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Handling practices: Producers with calmer cattle see more returns

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Torrington – Like children, the temperament of calves can be shaped based on how they are handled. Research studies show that calmer cattle can add more dollars of return on investment.

Blake Hauptman, University of Wyoming Extension specialist, provided producers with some tips to better handle their cattle during the Southeast Beef Production Convention in Torrington.

“I learned from my father as a young boy that there are two types of cattle. One is the type you take to the fair and call Annabelle,” he told producers. “The other is the cow that routinely puts someone up on the fence, and we have different names for her. Most of them aren’t appropriate.”

Temperament and production

An Iowa State study in 2004 looked at how temperament affects production traits.

“What they found was calves with a poor disposition were lighter on arrival, gained less in the feedlot, had a higher mortality rate and reduced quality grade,” Hauptman explained. “Keep in mind this was in 2004, but their study showed calm cattle returned $62 more per head than the more aggressive cattle.”

Another study at Oregon State University showed a $27 increase per head in weaned calf returns for calves that were calm versus those that were aggressive. Once these cattle were finished, their carcass value was $49 more per head, compared to their aggressive counterparts.

The study also showed the aggressive cows showed reduced pregnancy rates.

Changing management

“One of the management changes producers can make that can be of a lot of benefit is in livestock handling,” Hauptman told producers. “There are ways to improve livestock handling and techniques. These changes can provide a really high return on investment. Producers will save time and money by using livestock handling to make calmer cattle.”

With tightening budgets, most producers are looking for ways to cut costs. Improving cattle handling is one way to make changes that can add up big, especially in labor, Hauptman says.

A recent benchmark set at one of the ranch practicum meetings was $125 in labor per cow, which means each person would need to manage 400 cows.

Biological traits

The Extension specialist said age, presence of horns and sex can also influence temperament.

Female cattle have been shown to be more aggressive, Hauptman relates. But the two biggest contributing factors are breed type and type of production system.

“Everyone knows the Bos indicus – Brahman-influence cattle have a more unpredictable temperament and are known to be aggressive,” he explained. “That is why they are used for rodeo stock.”

Although most of the other cattle breeds have made improvements in docility and temperament, there are still differences between breeds and in individuals.

“At bull sales, a lot of producers provide docility EPDs to help ranchers know what they are getting,” he said. “Temperament is a moderately heritable trait.”

Environmental influence

Environment is also a big factor.

“If cattle are raised in an extensive range-based system with little human interaction, they might be more flighty,” he said. “However, if a rancher has an intensive grazing system or just spends a lot of time with their cattle, they may be more docile.”

Researchers participating in the Oregon State study determined that temperament can be improved in young cattle, but they found no statistical difference in mature cows.

“It may show that cattle are more impressionable when they are young,” Hauptman explained.

Researchers in this study exposed a group of heifers to human handling for four weeks after weaning. They found these heifers had improved temperament and reduced cortisol levels, which is the hormone that reflects stress. These heifers also reached puberty and became pregnant sooner.

Low-stress handling

“Low stress handling is training and teaching cattle to take pressure in a calm and responsive way,” Hauptman said. “It is similar to training horses. When we want them to do something, we apply pressure. When they do what we want, we take it away.”

“What is hard with cattle is we tend to continue to keep applying pressure after we need to stop. We need to learn when to take it away,” he stated. “It is also important to keep the number of bad experiences we have when handling cattle to a minimum.”

Hauptman said producers can find it hard to acknowledge they need to handle their cattle differently. The Iowa State study showed those producers with aggressive cattle were really not aware their cattle were more difficult to handle or different from anyone else, Hauptman said.

“It can be hard to be objective when evaluating our own systems of cattle handling,” he explained. “But, after we ship cattle, we should ask our neighbor what his opinion is of how our cattle handle.”


Fortunately, a lot of research has been conducted that has improved how producers handle their cattle. Bud Williams, who was known as the guru of cattle handling, developed the Bud Box, which revolutionized how cattle are handled. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University has done expensive research teaching producers how to do a better job handling their animals.

Producers can access You Tube videos, purchase books and attend cattle handling clinics and demonstrations to make improvements in their operations.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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