THE importance of temperament in beef cattle is unquestionably the most highly rated trait across the Australian beef industry.
From anecdotal conversations at bull sales and field days, through to published survey statistics – such as Angus Australia’s comprehensive Beef Breeding Insights – temperament is consistently rated the most important of all considerations by beef producers.
Most consider temperament to be an integral requirement for safety in working with their animals, as well as highly desirable in order to achieve acceptable or high levels of eating quality.
While there are no question these are well-founded reasons to rate temperament as a trait of high importance, there is often much variation in how producers’ approach and manage the trait in their own herds.
Aside from the obvious advantages of improving temperament in order to have animals that are easily and safely handled, as well as able to meet eating quality requirements, selection for temperament has advantages across the supply chain.
Research conducted across a number of countries has consistently proven that more excitable cattle perform poorly across a range of production criteria compared to animals that have calmer dispositions.
A recent publication from Texas A & M University in the United States summarised a range of research outcomes from projects that considered temperament and its impact on production & reproduction. Results (graph below) from this work showed clear advantages across a number of key areas, including pregnancy rates, pregnancy loss and kilograms of calf weaned per cow exposed.
In the case of Bos Indicus cattle, there was a 6.3pc difference in pregnancy rate and a 4pc difference in pregnancy loss, while for Bos Taurus cattle pregnancy loss was closer to 1pc difference. However there was still close to a 6pc difference in pregnancy rates.
The study also considered the impact of temperament on heifers and their attainment of puberty at a younger age, particularly in Bos Indicus cattle.
The research found that puberty was delayed in heifers with excitable temperament when compared to the cattle with acceptable temperament. As a result the percentage of excitable heifers that were pubertal by the end of the study was less compared to acceptable cattle (24.9pc versus 42.9pc, respectively).
Pubertal heifers with acceptable temperament were also heavier at puberty, without being any older, compared to their excitable cohorts due to greater average daily gain during the experiment.
While most producers are aware of the impact poor temperament can have on eating quality, there are other impacts on performance to consider.
Australian research conducted with Angus and Brahman cattle in NSW and Western Australia through the CRC for Beef Genetic Technologies measured flight speed and crush scores throughout backgrounding on pasture and grain finishing in feedlots.
The research found that in Brahman cattle, the increase in average flight speed and crush scores were associated with significant reductions in backgrounding and feedlot growth rates, feed intake and time spent eating, carcase weight, as well as in objective measures of meat quality.
In Angus cattle, the associations between temperament and growth rates, feed intake, and carcase traits were weaker than in Brahmans, although the strength of relationships with meat quality were similar.
“I have quiet cattle”
There are some useful on-farm lessons from the research into temperament for producers focused on improving the performance of their cattle across the production chain.
While many producers stress the importance of temperament in their herds, there still remains a high degree of variability in temperament within a herd.
Often the phrase “I have quiet cattle” hides the fact there are individuals within the herd which have very poor levels of temperament. Unless those animals pose a significant risk to a handler, they often remain in a herd.
The impact of handling and repeated practices can also mask temperament variation in herds. Handling and repeating those methods allow cattle to become accustomed to the process, and often sees that herd appear to be ‘quiet’.
However when those same animals are exposed to new situations or stresses, their behaviour is considerably poorer than one would expect.
Implications for backgrounding
The implications for cattle moving into backgrounding or finishing programs is therefore a concern. Those animals at the poorer end of the temperament scale are then less likely to perform as expected.
The opportunity for improvement in temperament lies in both genetic change and in handling and management practice.
At a higher level, focusing on sires that have published EBVs for Docility, or for Flight Time allows producers to genetically start to move their herd towards a greater degree of calmness.
However genetic improvement does take time. Therefore producers possibly need to reflect on their handling procedures and introduce greater levels of objectivity in selecting breeders to join.
Spending time to acclimatise and habituate animals to handling and routine procedures is a minimum standard to aim for. This will certainly help improve individual animals’ ability to manage stress and to display more acceptable temperament.
However, there will still be a variation in the herd. To make more progress, producers may wish to include crush scoring on a scale of 1 (Docile) to 5 (Aggressive) for all replacement females. These scores can be used to rank females and develop a short list of animals that would be considered for joining if they meet other on farm benchmarks.
This objective approach, combined with correct handling and long-term genetic improvement can have a significant impact on temperament and the future productivity of animals produced by the business.
Alastair Rayner is the Principal of RaynerAg, an agricultural advisory service based in NSW. RaynerAg is affiliated with BJA Stock & Station Agents. He regularly lists and sell cattle for clients as well attending bull sales to support client purchases. Alastair provides pre-sale selections and classifications for seedstock producers in NSW, Qld, and Victoria. He can be contacted here or through his website www.raynerag.com.au