Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Heather Smith Thomas

During the past 10 years, studies at universities have looked at the correlation between "wild" tempermental cattle and poor performance -- less feed efficiency at the feedlot, poor carcass quality (less tenderness, more dark cutters), etc. For a long time in our industry, disposition/temperment was thought to be just an inconvenience at the first level of production -- a hazard for the cow/calf producer. The fact that some cattle are harder to handle at the ranch was not considered a problem for the feeder or the end product -- affecting carcass quality or the consumer. Many seedstock producers didn't pay much attention to this factor (concentrating on more tangible traits like weaning/yearling weights, birthweight, marbling), thus perpetuating the problem of unruly cattle.

"Wild" cattle are a product of a combination of genetics and handling. The natural temperament of any animal is inherited, but temperament/disposition is also influenced by the way we handle that animal. A nervous, flighty individual can often be calmed and become managable--with patient, quiet, careful handling, and an aggressive cow can learn to respect you if handled with quiet firmness.

Cattle can learn to trust and tolerate people and "fit the program" if handled with understanding and gentleness, or consistent quiet fearlessness--if they are smart enough to be trained. Some never do gentle down, however, and are a frustration or a hazard every time you handle them. Genetics dictates how well an animal will respond to the way it is handled. On the flip side, a naturally mellow individual can be made wild and untrusting by inconsiderate "cowboying."

The basic nature of an animal will generally surface during times of psychological stress or novel experiences. Even if you handle flighty cattle gently and they've become very managable and at ease with you, they may regress to their wild, untrusting natural attitude when confronted with something completely new or when handled a different way by someone else. One way to ensure easy-handling cattle that perform optimally on down the line is to start with genetically mellow cattle and then take care to handle/train them carefully so they are not "ruined" by fast gathers, barking dogs, shouting and hot shots at the chute. Quiet, consistent handling at the ranch will produce animals that perform better in the feedlot.

Gainability And Feed Efficiency -- The first studies looking at how temperament and cattle handling affected beef production were done in the mid 1990's by Dr. Temple Grandin, Colorado State University. She looked at the impact of temperament on an animal's ability to gain weight. Grandin and her research team studied 479 steers and heifers at two feedlot facilities in Fort Collins. This group of calves included a broad mix of breeds: Angus, Angus-Tarentaise cross, Brahman-Red Angus-Senepol composite, Braford, Simmental-Red Angus cross, Red Brangus, and Simbrah.

A temperament ranking was given to each individual, based on a 1 to 5 scale, after evaluating them in a squeeze chute or on a weighing scale. The rankings were 1. no movement; 2. slightly restless shifting; 3. squirming and occasional shaking of the restraint device; 4. continuous vigorous movement and shaking of the restraint device, and 5. rearing up, twisting or violent struggling, going berserk.

All cattle were fed to about the same finish (fat thickness of 9 to 13 mm over the 12th rib, aiming for a target thickness of 11 mm) as determined by periodic ultrasound measure. "We found the craziest animals (temperament score 5) had the lowest average daily gain. Conversely, the calmest animals had the highest average daily gain," said Grandin.

Most of the cattle in this study had lower average daily gains than expected for their breed, and she attributed this to the fact that most of them were extremely wild and difficult to handle and had been brought in from ranches where they had minimal contact with people. They were not accustomed to being handled and had not been "trained" to trust people. Even though the number of highly agitated wild cattle was higher than their breed average, the comparison between the calmer and wilder individuals remained constant.

In later studies a "flight time" test was utilized to help determine temperament score. This looks at how fast the animal covers a certain distance after being released from a chute or any other restraint. Motion detection devices clock the animal's speed coming out of the chute. This "exit speed" is an objective way to measure the animal's excitability and tolerance to handling.

The wildest animals leave more quickly. The longer it takes for an animal to leave the area on its own, the more docile it is. In studies at Texas A&M, for instance, exit speeds of weaned steers ranged from 0.4 feet per second (very slow and docile) to 13.5 feet per second (very wild). This flight-time test is considered to be a more accurate measure of temperament than the chute test, since the amount of struggling an animal does in a squeeze chute may not always relate to its behavior in a feedyard.

In 2003, researchers at the CSIRO Livestock Industries' Rendel Laboratory (Rockhampton, New Zealand) found that docile cattle had higher levels of productivity and overall carcass quality. The aggressive, wild cattle had lower average daily gains, poorer feed efficiency and lesser carcass weights. Dr. Heather Burrow, head of the research lab, said that poor temperament reduces profitability of cattle through increased production costs as well as poor performance. These cattle take more labor to gather and work, are harder on facilities, and increase the risk of injury -- to the cattle and to the people handling them.

