Which animal behavior type do you prefer to work with on your farm? The meek, the aggressive, the laid back, the eager calf that bunts the milk bottle out of your hand, the cows that get to the feed bunk first and stay there the longest …etc?. Perhaps the question should be “are animal behavior related traits something that cattle breeders need to be paying more attention to as they continue to replace people in their barns with machines?” If they are important, then more thought needs to be given to capturing field observations so we can have actual facts to base decisions on instead of some random comments in sire catalogues about a bull’s daughters’ behaviour characteristics.

New Technology

Each year breeders add new machinery or procedures to their operations in order to cut costs or increase revenue. The cows are simply expected to adapt and keep on producing large volumes of milk, fat and protein and get back in calf. Of course all the time doing it more cost efficiently.  Well it just does not work that way.  So breeders must cull the animals that do not adapt to the robotic feeder or milker, the new loud noise, the isolation in a pen, the crowding in pens and the list goes on.  Seldom is the behaviour of our animals given a second thought when breeders make a change.

Behavior – Management or Genetic?

Recognizing that management plays a role in animal behaviour, we do need to ask ourselves if there are genetic difference between sires in how their daughters react to and cope with the daily routines and procedures on farms.

University of Guelph researchers and Holstein Canada, in 1985, surveyed breeders on behavioural traits and from the findings determined heritabilities of 0.16 for milking temperament, 0.12 for ease of handling and 0.11 for aggressiveness at feeding.  The study also showed a strong correlation between milking temperament and ease of handling. From that research, milk recording in Canada started collecting breeder assessment of milking temperament on the second test day for all first calvers.  Sire proofs for milking temperament are calculated by CDN. That has proven to be helpful information as no breeder wants cows that kick the milking unit off, do not easily settle to the milking routine and are not easy to handle or move.

In 2012, Kees van Reenan, Wageningen University reported that, based on many researchers’ studies, balanced breeding for animal lifetime profit includes selection for three main areas: i) milk production, ii) temperament / behavior (which includes animal fearfulness, ability to cope with stress & socially interact with contemporaries) and iii) fitness (which includes health, fertility and longevity). Breeders are already quite aware that selection for lactation milk yield without regard to fitness has left us with animals that may be inferior in health and longevity but definitely are inferior for fertility. With van Reenan’s findings we can also see that, if we do not include animal temperament and behaviour in our selection indexes, we could well be limiting our genetic progress for lifetime profit. In his research report heritabilities for temperament and behaviour are reported as moderate, similar to the Canadian study mentioned above. However the same old problem still exists – we do not have farm data to use to genetically evaluate animals for behavioural traits.

Let’s switch to beef cattle for a moment. Renowned Colorado State Animal Behavior Professor Temple Grandin reports that beef animals that remain calm in the squeeze chute when being weighed or worked with have 14% higher weight gains than agitated animals. Part of her studies also report lower fertility and poorer meat quality for the agitated cattle group. Since we do not have data for dairy heifers we do not know if fearful heifers, when under stress, may have lower fertility.

The take home message from research is that behaviour involves both management and genetics and it points to the need for more studies into dairy cattle behavior and how it impacts profitability.   

Stress On Farm

Since the topic of animal behaviour is not frequently talked about in breeder circles, it can likely be said that breeders do not routinely think of ways to minimize animal stress. Breeders talk about the stresses associated with a cow having a difficult calving, with lameness and with mastitis. However what about the stress on a calf after a difficult birth, of boss animals on their pen mates, of the fear of isolation, of loud rough farm staff and of a host of other factors.

The approach breeders often take is to allow animals, that do poorly due to stress, to self eliminate. Yes breeders want calm, not easily stressed, animals but in designing their buildings and selecting their sires they may not be giving adequate attention to animal behaviour and temperament.

Where Does This Leave Breeders?

Only in the Nordic Countries and Canada are there genetic evaluations for temperament. So the vast majority of breeders, around the globe, do not have access to genetic information for behavioural traits. Since we do not have genetic evaluations based on farm data we can not even calculate genomic indexes from DNA profiling.

All breeders can do is: i) not raise heifers that themselves or their family’s exhibit poor behaviour or temperament (link to not raising all heifers article); ii) redesign their facilities or management to minimize animal stress factors; or iii) cull problem animals.

Some sires with high ratings for milking temperament in Canada include:

  • Long-Langs Oman Oman-ET             113
  • Picston Shottle                                    112
  • Amighetti Numero Uno-ET                110 (DGV)
  • Zahbulls Alta1stClass-ET                   110 (DGV)

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The area of animal behavior could definitely benefit from more thought and study. At both the farm and research levels, there needs to be input. Until there is data captured at the farm level and genetic evaluations are produced, breeders will only be able to address this problem from a management perspective or by culling otherwise valuable animals.  Knowing the genetic answers to animal behaviour problems would have the benefit of giving both breeding stock and milk production focused breeders the opportunity to enhance on-farm profits.


Get original “Bullvine” content sent straight to your email inbox for free.