December 7, 2011 10:03 AM

Now is a good time to add temperament to culling criteria

For Brian McCulloh at Woodhill Farms in Viroqua, Wis., it’s more the exception than the rule that he has to cull an animal that is overly aggressive or exhibits poor temperament. In fact, he says, he may have to cull only one cow every couple of years for poor temperament.

The reason that number is so low, he says, is because the operation has spent decades using temperament as part of the selection process for its purebred Angus herd, which is currently 300 brood head. The standard is basically that an animal crosses the line when it becomes a danger to those working with it and when its behavior stirs up other animals, which makes processing and care more difficult.

McCulloh adds that while most females are protective of calves at calving, there are those that are "overly" aggressive at calving time, beyond the normal maternal instinct to protect the calf. Those cows are always removed from the herd. Bull selection for docility is along the same lines. Even if a bull is right in all other areas, if he behaves overly aggressively, he is not sold as a production bull.

"As a seedstock producer, we need to cull for slaughter and not send those animals back into production herds," McCulloh says.

Buyers of cows and bulls at the local sale barn should be cautious, he says, if they don’t know where an animal came from or what its background is. "It’s buyer beware when buying replacement at the sale barn. Always ask yourself, Why is this animal at the sale barn in the first place?" he adds.

Cliff Copeland, co-manager of Copeland and Sons LLC, near Nara Visa, N.M., says he’s always selected for temperament. The family raises both commercial and purebred Hereford, but has just recently started collecting temperament scores on cattle to help customers.

Copeland offers a prime example of the importance of temperament in a herd. Recently, he was getting ready to ship 200 head of commercial steers and heifers. The animals had to be sorted and weighed, and his father, Clifford, who is 79 years old, was able to do the sorting by himself because the cattle were calm and easy to handle.

But is there a point where cattle can be too calm? Copeland says that has not been an issue for him and his cattle graze in some pretty tough range conditions. He says the cows seem to know the difference between people and predators that threaten their calves.

Economic incentives. With the current strong cattle prices, especially for cull cows, now might be a good time to get rid of cows with attitude that send you scrambling over the fence.

Rhonda Vann, an animal scientist at Mississippi State University, has been part of a long-term study on cows with poor temperament and how they impact the bottom line. Her research, as well as others’, shows that aggressive cattle become sick more often and have more difficulty gaining weight.

In addition, one cow with an attitude can rub off on others in the herd. "Cow behavior even affects meat tenderness, as certain hormones such as cortisol and enzymes remain at higher levels in stressed-out cattle, possibly toughening the muscle," Vann says.

Researchers at the University of Florida found that cows with poor temperament are less likely to conceive. They measured temperament using a scoring method (see sidebar) and by taking blood samples to analyze cortisol concentrations. The cow temperament scores and elevated cortisol concentrations correlated with a decreased rate of pregnancy.

Research from universities and breed associations shows that herds with aggressive cattle are more likely to have lower conception rates, lower immune response to vaccines, more reports of illness, lower rates of gain and more equipment to replace or repair.

Nature or nurture? Poor temperament and aggressiveness can be caused by environment as well as genetics. Based on research to date, Vann says, she attributes 25% of the aggressive behavior exhibited by cattle to how humans treat the animals, 10% to the environment and the rest to genetics.

Some animals are predisposed to docility. Many breeds of cattle have docility EPDs to help producers in the selection of animals.

All breeds have bloodlines that are known to be nervous. The North American Limousin Foundation (NALF) has used docility EPDs since 1998, when it published the first genetic evaluation for docility in beef cattle. According to NALF, by placing a strong emphasis on selection for calmer cattle, Limousin breeders have improved the temperament of Limousin cattle dramatically.

Even with a breed known for docile cattle, American Hereford Association (AHA) members are putting measurements on this subjective trait. Jack Ward, AHA chief operating officer, says a recent survey of commercial producers found that disposition is the second most important trait, after calving ease.

But the way an animal is handled, or not handled, also impacts flightiness and aggression. "Just walking through calves on a regular basis and handling them gets them used to people," McCulloh says.

How to Score Temperament

The Beef Improvement Federation offers the following guidelines for scoring temperament as cattle are handled and processed through a squeeze chute. Since an animal’s behavior can be influenced by past experiences, scoring should be conducted at weaning or yearling ages.

Score 1—Docile. Mild disposition. Gentle and easily handled. Stands and moves slowly during processing. Undisturbed, settled and somewhat dull. Does not pull on headgate when in chute. Exits chute calmly.

Score 2—Restless.
Quieter than average, but may be stubborn during processing. May try to back out of chute or pull back on headgate. Some flicking of tail. Exits chute promptly.

Score 3—Nervous. Typical temperament is manageable, but nervous and impatient. A moderate amount of struggling, movement and tail flicking. Repeated pushing and pulling on headgate. Exits chute briskly.

Score 4—Flighty (Wild). Jumpy and out of control, quivers and struggles violently. May bellow and froth at the mouth. Continuous tail flicking. Defecates and urinates during processing. Frantically runs fence line and may jump when penned individually. Exhibits long flight distance and exits chute wildly.

Score 5—Aggressive. Similar to Score 4, but with added aggressive behavior, fearfulness, extreme agitation and continuous movement, which may include jumping and bellowing while in chute. Exits chute frantically and may exhibit attack behavior when handled alone.

Score 6—Very Aggressive. Exhibits extremely aggressive temperament. Thrashes about or attacks wildly when confined in small, tight places. Pronounced attack behavior.

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