The Invisible–But Super-Important–Trait To Be Considered In Cattle Selection

“They grow better with love.” I’ve said it for years. It’s not just some saying to be cute, it’s the truth.

In recent years, producers and all segments of the cattle industry have started paying attention to cattle disposition. Some bull producers have started to rate each bull and score them on their docility, notably Kit Pharo, who explains his methodology for scoring a bull and then has a star rating system. Cattle buyers for feedlots that I have talked to pay attention to docility of the calves they buy because the stockers and feedlots they buy for are concerned about the trait.

I, personally, have always been concerned with temperament. It’s not fun to be around an animal that you have to be on constant vigil to make sure it’s not trying to kill you; or that is putting you on a fence whenever you step in the corral; the pasture is even worse, there’s no place to get away in our fields, and I sure as heck can’t outrun a cow.

The disposition of our animals was even more important to me, since I was pregnant for…ever. Ok, 4 kids, 9 months each, 36 months total of 5 years; sure seemed like forever some days. I am a short person, so I waddled from early on in the pregnancy, and still had to do all my ranch duties. Running was out of the question. Now with small children, disposition is once again one of the most important factors for us at Cow Cow Ranch.

Nick at 18 months old with his cow, Becky, a mini Hereford. Love the Hereford disposition; they twice as much as our fullbloods, though.

Nick at 18 months old with his cow, Becky, a mini Hereford. Love the Hereford disposition; they twice as much as our fullbloods, though.

Charlie at 17 months.

Charlie at 17 months.

The attention has come about because finally studies were done that proved that animals that were more docile performed better, were less expensive to maintain, cost less for labor and materials, and ultimately were more profitable.

Disposition, also called temperament, personality, or docility, is a heritable trait. Studies have shown that a human’s personality is 50% genetic. This, in my experience, is also applicable to cattle, abet not the absolutely correct percentage. It is surprising to me how similar calves’ dispositions are to their sires.

Of course, the cow contributes 50% of the calf’s genetics. If simply broken down, assuming temperament is 50% genetic and 50% environmental, it could be reasonably deduced that the bull contributes 25% to a calf’s docility, the cow contributes 75%; unless allowing for outside, environmental factors and giving them some value, like 10%, then the cow’s contribution would be 65%. It could be argued that the cow has 75% regardless, since a large part of environmental is not what happens, but how it is taken–how the calf reacts.

There are arguments to be made. Individual cases that are not explainable. We have two full sisters, born a year apart, in our herd, both producing cows. The younger is easy-going, docile, like the rest of the herd. The older sister is what we call “flighty.” She doesn’t accept change easily. She’s wary. While the whole herd is alert when someone new comes into the pasture, this cow is even alert when it is just Jeramie or me (and we walk the cows at least once a day).

Usually it takes her two or three days to calm down and relax after being moved to a new place–not a new paddock that is part of a larger place, but a new place completely, like from our house to pasture that is 4 miles away. She doesn’t bolt, but her “bubble” (personal space) is larger for those few days. After she settles, her bubble gets smaller, but is still slightly larger than the other cows in the herd; instead of being able to walk within a foot of her like we can the other cows, she only allows us to get 1.5-feet from her before she moves away (not bolts, just steps slowly to keep her bubble intact).

She is allowed to stay in the herd because she isn’t mean and we make small concessions for her, knowing her bubble is a different size than the rest of the cows. She works through the chute, but we make efforts to not keep her confined longer than we have to and causing her additional stress. She is still required to be a lady in the chute and has to tolerate anything that has to be done, just like the rest of the girls. (I will note that when we did linear measurements a few weeks ago, she was unremarkable, which means she was cooperative and didn’t cause a ruckus–and linear measuring took at least 10 minutes, with odd [to her] things touching different parts of her body and movements all around her, including her head!)

Her calves, while she contributes the presumed 75%, do not have her flightiness; they have been like the rest of our calves. We can’t explain why she is different, unless there was some external environmental factor (some predator in the pasture?) that made an negative impression.

