SELECTING cattle to improve temperament can benefit beef production and animal performance, in addition to improving animal welfare and human safety.
Earlier research conducted during the Beef CRC era found favourable genetic and phenotypic relationships between temperament and meat quality, feedlot performance, ease of transport and some reproductive traits indicating that selection to improve temperament will also result in genetic improvements in these traits.
How is temperament defined in cattle?
Temperament is the way in which an individual animal reacts to an unfamiliar or challenging situation. Temperament of an individual animal is a result of both its inherent temperament and its environment, including handling and training.
It is therefore important to recognise that training may improve an animal’s reaction in a familiar situation but may not overcome an animal’s inherent reactions in unfamiliar environments. This is particularly relevant at slaughter, where it is important to keep animals calm so they do not deplete the high glycogen levels that are needed to produce beef that is acceptable to consumers.
It is difficult to determine if bulls prepared for sale have been trained to be ‘quiet’ or genetically are of good temperament. As temperament is heritable, animals with poor temperament will pass this trait onto their progeny. When selecting bulls it is important to have a measure of genetic differences in temperament between animals.
How is temperament measured?
Flight time was the primary measure used in research because it is an objective and repeatable measure of temperament. Flight time is the electronically recorded time taken for an animal to cover a fixed distance (for example a distance somewhere between 1.5m and 2.0m) after leaving the weighing crush. A slower or longer flight time is associated with better temperament. It is best recorded early in life, for example at weaning before cattle have had much exposure to human handling but after weaners have been through a race and crush once or twice to ensure reliable measures of the animal’s reactions.
Flight time is a good measure of an animal’s inherent or genetic temperament, rather than the experienced or learned aspect of temperament. Flight time is now included in BreedPlan evaluation as a Flight Time Estimated Breeding Value (EBV), for some breeds, to allow genetic improvement through selection. Flight time can also be used as a direct measure to assess the temperament of cattle entering feedlots or other intensive production systems such as artificial insemination programs.
Temperament effects on productivity and meat quality
Research found favourable relationships between temperament and meat quality, feedlot performance, ease of transport and some reproductive traits.
Animals with good temperament have higher weight gains in feedlots. This research outcome was consistent across tropically adapted and British breeds. In Brahman derived breeds, steers with the best temperament (longer flight times) grew 0.38kg/day more than steers with the worst temperament (fastest flight times). In another experiment it was demonstrated that feedlot cattle with poor temperament incurred more health issues.
Animals with poor temperament are more likely to produce progeny whose beef is of unacceptable eating quality. This is because stress depletes glycogen in nervous animals prior to slaughter, potentially resulting in dark-cutting meat or reducing the ability of the beef to age effectively post-mortem. Measurements taken on 3,594 Brahman, Belmont Red and Santa Gertrudis animals showed that flight time had a strong favourable genetic correlation with MSA MQ4 score and MSA tenderness score. Favourable genetic and phenotypic correlations have been found between flight time and steer striploin tenderness in the same research group and also in more recent groups of Brahmans, Tropical Composites and Angus finished in feedlots.
CRC research showed that tropically adapted cattle with better temperament lose less weight during long distance transport, plus regain lost weight more rapidly post-transport. Three groups of steers were transported 1,365km between Central Queensland and Armidale (a 4–5 day trip). Steers with the fastest flight times lost 5% more weight than steers with slowest flight times. Flight time measures were also found to be useful predictors of how well groups of animals fared during a long distance journey.
There is no reason to expect significant relationships between temperament and male or female reproductive performance when animals in the breeding herd are grazed under extensive pastoral conditions. However, when selecting cattle for good temperament, selection pressure should be maintained on all heritable traits, including reproductive performance of both females and males.
Under intensive production systems such as artificial insemination (AI) or embryo transfer programs though, there are likely to be relationships between temperament and performance. Australian research in tropically adapted cattle shows that docile heifers in an AI program demonstrate oestrus in the presence of an observer more often than their more temperamental contemporaries, even though there was no difference between docile and temperamental heifers in the number of heifers actually cycling. This means the docile animals are more likely to be inseminated at the correct time than less docile animals, thereby increasing conception rates of docile animals in AI programs that do not use teaser bulls or heat-mount paint as aids to oestrus detection.
Improving cattle temperament
It is important that beef producers select breeding cattle with inherently good temperaments, so this desirable trait is passed onto their progeny. Research consistently shows that temperament is moderately to highly heritable, meaning selection to improve the temperament of progeny will be effective.
To improve temperament in the herd actively select bulls and breeding females with good temperaments as well as culling animals with poor temperaments. Preferably use objective means of selection such as BreedPlan EBVs for flight time or docility, as these allow the most genetic progress to be made. In the absence of EBVs, using flight time as a measure of temperament early in life is useful. Flight time machines for measuring cattle temperament are available on loan from local beef research and extension agents, or breed societies throughout Australia.
- Temperament is an important trait in cattle.
- There are many production benefits to breeding cattle with good temperament.
- Temperament is heritable, so genetic progress is achievable.
- Flight time is an objective and repeatable measure of temperament.
- Flight time or Docility EBVs are the preferred selection tool to genetically improve temperament in cattle.
Further information – Selecting for improved temperament and benefits for beef production