Using the flight-time test, Burrow said that crossbred steers with slow flight times (docile temperament) grew faster and had heavier carcasses than steers with poor temperament. "Steers with the slowest flight times gained 0.8 pounds per day more than steers with the fastest flight times," said Burrow. In addition, the research showed that good temperament reduces losses associated with transportation, reducing shrink losses as much as 60 percent.

In studies at Texas A&M in 2002, the difference between calm animals and wild ones was dramatic. In the first 50 days after weaning, those with wild temperament did not gain weight at all, while those with good temperament continued to gain weight as if they were still nursing their mothers. The wild steers ate less and lost an average of 11 pounds and the docile ones showed an average gain of 30 pounds during the first 50 days post weaning. This study was a cooperative effort between the Texas Experiment Station and University of Georgia, using Angus and Braford calves. These results show that even if a set of wild calves weans at a good weight, whoever buys them may lose money; those calves are going to be more expensive to feed out.

Dark Cutters -- Poor temperament leads to poor meat quality. Wild cattle, or any animals that are upset at the time of butchering, tend to produce darker meat which has a shorter shelf life. The main cause of dark cutters is low muscle glycogen at the time the animal is butchered. The meat also has less than normal amount of lactic acid development (which occurs after rigor mortis sets in following slaughter), preventing a drop in the pH of muscle tissue. The pH of muscle tissue at slaughter is usually about 7 and drops to 5.5 to 5.6 after death, which is the desired level for good meat. Dark cutters are sometimes referred to as high pH beef.

Stress is the main cause of glycogen depletion in the muscles of cattle. This can be due to physical stress (strenuous activity) or pyschological stress (fear, anxiety). Either type of stress creates higher levels of adrenaline production in the body. These stresses can be due to many things--sudden weather change, how cattle are handled (getting them upset and fearful), mixing different groups of cattle (creating social stresses in the herd), poor temperament (which accentuates reactions to any other stresses) and so on. Wild, crazy cattle that tend to stress easily are much more likely to have poor carcass quality. Dark cutters generally result from stress or sickness incurred during transport to the packing facility, and these carcasses are usually discounted greatly or condemned -- resulting in a huge loss to the feeder.

In Temple Grandin's studies at CSU she looked at the effect of temperament on dark cutters, adding more cattle to her original weight gain study group, plus additional data on Angus, Hereford, Hereford cross and Tarentaise-Angus cross cattle. The results showed that cattle with the wildest temperament had the highest incidence of dark cutters; 25 percent of cattle with a score of 5 (wildest) were dark cutters, while less than 5 percent of those in the 1 to 4 ranking were dark cutters. Her research also found that heifers with wild temperament were more likely than steers to be dark cutters. Heifers, due to estrus activity--and bulls, due to testosterone--produce more dark cutters than steers.

The New Zealand studies found that docile cattle have 75 to 85 percent less dark cutters than wild cattle. Dark cutters are most often the result of disposition. If a calf is highly exciteable (due to being genetically predisposed toward flightiness, or from being treated roughly and becoming afraid of people), any stress from being handled may increase the likelihood of that animal becoming a dark cutter.

Tenderness -- The research in New Zealand looked at differences between docile and flighty, aggressive cattle, and found that the latter produced tougher meat. "Flighty cattle don't have enough glycogen [in the muscles], a sugar that helps break down the muscle after slaughter," said Dr. Burrow.

The Warner-Bratzler shear force test is often used to measure tenderness, registering the amount of force it takes to cut the meat. For testing, 1 or 1/2 inch cores are cut from steaks and inserted into the WBS machine, where they are sheared by a mechanically driven blunt knife. The force required to cut through the core is measured in pounds or kilograms.

In the New Zealand research, cattle with good temperaments showed a 2.25 to 3.5 pound decrease in the amount of force needed to cut through certain cuts of beef, compared with meat from wild cattle. This decrease in shear force makes the difference between a piece of meat being tender or tough.

The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) defines the acceptable tenderness threshold at about 1.8 pounds of pressure. Beef can be considered tender enough for pleasant eating if it's up to about 2.5 pounds of pressure, but anything higher than that is considered tough. In studies in the U.S. and other countries, it's been consistently shown that beef from docile animals takes less force to cut, with most of it being at or well below the 1.8 pounds of pressure. Wilder animals produced tougher meat, in some instances requiring 3 to 3.5 pounds of force.

