Cattle temperament affects productivity

Beef Central, 06/01/2012

Temperament – and how best to measure it – is sometimes misunderstood in the cattle sector according to Rockhampton-based animal behaviourist, Carol Petherick, of the University of Queensland.

Carol defined temperament as an animal’s individual personality or character that determined how it responded to a range of situations and environments, such as risks, threats, novelty, other animals and humans.

Temperament includes innate (genetic) and environmental (learned and experienced) aspects that make animals different from each other.

Carol said it was an important trait to monitor and use in breeding selection, as it affected how cattle reacted to interaction with people during mustering, handling and yarding.

“This is important from an occupational health and safety perspective, and for grazing and feedlot performance,” she said.

Measuring temperament

Temperament can be measured subjectively by producers – usually with smaller herds – using observations of how cattle react to people.

Formal or informal fear-of-human tests can assess how close a handler can approach an individual animal before it moves off.

A range of crush tests can be used to score how resistant and agitated an animal becomes when being handled. A more objective measurement tool records the time it takes an animal to cover a certain distance when released from confinement, such as a weighing crate or veterinary crush.

Carol said that flight time and crush tests were quick, easy and safe for stock handlers to perform.

Flight time tests

To measure flight time, a timer (with a display) is linked to two pairs of emitters and reflectors that produce light beams and positioned on the race leading away from the weigh scale or crush.

The timer starts when an animal breaks the first light beam and stops when it breaks the second. The display shows the time (to one-hundredth of a second) that the animal has taken to cover the distance between the two beams.

Carol said that flight time could record if the distance between the beams was always constant for every animal and on every testing occasion. She said a slower animal with a long flight time had a better temperament than a faster animal with a short flight time.

Research has found that flight time trends for individual animals remain similar at various ages and testing opportunities relative to the rest of the herd. Carol said that false recordings could occur if cattle stumbled or jumped when exiting the crush or crate, but this was not a problem if the animal was measured more than once.

Research by the MLA-supported Cooperative Research Centre for Beef Genetic Technologies (Beef CRC) and Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries found that flight time was an easy, safe and highly repeatable measure of cattle temperament. It also confirmed a link between flight speed and productivity traits, such as liveweight gain and feed conversion efficiency, in intensive and extensive beef production systems.

Carol said studies suggested that flight speed largely reflected the innate (genetic) aspect of temperament, and that it was a moderately heritable trait.

“It reflects how well animals cope with stressors,” she said.

“The stress response impacts on animal metabolism and energy utilisation, and animals that cope better with stress are likely to be more productive.

“These animals will be better at dealing with change, be less stressed in new situations, have improved feed conversion efficiency, potentially reproduce more efficiently, and there is some evidence that they produce carcases with better meat qualities.”

Crush tests

Carol said crush tests were designed to score how resistant and agitated an animal became during handling. She said an animal that received a high score had a poorer temperament than an animal that scored lower.

“Cattle may be scored for their willingness to enter the crush and then to enter the head bail,” she said.

“Producers can use a scoring scale from one, where an animal enters without hesitation, to four, where an animal shows strenuous and prolonged resistance to entry.

“In some forms of the crush test, cattle are restrained in a head bail or left freestanding in a crush, and physically handled around the head and neck so movement and audible breathing can be scored.”

Carol said because the crush test used a subjective scoring system, scores could be modified to suit individual situations.

“But to be consistent, an increasing number system needs to reflect a scale of increasing resistance and increasing movement or agitation,” she said.

The big picture Carol said producers could modify the environmental (non-genetic) aspects of temperament in their herds by finding ways to reduce animal fear of humans and handling cattle in a quiet, calm manner.

“Animals should have a positive experience during human interaction and handling,” she said.

“Often the fearful, flighty animals are more difficult to work with, and this can sometimes become a selfperpetuating cycle.”

Like all performance traits, Carol said it was important for producers to consider temperament as part of their overall breeding strategies and goals.

“It is about balancing your risks and breeding objectives,” she said.

“Animals with quieter temperaments are easier to work with and to muster, which saves time and money and reduces the risks of injury to stock handlers and other animals.”

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia


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