Docility influenced by multiple factors, has large economic impact for producers
“When I was growing up, one of the first things I learned from my Dad was there are two types of cows to know by name,” said University of Wyoming (UW) Extension Educator Blake Hauptman. “The first are the cows we take to the county fair and name something endearing. The other one are the cows that routinely put someone up on the fence.”
Hauptman explained that investing time and resources into producing calmer cattle not only helps the ranch run more smoothly but is a more economical option.
According to Hauptman, multiple factors influence the docility or temperament of cattle.
“Of course, we have age and sex of the animal,” he said, “but the two most important ones that we’re going to talk about are breed type and production systems.”
Hauptman explained that there are behavioral differences between breeds, as well as among individual bloodlines within breeds.
“Brahman-type cattle typically have more temperament problems than British or continental breeds,” he continued. “It’s important to know that there are individual differences within breeds that are due to either genetics or handling.”
The amount of routine handling and human contact animals have in a production system also has a large impact on their docility.
“If we’re a range-based production system, the cattle might have some temperament issues versus if we’re a smaller operation and we’re handling those animals more often with proper methods,” Hauptman noted.
A 2004 study by Iowa State University that looked at several thousand head of steers from various producers in a feedlot type system found a significant performance difference between animals with poor and adequate temperament.
“What they found was cows with poor disposition were lighter upon arrival, gained less in the feedlot, had higher mortality rates and had reduced carcass characteristics compared to cows that had acceptable temperament levels,” said Hauptman.
When using prices from 2004, the Iowa researchers found that calm cattle returned $62 more per head than aggressive cattle.
“It’s interesting that they surveyed some of those producers who have aggressive cows, and most were not aware that their cattle were difficult to handle,” he commented. “That tells me that sometimes it’s hard for us to realize that maybe we do have a handling issue or that our docility genetics need to improve.”
In a 2011 study in Oregon that looked at the impact of docility on profitability, researchers found a $27 increased weaned calf value for calm cows compared to aggressive cows.
“They also found a $49 increase in carcass value in calm versus aggressive cattle and found that cows with a more aggressive temperament had reduced pregnancy rates compared to ones that had acceptable docility or temperament levels,” Hauptman continued.
In UW Extension’s High Plains Ranching Practicum, a ranch management school, Hauptman noted that benchmarks are given to participants in their operation’s need for labor.
“One of their benchmarks for this year for producers to target was $125 per cow labor costs,” he said. “That’s the benchmark we want to hit, which means we need to have about 400 head per person on our ranch.”
In the current ranching climate where it is difficult to find enough help and needing to run a higher number of animals per person, Hauptman commented that proper cattle handling is a critical skill.
He gave the example of the employee training strategy for the Padlock Ranch.
“They do livestock handling education for all of their employees, so they can do more with less on the range,” continued Hauptman. “Also, they want employees that understand livestock handling principles.”
In another study by the group of researchers in Oregon, Hauptman explained that they looked at whether temperament could be improved through human handling.
“Basically what they did was they exposed heifers to human handling for four weeks after they were weaned,” he said.
The exposed heifers had notable changes in multiple performance factors, said Hauptman.
“They found that those heifers that were exposed to human handling for four weeks had improved temperament and reduced cortisol, which is the stress hormone,” he continued. “They also reached puberty and became pregnant earlier.”
However, when the test was performed on mature cows, the animals did not respond the same.
“They did not find any benefits when they did the application to mature cows,” commented Hauptman.
He concluded, “It seems that we really want to work with our younger animals and be cognizant of our handling because that’s when we’re going to have our most impact on those animals.”
Hauptman spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days.
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.