Do Your Cattle Have Attitude?

Cattle behaviour is an important, but often overlooked trait. Everyone who handles cattle will have a few stories about animals that exhibited "crazy" behaviour, hopefully not including any injuries to people or animals. While these extreme situations live on in our memories, cattle exhibit a whole range of behaviours when handled, from being very docile to showing moderate signs of stress (like some head bobbing), to more dramatic actions such as continuous bouncing and kicking (like a teenager deprived of their smart phone). Calm cattle are much easier to work with and more likely to get their vaccines, implants, tags and other procedures applied properly … you can only wait so long for the animal to settle down! Research has also found that cattle which have a calm temperament perform better in the feedlot than those with wild temperament, so there is an economic benefit to having calmer cattle.

Image of cattle

Calm feedlot cattle have better gains.

One of the most common methods of measuring cattle temperament is chute scoring. An observer stands back and evaluates the behaviour of an animal during the time it is in the scale or headgate, and assigns a score based on the amount and type of movement exhibited by the animal. An example of a chute scoring system is shown in Table 1. Chute scores are useful, repeatable measurements of cattle temperament, but they require extra labour during processing (already a busy time!) and work best when always done by the same person. This is because they are subjective evaluations, and different people will score behaviour somewhat differently.

Table 1 Chute scoring definitions1, a

Chute Score
Behaviour Criteria
Very little or no movement
Low amplitude movements or <2 vigorous kicks or shakes
More than 2 violent/vigorous kicks, shakes, jumps, etc.
Nearly continous violent movements (some brief pauses)
Continuous violent movements (no pause)

aSebastien et al, based on work by Grandin

A recent study by Thomas Sebastien and coworkers at the University of Saskatchewan compared the subjective scorecard method (Table 1) of evaluating temperament with 3 objective methods. These methods were i) using a strain gauge on the headgate to measure pressure exerted by the animal, ii) using chute exit time to measure the speed with which animals left the headgate, and iii) a movement measuring device which collected and analysed data from the load cells on an electronic scale. Four hundred steers were handled three times, at 2 month intervals. As part of the experimental procedure, each animal had its ear handled while in the headgate. Based on coat colour, the steers represented a mixture of common breeds and breed crosses.

The researchers found that overall, the objective measurements were correlated with each other, showing that they were measuring different aspects of the same underlying trait. However, they also found that some of the average levels of the measurements were different between the 3 handling times, with cattle showing increased stress during the 2nd handling procedure compared with the 1st and 3rd handlings. It appeared that animals going through the chute for the 2nd time after a 2 month feeding period did not benefit from familiarity with the procedure.

Subjective scoring (based on visual observation) was also correlated in general with the objective measurements (strain force, exit time, and load cell measures). This showed that both the chute scoring system and the mechanical/electrical measures were evaluating different components of the animals' underlying temperament. However, the authors point out that objective measurements provide an advantage by eliminating observer bias and thus may be better tools for temperament selection.

Since most of the chute scores were between 1 and 3, with few 4s and 5s recorded, the researchers divided cattle into 2 groups: i) calm, with scores of 1 or 2, and ii) wild, with scores of 3, 4 and 5. They found that most of the objective measures were statistically different between the 2 groups, for each handling event. They then compared cattle growth performance between the "wild" and "calm" groups. They found that the calm cattle had a significantly higher average daily gain (ADG) than the wild cattle (2.64 lbs/day compared to 2.47) (see Fig. 1). This indicates that animals which have a "poor attitude," and are more excitable when handled, are also more likely to be poor performers in the feedlot.

Surprisingly, exit speed out of the headgate was not correlated with ADG. The authors indicate that this does not agree with earlier studies, and may be due to differences between beef cattle species [Bos taurus in this study vs. Bos indicus ] or other factors. Similarly, strain gauge measures were not correlated with ADG either. The only objective measurement related to ADG was movement in the scale (measured by load cells), which had a significant negative correlation to ADG (see Fig. 2). This means that cattle which exhibited relatively vigorous movement when restrained gained less during the feeding period.

The movement of cattle restrained in electronic scales, recorded and interpreted by a special device, could be used to predict behaviour-related differences among cattle for feedlot ADG. It could also be used to cull out wild cattle early on in the feeding period, or possibly prior to purchase. Since ADG has economic value, this measure could be used to help estimate differences in profitability among feedlot cattle. It could also be included in genetic evaluation programs, especially performance tests of young beef bulls.

Not only are cattle with the right attitude easier to handle, they also perform better in the feedlot!

Graph - Relationship of temperament score and gain

Graph - Movement measuring device peak readings


1Thomas Sebastien, et al. 2011. Can. J. Anim. Sci. Temperament in beef cattle: Methods of measurement and their relationship to production. 91:557-565.

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