Many cattlemen have suspected that disposition -- the mental and emotional attitude of cattle -- has an effect on how well they do in the feedlot, having an impact on gain. The nervous, flighty animal doesn't spend as much time at the feed bunk. This suspicion has been confirmed, thanks to several studies focusing on the effects of disposition on cattle performance. Results of these studies have also shown a very measurable effect on carcass quality.
Dr. Rhonda Vann, animal scientist at Mississippi State University, has been studying cattle behavior for three years, in collaboration with Texas A&M University. Her research has shown that temperament has a direct effect on weight gain or loss and that wild cattle have very little chance to acheive top carcass quality. For instance, docile calves go through weaning with very little setback, compared to nervous individuals that are more stressed. Flighty calves don't eat as well, losing weight for a longer period instead of gaining, and are also more susceptible to illness since stress hinders the immune system.
Her three year study showed that docile cattle were more efficient on feed, and more profitable. Even at pasture, the data collected on stocker steers after a 168 day grazing period showed that calm cattle had better growth performance and body composition. Flighty individuals not only gained less weight in both the pasture and feedlot, but also had poor ultrasound data, tougher meat and were often dark cutters, with carcasses that were severely discounted by packers. "Bad tempered animals have less fat and less marbling. There wasn't a noticeable difference in ribeye size, but their ability to mobilize fat was significantly reduced," says Vann. The end result was $60 less profit than for docile animals.
Research at Iowa State University reached similar conclusions, showing that wild and unmanageable cattle gain about half a pound per day less than easily managed cattle, and returned $61 less profit. Another study involved more than 13,000 calves from 12 states, fed at eight Iowa feedlots and consigned to the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity. This 3 year study looked at feedlot gain, death and sickness loss, quality and yield grade and other performance factors, using the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) disposition scoring system to measure performance and profitability of cattle with varying temperament. A purpose of the study was to help producers assess feedlot profitabily in terms of temperament.
During the study each group of cattle was scored three times during their feeding period. Based on their scores (using the BIF scoring system) they were sorted into three categories--docile, restless and aggressive. The docile cattle gained better and there were more Prime and Choice grades iin this group, along with more acceptability for the Certified Angus Beef program. They also had lower mortality rates than cattle in the aggressive category.
Looking at feedlot gain, death loss, costs of treatment, quality, yield grade and other performance criteria, the docile group averaged $62.15 more profit per head than aggressive cattle and $49.09 more profit per head than the restless cattle. The aggressive cattle averaged a net loss of $7.26.
Temperament is a combination of genetics and handling, and begins on the farm. Selection for easy-going disposition when purchasing a bull or keeping a heifer, along with careful handling when cattle are young (and each time the cows are handled for vaccinating, sorting and any other management processing) can make a big difference in future profitability. There are wild and calm animals in every breed, and it is up to the producer to select the more docile animals as seedstock. The Limousin association was the first breed organization to develop a docility EPD at the request of their membership, and this is a measurement needed in other breeds as well.
Docility versus wild, aggressive nature is not difficult to measure. Individuals with undesirable temperament are difficult to get close to, upset when confined (fence and gate crashers) and more difficult to process. Several researchers use excitability and movement when measuring temperament, such as how much the animal fights while in the holding chute (some producers call this the "rattle index") and how fast the animal leaves the chute. Cattle with a high exit speed tend to be more temperamental. Dr. Rhonda Vann, at Mississippi State University, uses an infrared timer to measure each animal's exit speed when leaving the chute. Her research showed that the animals that were fastest coming out of the chute had poorer carcass quality and were less tender after their 120 days in the feedlot, compared with docile cattle.