The first U.S. research on tenderness was done in 2004, as a cooperative study between Texas A&M and Mississippi State University. Dr. Ron Randel (Texas Ag Experiment Station, Overton) said the correlation between high exit speeds (leaving a chute) and toughness was substantial. Earlier work done by Randel and other Texas A&M researchers showed that wild cattle eat less and gain less, but this study was the first in the U.S. to show a strong correlation between temperament and meat tenderness. All the animals with high WBS scores (moderately tough to very tough) had high exit speeds (averaging about nine feet per second) on their temperament tests.

Genetic Selection -- The cow-calf producer is where it all starts. We need to diligently select cattle for good temperament in our breeding programs, not just to make life easier for ourselves when handling them but also to ensure more profitability. Feeders are learning that gentle cattle perform better, and in the future this may be one of the criteria that determines whether or not they'll want to buy your calves. Gentle cattle are just more profitable all down the line. They are easier on facilities, less hazard to the people working with them, and easier on themselves (less injuries and bruising). Wild cattle are not only apt to injure themselves, but also seem more susceptible to some diseases--since stress can hinder the immune system.

Some breeds are considered more wild and crazy than others, but it's a mistake to make generalizations since there are "hyper" individuals in every breed. Just because an animal is of a certain breed that's traditionally noted for being docile does not mean the individual will be docile. There are family lines in every breed that are more wild than others. Disposition is something we always need to keep in mind when making breeding decisions, whether we are raising Herefords or Brangus. In the past, selection for good disposition has not been a high priority for many seedstock producers, since this was not a quantifiable trait like birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, etc. As a result, we've often perpetuated wild or difficult-to-handle cattle.

A wild cow or bull is likely to produce offspring with the same crazy attitude. Disposition is highly heritable. Even if a cow or bull produces calves with other desirable traits, this one bad aspect can spoil it all and should not be tolerated. In a herd situation, one wild, suspicious or crazy cow can influence the others and raise the stress level of the whole herd when you try to gather them or work them. One suspicious cow that runs off when you approach will make the others think there is something to be afraid of, since herd animals take their cues from herdmates.

Dr. Burrow in New Zealand said that selecting for disposition should be done soon after weaning, when the animals are somewhat familiar with the handling facilities, but not yet so familiar that their natural behavior has already been modified. "Comparative flight times (when leaving a chute) can be used to identify the ones that will perform well under intensive production and handling systems, including feedlots," said Burrow. She urged feedlot operators to use flight times also--as a management tool as cattle enter the feedlot. This could help them decide which aniamls should be penned together, and which should be culled or put into lots with similarly wild cattle, so they won't be a bad influence on the gentle ones.

Tips On Handling Cattle -- Handling cattle is like training horses. It should always be done with forethought and consideration of the repurcussions -- how the animal will react to your actions (now and in the future). Everything you do cattle either makes them better (more trusting, more easy to handle the next time) or worse. The way you handle cattle can make them less trusting, more likely to run off when they see you coming, more reluctant to go into the corral, more apt to balk at going down the chute, more frantic in the chute, more desperate to get out of it, more apt to run over you if you are in their escape route, etc.

It is important to instruct work crews to handle cattle slowly and quietly, rather than rushing to get the job done quickly. Haste never pays; it results in banging and bruising of cattle, risk for human accidents, noise and action that increases stress level of the whole herd and a domino effect, with all the cattle becoming more fearful to enter the sorting corrals or working facility -- and more reluctant to go through it the next time. This creates a vicious cycle, with cowboys using more noise and more forceful methods. It's also very typical that even if the day starts out with slow and careful handling, people tend to revert back to hurrying, poking and prodding and ramming and jamming the cattle as the day progresses. Training your work crews is part of training the cattle. The animals won't have a good experience if the people handling them can't change their traditional ways of working cattle.

It is very important that young cattle be handled properly, so they will be more docile and managable later -- either in the feedlot or as replacement heifers and cows. Their first experience with people and being worked should be a good one. A bad experience the first time they are put through a chute, for instance, can create a permanent bad memory and make future working more stressful.

Stress is one of the hidden costs of cattle production. The stress of being worked affects weight gain, reproduction and health of the cattle. Calm, quiet handling always pays. If you are upset or in a hurry when you work cattle, the animals can sense your mood and this makes them more upset and stressed. Noise, extra movement, etc. can get cattle excited and they are harder to work.

Move slowly and deliberately around cattle; sudden movements are more apt to spook them. Several studies have shown that cattle can become very fearful and agitated in just a few seconds of bad handling, but it may take 20 to 30 minutes for their heart rate to return to normal after a bad experience. It's better to try to avoid this kind of stress to begin with.


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