Vet Column 12-28-09 | TheFencePost.com
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Vet Column 12-28-09

David L. Morris, DVM, Ph.D.
Fort Collins, Colo.

Cow temperament has always been a topic of concern when handling the breeding herd whether dairy or beef. Most certainly, the topic of discussion is more focused on those that one needs to look out for rather than those animals that largely remain indifferent to human handlers. This is particularly true at calving time and, again, it doesn’t matter whether one has been chased out of the maternity pen or onto the back of the pick-up truck in the field. At that point in time – and although humor is sometimes expressed by observers more so than participants – bovine temperament does matter when personal safety is an issue. And let’s not forget about the bulls either when it comes to temperament.

So what can one do to manage the issue? It appears it depends upon perspective and timing. In many beef cow camps, aggressive behavior at calving is a positive attribute. Some cattlemen interpret it as good mothering ability and a desirable trait. Granted, the assessment is more subjective rather than objective. Scientists have more recently begun to attempt to objectively measure the trait at non-calving times, such as when working cattle through a chute. Exit velocity from a squeeze chute at routine management processing times is one such measure. Animal breeders have developed docility scores to measure differences between individuals and, ultimately, document parentage differences for the trait. Differences do exist.

Let’s not forget, however, the breadth and scope of the cattle industry. There are those breeding cattle for which aggression is a desirable trait such as for the bucking industry. Perception is that aggression as a selection trait enhances the chances of developing a more competitive bucking bull and many breeding programs evaluate bucking ability of heifers as a selection criterion for breeding. Objective differences continue to be developed and scientific relationships explored in this industry.

Can acclimation to human interaction affect temperament and other performance characteristics? Investigators from Oregon State University and the University of Florida recently published data to help answer this question. From August to January in two consecutive years, the same 395 Brahman crossbred cows in 14 groups were exposed to the same person visiting each of the 14 groups twice weekly and offering range cubes. In January of both years, cow temperament, body weight and body condition score were assessed prior to a 90-day breeding period.

Results from this study indicate that acclimation of Brahman-crossbred cows to human interaction did not influence temperament or concentrations of plasma cortisol and acute phase proteins, both indicators of stress at handling. Reproductive performance of acclimated Braford cows was enhanced during year one, but not year two. Whether the human interaction as performed was sufficient to acclimate the animals may have been a limitation of the study.

Bovine temperament continues to be a point of evolving study. What is most important may be grandfather’s wisdom when handling all livestock. Always be alert and take nothing for granted, even with the most docile of animal companions. More people have been hurt by animals thought to be “tame” and trusted than have been hurt by animals known to be the most aggressive.


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