Cattle temperament affects feedlot, carcass and reproductive performance
Worland – Cattle temperament is related to the stress level of the animal, and UW Extension Beef Cattle Specialist Steve Paisley says that livestock handling is a contributor in the excitability of animals.
“Animals have different thresholds and levels of excitement, and they can handle different amounts of stress on their own,” Paisley explains, also noting that animal temperament can affect the performance of an animal.
Impact of excitable
Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is known as a way to measure cattle stress, and the differences in the amount of cortisol that’s present can be seen at weaning, after weaning and at feedlot entry, when really high cortisol levels are present.
“The animals that are highly stressed tend to not be able to respond to disease challenges, and they have high sickness,” explains Paisley, emphasizing that low-stress cattle can increase profitability by gaining weight more easily.
He adds that reproduction is enhanced with animals that have a lower temperament score, noting that they begin cycling younger and are more likely to be bred using natural service on the first attempt.
“Nervous or excitable cattle may have a higher incidence of lameness, sickness and lower feed intake,” notes Paisley.
“Work done in the early ‘90s suggests using a four-point scale for measuring temperament while in the squeeze chute,” says Paisley. “It not only reflects on the cattle that we are working, but also on the animal handling procedures.”
On this scale, a one represents an animal that is calm without movement in the chute, while a four indicates rearing and continuous violent struggle. The scale, developed by Temple Grandin, also suggests a rating of five, which would be an overly stressed animal nearing the point of passing out.
Another technique to assess cattle temperament is their exit speed from a chute. Paisley suggests that, while research operations tend to prefer exact speed measurements, producers might want to note whether animals walk, trot, run or lunge out of the chute.
“Producers can record the information and use it to makes some selection decisions, evaluate livestock handling or evaluate procedures,” adds Paisley. “We are selecting cattle to fix our temperament problem, but we’re also re-evaluating how we handle the cattle.”
Lowering temperament scores
“Interacting with animals on a regular basis will improve their interaction with people and lower chute scores,” says Paisley, referencing a study done by Cooke at Oregon State University.
In the study, a group of cattle were familiarized with handling facilities and they were worked with prior to actually working the animals, while a control group was not.
“The animals exposed to handling had a lower chute score, extremely lower cortisol levels, almost double the number of pubertal heifers by 12 months of age and more pregnant heifers 30 days into breeding,” adds Paisley.
“If we acclimate them and work with them on a regular basis, that really helps,” he says.
He notes that, in his herd, he opts to feed cattle three times a week in a bunk and he walks through the animals simply to get them used to human presence.
“It can also improve management,” he adds.
Paisley also encourages producers to be cognizant of environmental factors like wind and weather when handling cattle to decrease their stress levels and improve temperament.
“Cattle have poor visibility. They can see general movement and can pick things up, but they have a much better sense of smell,” explains Paisley.
He notes that unfamiliar noises, such as rattle paddles or loud hydraulic chutes, could contribute to stress levels.
Stress in cattle can also be seen in the carcass quality, and highly stressed cattle are likely to see a higher incidence of dark meat cuts.
Comparing dark cutters to temperament scores, Paisley notes that eight percent of animals with a score of three were dark cutters, while 25 percent of fours were dark cutters.
“Because of stress, there is not enough blood glucose to cause the cherry red color to appear in the steaks,” explains Paisley. “It dates back to the feedyard, when the animal probably didn’t eat or drink enough.”
Paisley also says that 88 to 90 percent of one- and two-scoring animals were classified as tender, whereas only 60 percent of fours were classified as tender.
“The percentage of tenderness goes down as excitability goes up,” says Paisley.
The amount of bruised tissue that is trimmed from the carcass also increases in excitable cattle, according to Paisley, who noted that when producers market their product on a carcass basis, excitable cattle cause more loss.
“High-strung animals are probably have higher cortisol levels, increased susceptibility to sickness, lower feed intake, increased lameness and impact on quality grade,” summarizes Paisley. “When we are evaluating temperament within out own herd, the critical thing is to consistently work with cattle calmly and in low stress, and use a chute score and exit score as a potential heifer selection tool.”
Paisley spoke at WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 7. Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.