We used to have a Brangus cow, #17, that was like the cow above. She was one of the original commercial cows that Jeramie purchased when he started this operation in 2003. Jeramie says she wasn’t that way when he bought her; but she was that way ever since I was around her. He says that she was in a pasture with some horses and the horses were chasing her–terrorizing her. Just when she was starting to calm down and be not-so-flighty, we sold her for other reasons. I don’t know if she would have ever calmed down completely or not. Her calves were docile and easy to be around, she didn’t pass her squirreliness on.

I will also note here: I make an extra effort with the “squirrelly” cows, putting a little added pressure on them more often–like making sure I pass by them close every day when I walk cows. It works with cows that have squirrelly because of a traumatic event. It does not work with cows that have squirrelly genetics. I purchased a group of bred heifers a few [ok, like 2008] years back that one was just crazy. After a few days messing with her, she was loaded up and taken back to the sale barn; just wasn’t worth dealing with–she was never going to calm down.

Since docility is genetic, it shows up in the DNA. IGenity scores how animals rate–genetically–on a scale of 1-10. Three of the CCR bulls test out as fives; Dust is a six. I have questioned what a 9 or 10 would be like!! CCR bulls are known for their docility, we get compliments often about what a pleasure the bulls are to be around and how easy they are to work with. Again, it amazes me how much of the temperament of the bull can be seen in the calf!

Dust with hat

Nick put a hat on Dust and got a picture. Notice the electric tape in front of Dust, while the bulls are gentle, being in a field with them can still be dangerous–they are bulls and must be respected and treated as such….even if they will pose with hats on.

While animals are genetically predisposed to be docile or not, they are still animals that learn, and they are a prey animal with a fight or flight mentality. If they don’t have human contact, their fight or flight will kick in. A human on a horse is going to be different from a human standing on two legs. I have seen numerous animals that were okay with a human on a horse, as soon as a human was standing on the ground, those same cows were bolting for the other side of the pasture. How are these girls going to react when they are corralled and worked through a chute? These cows teach their calves the same thing because that is what they are familiar with.

A few minutes a day can make a big difference. Simply just walking through the cows (and calves) so they get used to a human on two legs makes a huge difference. It only takes a few cows that are okay with people standing and walking; they will teach the others to not fear.

Walking–on foot–through the cows not only gets the cows used to a human on two legs, it gives a different perspective of the cow. Our cows’ reactions to use being in the field, as opposed to a dog being in the field can be seen on the post The Cows Are All Gone! I know that I can see a lot more of the cow when I’m standing on the ground. I am also able to check something out or move to a different position to get a better angle, without the cow moving. My experience working cows on horses, cows move away from horses, that was the point; I understand there are people that can get right up to a cow on a horse and the cow not move, I’m not sure if that is good or bad.

This spring when we had the cows in the corral and were ready to turn them out in the field (dry lot), we took a few extra minutes and ran cows through the squeeze chute, just for the fun of it. They didn’t get caught, we just took them through a pen, up the lane, through the sweep, up the alley, straight through the chute, then they went down the exit lane, through the gate and were out. This one little exercise seemed to make a big difference when we were putting them through the chute to freeze brand. They knew where to go, and it wasn’t alarming to them, even though we had just got the sweep system right before we did the practice run.

A docile disposition does not mean the animal has to be a “pet.” Admittedly, we have a number of pets–all our bulls, a few cows. Power was shown pretty extensively–he’s halter broke, which comes in pretty handy when we need to get just him out of a field (actually, if we drive the truck and trailer in the field and open the door, we can load him just by calling him). By pet, I mean they let you walk up to them and scratch them, not just on the head briefly–they really like to be pet. I have firm limits I set with them, they aren’t allowed to push on people, move into people’s space, etc.–most especially the bulls.

I have been warned many times about the “pets.” And I do agree. I used to go out in the field and hand feed treats. I stopped because regardless of how polite an individual cow was, it only took one rude cow and I could get hurt very easily. We don’t need to treat the girls to get them in; but we do sometimes lure/bribe them by forking a bit of hay into the pen/corral. In the video below, nothing was used, and the girls came all the way from the bottom of the field (8 acre field; and just a side note: we no longer keep my horses in with the cows–and my horses were not the ones that terrorized #17).

