electronic triggers to record the time it takes each animal to travel a six-foot distance upon leaving the chute. This method provides an objective measurement that is correlated with cortisol levels and other measures of temperament, and can be used with calves as early as three weeks of age. The disadvantage is that it requires extra equipment and is not as convenient as chute scores or pen scores for commercial producers.
Among breed associations, Angus, Brangus, Simmental and Limousin use the 1-to-6 BIF docility or chute score. The Brahman association uses the 1-to-5 pen scoring system, and Saler uses a 1-to-5 docility score. Some breeds measure temperament at weaning, some at the yearling stage and some at weaning and yearling stages.
Randel says Limousin breeders have succeeded in positively changing the breed’s temperament over a relatively short time using the BIF docility-scoring system to identify aggressive animals. Elimination of the most temperamental cattle from a herd or from a breed will improve the performance of that herd or breed, he says.
Find more information, including compete descriptions of the temperament scoring systems, in the BIF conference proceedings.