Temper temper - selecting for quieter cattle

Location: Moura, QLD

Enterprise: Beef and coarse grains

Producer: Swin and Kathy Hudson, for Tremere Pastoral

Soil type: Brigalow

Pasture type: Buffel, green panic

Central Queensland beef producers, Swin and Kathy Hudson, use flight time and pen scoring to measure temperament in their herd. They have found that selecting for temperament has noticeably improved ease of stock handling and management.

Traditionally, the Hudsons ran Belmont cattle on their Moura property and did not find temperament to be such an issue with the breed. However, Swin said they began to experience problems with unsettled stock when they introduced African breeds – Tuli, Boran and Bonsmara – into the herd in the 1990s.

“Cattle temperament is very important from a human perspective,” he said. “Temperamental animals pose a greater risk of injuries to humans and other stock. They can take longer to process during any handling jobs and there is generally more effort expended, which costs time and money."

Temperament and African genetics

Swin and Kathy target a range of productivity traits through BREEDPLAN to genetically progress their 3,000 breeders.

Although they have been selecting quieter animals for the past decade, they realised they needed greater breeding pressure on temperament as the influence of the African genetics and the number of African-infused stock increased.

This led to involvement in flight time trials through the MLA-supported Cooperative Research Centre for Beef Genetic Technologies (Beef CRC) in 2002.

Flight time measurements

Flight time measures the time it takes an animal to cover a set distance (usually 1.7–2.0m) when released from confinement (crate or crush).

The Hudsons now record flight time for all stock at weaning using a CSIRO developed system of two light beams set 2m apart. Measurements are recorded the second or third time the animals leave the crush to ensure it is not a novel experience (throughput is more than 100 head/hour).

Swin includes flight time results in culling decisions; any animals moving faster than 0.6 seconds over 2m are culled. “We only cull about 10–15% of our herd based on flight time results but it’s having a major positive impact on our operations,” he said.

Pen scores

Swin said the innate animal fear measured by flight time was only one aspect of cattle temperament and that considering aggression and experiences was important.

He uses pen scoring to assess aggression in his bulls when they reach 18–20 months old.

“The bulls are a small group to measure but have a big influence on the herd,” he said.

They yard groups of three animals in a 9 x 12m pen and separate each bull from the other two, scoring its behaviour from 1–5 based on whether the animal:

  1. stands calmly and can be approached to within the length of the yardstick (about 2m)
  2. stands calmly but moves away before being approached within the length of the yardstick
  3. does not settle when held away from the others 
  4. is difficult to keep separate from the others
  5. cannot be effectively separated from the others

Swin said this takes about nine minutes per group, mainly because temperamental animals upset calmer animals and time is needed to observe their real nature.

After nine years of temperament selection, most bulls on the property now score 1 or 2, and Swin has not scored 4 or 5 for several years.

“By doing both pen scoring and flight times, we get a more accurate assessment of overall animal temperament,” he said.

“We are now seeing a definite trend of declining flight times and bull pen scores, and our herd temperament has improved.”

Swin’s extensively run, grassfed cattle were consistently reaching specifications for target EU and JapOx markets, and breeding heifers were achieving pregnancy rates of more than 90% for a 9–11 week mating period.

Moura, QLD
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