“Pets” can be as difficult to work through the chute–or work, period–as any crazy animal, just for different reasons. Crazy animals move fast and sometimes unpredictably; pets won’t move. Because their bubbles are so small–nonexistent–trying to get them to go where they may not want to right then can be a challenge. We struggle with this and have learned some of the quirks. Power, as mentioned above, is easy to load in the trailer (he sees it and gets excited, “Road trip!”) We have a cow, Sherry, who doesn’t so much care for loading. She’s shorter and our trailer is high, and well, the trailer just doesn’t seem as great as having someone scratch her. To get her on the trailer before the rest of the bunch turns around and starts unloading, we really have to encourage her to move and load; it takes persistence that starts before the first cow steps on the trailer.

Docility has more to do with than just the animal being easy to be around. It is a large factor in profit! Temperament should be a selection factor–one of the first!–of which animals not only to select and retain breeding stock from, but which animals get to stay in the herd at all. No matter the quality/size of calf a cow weans off, she will never be able to pay for the hospital bills if she hurts someone. There are plenty of “nice” cows to not have to deal with crazy. Crazy can go for beef–immediately.

NOTE: This does not include cows that will take (eat) you for messing with their calf!!! Those are not crazy cows, those are good mamas!

2 thoughts on “The Invisible–But Super-Important–Trait To Be Considered In Cattle Selection

  1. Steve Cote

    I really appreciate your comment about letting stock go through the chute, without processing them. The idea of working stock so they will be calm when it comes time to do something with them is a difficult one for many producers to understand, but it is an essential part of calmness when processing, weaning, driving, loading, sorting and many other things. Years ago I had a few lessons with spooky horses from a friend-he had years of training from circus horse trainers (and spanish vienna riding school)-who keep some secrets. He gets even really sensitive arabian or thoroughbred horses to a level of calmness and responsiveness that I never imagined but he really firms up with these horses, requiring them to pay attention to nothing but him, the commands walk up or whoa are serious an, no looking away etc and it is part of producing a really calm horse-even from a really spooky one. I carried these lessons thru to cattle, and I get the flighty ones pretty calm pretty soon (I help ranchers get there herds calm and responsive). If these flighty cattle can experience that you are not aggressive but in full command of everything they do – you will see a big change but of course-no force and you always watch and change what you do as the cattle show you – you must. If a cow is flighty she doesn’t trust you, if a bull is aggressive, he doesn’t think you are in full command. The flighty cow really needs a leader she can work for-you must be that. Cattle will not be aggressive if they experience that you are not-they are not aggressive to us by nature-we make them that way. If bulls get to butting heads or bowing, then I stop what I am doing and they experience pressure, sharp firm pressure-bulls can’t fight if they are paying attention to me and what I am going to ask them next. We can all get along with sensitive cattle, but you have to like watching and thinking more than chasing. With a really calm animal (I learned this on dairies), you want to increase the pressure “bubble” by approaching like you mean it and pressure into their sides, at a sharp forward angle, if she doesn’t move I just stand there and wait, she’ll move, when she stops, repeat what you did -then watch, when she even thinks about slowing pressure again, until she moves at the distance you want. With perfect timing, this just takes minutes or less. Remember that animals do not learn what you want them to do from pressure, they learn from the release in the few moments after. You have to start a sensitive animal with calmness and end with it, or you haven’t won a thing. If you breed a herd for disposition, it will take many years to get a herd suited to you-and you may cull some pretty good animals. If you breed for disposition but can accommodate some sensitive but otherwise good cattle, where you change your handling (and attitude) to fit these animals, you can & will have a great herd in short order. There are some animals so flighty that it would take the average handlers years to learn how to re-hab them. These are likely candidates for culling as would be an aggressive cow or bull. Some animals are not worth the risk as you say. I can get within yards of a sensitive range cow on horseback or get a pokey dairy cow to move at 20 yards, by doing these things. Cattle are remarkably sensitive to the way we handle them, its the foundation of healthy and productive herds. When they can “take” our pressure, the rest of pressures they will experience become no big deal.

    1. randi Post author

      Thank you for the comment, Steve. Very insightful. Do you know Bob Kinford? You and him seem to have quite a bit in common. Will be keeping you in mind for some future reference…pick your brain, if you don’t mind 🙂

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