Nature v nurture

By Claire Harris, Livestock Extension Officer

CATTLE behaviour can have a big influence on how a farm is managed?
There are three major factors that impact stock behaviour.
These include, but are not limited to:
• the way we choose to handle stock;
• previous experience of stock handling; and
• the animal’s genetic temperament.
Other factors that we need to be aware of might include external stimuli such as noise, light, yard set up, mixing of social groups and the weather or time of day.
These stimuli can upset stock and increase their stress levels leading to problematic behaviours for farmers to manage.
Research and experience with farm practices has shown that we can improve an animal’s reaction to a stimuli and ability to cope with situations like mustering or yarding.
This can occur through repeated exposure to correct handling procedures.
Some practices might include yard weaning, hand feeding, yard training or dog breaking-in.
These situations can help train an animal to deal with stress.
Training stock to cope with stressful situations however can mask poor temperament.
This is particularly the case of stud bulls that can be exposed to high levels of handling and new environments leading up to sale.
Temperament has been estimated by some studies to be as heritable as 40–60 per cent, making it highly heritable in comparison to other traits in Breedplan.
From a herd management perspective, this makes it important to assess our breeders for temperament and cull cows that are flighty or aggressive.
(Please note: Aggression around the first days of calving is a maternal response and may not be an indicator of true temperament; care should always be taken when handling newly born calves.)
Docility Estimated Breeding Values (EBV’s) are available in some breeds of cattle.
A discussion with bull breeders about temperament in different lines may also be useful to determine what bull might be best suited to assist your herd with improving temperament.
If you have a temperament problem in your cattle you should attempt to address it by correcting your genetics. This is a long term process.
In the short term, an option to consider is having an independent stock handling expert come and assess your set up and the handling techniques of all staff on the farm.