Understanding Tempermental Differences in Cattle

Temperament is a heritable pattern of thinking, emotion, motivation, and behavior influenced by experience. In cattle, there are practical and valuable measures available to determine temperament. Record the measurements discussed here while performing routine handling. When making breeding or culling decisions, repeat these measures three times for accuracy. Temperament is stable over time, so more than one measure is essential. Temperament differences may complicate humane cattle handling and make good cattle pen design necessary to reduce stress.  Individual differences in temperament also reflect feelings like fear experienced by cattle and need to be understood by those concerned with animal welfare.

Foundation of Temperament

          Individual differences in temperament distinguish one animal from another and are stable over time and across situations. Every cow is an individual with a way of behavior. The foundation of individual differences in behavior and temperament are; nervous system reactivity, bloodline, upbringing, and sex.

          These influences together interact over time and determine an animals temperament. From nature, some cattle are “easy” and tend to be predictable, calm, and poisitively approach new experiences. Other animal’s are more fearful, reactive, and shy away from new experiences. The ease in the way cattle adjust to life events is strongly influenced by their temperament.

Inheritance of Temperament

          For the most part, temperament is inborn. Still, it can be modified in the early years of life by positive or negative experiences.  Learning the characteristics of temperament can aid in selecting of animals for their ability to adapt to different environments. Choosing cattle for their ability to adapt and thrive in a particular place is key to good productivity. Calm temperaments are often preferable, but on a remote ranch close to Yellowstone National Park where wolf predation is high, selecting a “calm” temperament is not practical. Cows must be vigilant, alert, and defensive to protect their calf. And the calf has to be sensitive and able to respond to the slightest emotional signals from the cow. This type of vigilance and sensitivity is not necessary in areas where predation is low or nonexistent.

Behaviors Linked to Temperament

The major characteristics of temperament are:

Activity Level:  daily levels of physical activity, restlessness and motion. Calves walk and explore more and show alertness

Approach and Withdrawal:  the way calves initially respond to novelty. Is the response fast or slow, or hesitant.

Adaptability: the ease or difficulty of adjusting to change in new situations

Intensity: intensity is the amount of energy, positive or negative in a calf’s response to events and situations

Sensory Threshold: amount of stimulation required for a calf to respond. Some respond to the slightest stimulation, other require higher amounts.

Assessing Temperament

          If you walk up to a group of cattle grazing together, the first one to lift its head and notice your approach tends to be the most reactive and fearful. It may have the lowest sensory threshold and the most heightened sensory awareness. If the group begins to move away, this animal is usually in the lead. Suppose this individual is first to move away and moves away faster than the rest. In that case, these are initial signs of a highly reactive/fearful temperament. A nervous animal holds its head up high to see all around. The amount of white showing in the eyes is a fear response. A little white, a little fear. A lot of white, a lot of fear. Fearful animals move fast when people enter their flight zone, but may turn and face you when out of the flight zone. They like to keep their eyes on danger. 

          If this same group is moved to the cattle pens for treatment in the squeeze chute, the most reactive individuals are usually the first to exit when the pen gate is open.

Chute Score

Behavior in the squeeze chute is a useful method to determine temperament. Chute Score has four variables:

1 = calm

2 = slightly restless

3 = squirming and occasionally shaking the chute

4 = continuous vigorous movement and shaking of the chute

          Chute score is used extensively in temperament studies. A method like a chute score is good because it does not require the purchase or set up of any equipment. It’s easy to use chute score during routine handling.  The value of temperament tests depends on how reliably they can be assigned and repeated. Before making culling decisions, it’s essential to repeat the tests three times for accuracy. Temperament is stable over time.

Exit Speed

          Another well-known temperament test is “exit speed” from the squeeze chute. Observers assign an exit score from 1 to 4:





          Flight speed is also measured using infrared sensors to determine the time taken for an animal to traverse a fixed distance. Flight speed is mainly a measure of fear.

Pen Score

          Another helpful measure is Pen Score. For this measurement, pen a small group (n = 5) of calves in a small lot. Two observers approach a single individual in the group. Score the individual on a 1 to 5 scale:

1 = Non-agitated (docile)

2 = Slightly Agitated

3 = Moderately Agitated

4 = Agitated

5 = Very Agitated

          “Agitated” in this context refers to how actively the individual avoids being approached by the observers. Cattle that receive a score of 1 can be approached easily, whereas cattle receiving a score of 5 run into fences and very actively attempt to escape the pen.

Hair Whorls

          An easy way to predict temperament is by the position of the hair whorl on the scalp. Research shows that cattle with hair whorls above the eyes are more behaviorally agitated during restraint (Grandin, et al; 1995). In this study, one observer recorded the position of the hair whorl before the animal entered the squeeze chute. A second observer blind to the hair whorl position used “Chute Score” to measure the behavior of 1500 cattle in the squeeze chute. This measure of hair whorls can be used in combination with chute score, exit speed score, and pen score. 


A Need to Select for Temperament  

          Temperament scoring is important, especially in light of the heritability component.  A troublesome cow is often responsible for a troublesome calf. But don’t forget, the environment plays a role. A calf with a difficult mother doesn’t have to be difficult. You can give the calf careful attention when you suspect a fearful temperament.  Sometimes just being aware of the predisposition is all the extra attention some calves need.