Increasingly, reports are coming in of wild cattle that are difficult to handle in packing plants. This is not only an issue of humaneness and efficiency but quality. Wild cattle tend to have more dark cutters, a serious quality defect that reduces the shelf life of beef and creates beef that is too dark.
There are two major reasons why this is occurring - changes in genetics and better record keeping. As more producers join alliance programs, cattle are tracked from birth to beef. The wild cattle problem is worse in cattle with excitable genetics that have never been handled by a person on foot until they reach the packing plant.
Ranchers and feeders can prevent wild cattle problems by acclimating cattle to both people on foot and people on horses. Ideally, this should be done at both the ranch and the feedlot.
Why Now? Cattle have been handled on horses for decades, so why is this problem occurring now? Some of the cattle being used today are more excitable than purebred Angus or Hereford. Overall, the British breeds of Hereford, Shorthorn and Angus are calmer than most of the breeds from the continent of Europe (Continentals). The drive for lean beef may have also contributed to the temperament problems. I've observed that animals that are lean and slender with fine bones are often much more prone to panic and excitement than heavier boned individuals of the same breed.
In other words, if you breed cattle to look like deer, they tend to act like deer regardless of breed. The problem with animals with excitable genetics is that they go berserk when they are suddenly confronted with a new experience such as a packing plant yard with people on foot.
Cattle with excitable genetics can be calm and quiet when in a familiar place with familiar people. But, they can explode and panic when confronted with sudden new experiences.
Angus and Hereford cattle are calm breeds that usually have a better ability to tolerate new experiences such as entering an auction ring or being handled on foot for the first time. Some ranchers are breeding Angus X Continental crosses to get bigger, leaner animals for Certified Angus programs. Some of these crosses are very excitable, sometimes more so than British crosses.
A good way to select bulls for crossbred programs is to observe their behavior in the auction ring. If he blows up and hits the fence, this is the bull that should be avoided. He is likely to sire calves that will run away from the feed truck and become agitated at the packing plant.
Cattle with an excitable temperament must be trained to tolerate the sights and sounds of new experiences. At the ranch of origin, they should be habituated to people quietly walking through them, riders on horses and vehicles. When these new things are first introduced they should be neutral and non-threatening.
Reports From Feeders And Packers At one feedlot, the manager informed me that cattle from certain ranches were very wild and difficult to handle by a person on foot. Since these cattle would not tolerate a person on foot, the employees found that it was easier to always handle them with horses.
When those cattle went to the packing plant, they experienced a man on foot for the first time. At the packing plant, they were wild and difficult to handle and they had 20% dark cutters.
I recommended that when new cattle are received from these ranches, they should immediately start training them to tolerate a person walking quietly through their pen. Cattle can differentiate between a person walking in the road and a person walking in the pen. The person must walk around in the pen to be effective. The cattle should also experience being moved out of pens and down alleys by both people on foot and on horseback.
In another case, the yard manager at a packing plant told me about problems with wild cattle from one particular feedlot. He said they were very difficult to remove from the pens and they became highly agitated even when the employees tried to move them calmly.
When he told me the name of the feedlot that had the worst cattle, I almost could not believe it. When I visited this lot, the cattle were handled very quietly when they were brought into the squeeze chute for vaccinations. An electric prod was almost never used. This feedlot had some of the best handling in the industry.
Then I figured out the cause of the problem. Many of the cattle in this lot had never been removed from a pen by a person on foot. They had been moved with horses at both the ranch of origin and in the feedlot. At vaccination, a person on a horse brought them out of their home pen and moved them through the circle pen.
In most feedlots, a person on foot moves the cattle the last 100 ft. or so into the crowd pen that leads to the vaccinating chute. In this feedlot, the cattle had never experienced being moved by a person on foot. The only people on foot they saw were working around the squeeze chute.
At another ranch, the cattle had become impossible to handle with a horse. The owner had always worked them on foot, and the first time they saw people on horses was when they were roped and branded. The cattle now had a fear of people on horses. It's likely that these cattle would be difficult to handle at a feedlot by a horse and rider.
First Experiences Really Last An animal's first experience with something new can have a long lasting effect on future behavior. Animals tend to judge future experiences based on their first experience. If a calf's first experience with a person on foot or on a horse is a bad one, the animal may be difficult to handle for the rest of its life.
For several weeks prior to branding time, people should walk through and ride through the cattle in a neutral non-threatening manner. The cattle should also be trained to tolerate vehicles. This will help produce calmer animals which will be more productive in the feedlot.
Colorado State University research indicates that cattle that become agitated and excited during handling have lower weight gains in the feedlot and more dark cutters and tougher meat. Australian researchers have also found that calves will become calmer adult animals if people walk and ride through them.
At a recent meeting, a rancher asked me if ear tagging a baby calf when it is first born will have a bad effect on future behavior. Cattle have memories that are permanent but no research has been done to determine if a newborn calf has a good memory. Handling a newborn calf for ear tagging would be much less stressful than being moved through a chute or roped. To avoid any possible problems, the calf should be handled gently and as soon after birth as possible.
Continental Excitability In all of these cases, the cattle were either Continental purebreds or crossbreeds. Why would these cattle be more excitable than Brahman or British cattle?
French scientists P. LeNeindre, X Boivin and A. Boissy wrote an article for Applied Animal Behavior Science discussing the problems they'd observed when breeds of cattle originally developed for intensive uses such as milking cows are placed out on the range. They stated that cattle that may be gentle in an intensive system may be wild out on the range.
I think the problem is due to the tendency to panic when suddenly placed in a new situation. Many ranchers have told me stories of Continental cattle that are gentle and tame on the home ranch, but they go berserk when they are put in an auction ring.
Breeders of purebred seedstock have recognized the importance of breeding cattle that are less excitable. There are definite temperament differences in the various genetic lines within a breed.
When I give talks at producer meetings, ranchers often ask why the British breeds such as Hereford and Angus are calmer than the Continental breeds. It may have to do with how the early cattle breeders in England and the continent of Europe selected their cattle.
The Hereford and Angus breeds were originally developed in England to be beef cattle that would be raised on pasture. They weren't handled by people every day. When they had to handle the cattle in primitive facilities, the cattle that went berserk or became aggressive were culled. There would have been high selection pressure for calm animals.
However, the Continental breeds developed in France, Italy and Germany were originally developed to be dual-purpose cattle. Hereford and Angus were bred to raise beef. Continentals were bred to be milk cows, draft animals and were also used for beef.
The Continental breeds would have been raised in much closer association with people than the British breeds. Continental cattle such as Salers and Simmentals are still used as dairy animals today.
If an animal is handled every day and is raised in an environment filled with people and activity, these experiences become its familiar home. Today, the British still raise their cattle on pasture but many beef animals reared on the continent of Europe are raised in small barns in close association with people. When animals are raised in this manner, there is much less culling for temperament.
When calves are exposed to many new experiences when they are young, cattle producers will have animals that are tame. Even though the excitable genetics are present, they will not see any agitated behavior. The animals have learned that lots of people, vehicles and activity is not a threat.
One of the best ways to make an animal show its genetic temperament is to suddenly expose it to a new and novel scary situation such as an auction ring. Cattle that become highly agitated in an auction ring are the ones with the most excitable temperament