Editor's note--Temple Grandin's comments that Amanda Radke refers to in this blog came from an article that Grandin wrote for BEEF titled "Experts say that ranching done right improves the environment and wildlife habitat." The article came from speaker comments made at a recent meeting of the Society for Range Management. You can read Grandin's article here.
Last night, my family was sitting around the dinner table at my parents’ house when we heard cattle mooing and rustling around in the calving pasture. It was enough of a ruckus that three of us hopped on four-wheelers to check what was going on. With spotlights, we could see in the dark that many of the calves had blown through the fence, and the mama cows were running along the fence line trying to get to their babies. The group was clearly spooked by something, and as we maneuvered the calves back to where they belonged, we could only guess it was a coyote or mountain lion that had startled our normally very quiet cow herd.
VIDEO: Why calm cattle pay
Living alongside the James River in eastern South Dakota, we have predators that follow the river banks in search of prey. Last summer, we lost two calves to what we suspect was a mountain lion, and this calving season, we’ve already lost one to a coyote. Our area doesn’t have the additional threat of wolves, but our recent experiences gave us additional insight into the serious challenges many ranchers face with regard to predators.
Noted animal behaviorist Temple Grandin of Colorado State University recently authored an article for BEEF in which she suggested that ranchers might benefit from instilling in their herds better protective instincts against predators. She offered four steps for cattle ranchers to better coexist with predators. These included:
• All dead carcasses and sick, weak animals must be immediately removed. (But, what about afterbirth enticing predators? How about the young calves hidden and left by their mothers while they graze? These temptations keep predators nearby.)
•Indiscriminant killing of wolves or coyotes is a bad idea. The best approach is to remove individual problem animals or a male and female pair that are caught in the act of killing cattle or sheep. (Good luck catching the predator in action! Usually, the damage is done and the predator long gone before the incident is discovered.)
• Cattle need to learn to herd and flock together and “stand their ground” when confronted by wolves or coyotes. Use Bud Williams’ low-stress methods to trigger the natural bunching instinct. (Even docile cattle don’t lose the bunching instinct, but a confronted or cornered cow is a dangerous one — not just for predators, but for people, too.)
• Because wolves and coyotes will usually avoid areas where people are present, riding the range is effective deterrent. (For many, riding every pasture on a daily basis isn’t practical or feasible. What about the remote locations cattle often graze?)
In her article entitled, “Experts say ranching done right improves the environment and wildlife habitat,” Grandin writes about the need to “re-wild” cattle and “rekindle” the herd instinct to bunch together and stand their ground.
I can appreciate what she is saying and agree that soft bunching while grazing can be a learned behavior through some animal handling techniques. However, the practicality of enhancing a brood cow’s protective instincts — whether through genetic selection or learned behavior — wouldn’t just keep predators away, but ranchers, too. And, that could spell trouble, particularly when the average age of the U.S. rancher is 58. Frankly, as folks age, they generally aren't as nimble, which could make it harder to escape an aggressive cow!
READ: Livestock guardian dogs may help protect stock from predators
As a purebred Limousin breeder, I’m often asked about the disposition of our cattle. In the early years of Limousin genetics in the U.S., the breed developed a notorious reputation for having wild and high-headed bloodlines. That’s why, in 1991, the breed’s leaders developed a temperament-scoring system, which the Beef Improvement Federation later adopted. The breed then developed the industry’s first docility (DOC) expected progeny difference (EPD), which Limousin breeders have used diligently over the years to select and cull problem animals.
READ: Limousin breeders tackle temperament
In our operation, my dad has always placed an emphasis on docility. With three daughters as his main chore help, he wasn’t going to risk the safety of his “little girls” when docility could be managed through selection. We use the disposition EPD extensively for culling cranky cattle and when buying new genetics to add to the herd. In fact, we recently purchased a new herd sire this spring that boasts a 34 DOC EPD, which ranks in the top 5% of the breed. We felt his gentle attitude was worth the extra dollars paid and we look forward to him transmitting that to gentle daughters in the upcoming years.
From our experience, selecting for disposition has been a smart move. We joke now that calving season is almost “boring,” as we hardly ever have to worry about a cow being territorial after calving. We can tag and weigh nearly all our calves on the ground by simply driving up to the pair with a four-wheeler, catching the calf by hand, and quickly doing what we need to do while the cow watches. Our fear of getting hurt is minimal, and we want to keep it that way.
READ: Take steps to improve docility and safer handling
I tell you about my family’s experience in selecting for docility not to promote our cattle or the breed, but because I don’t agree with Grandin’s statement that we should “re-wild” our cattle. A more protective cow is a meaner cow. I would never go back to the days of having aggressive and wild cattle just so they can be better at protecting their calves from predators. It’s not practical; it’s not safe; and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make for a higher-quality beef product.
Luckily, we didn’t lose any calves to the passing predator last night, and I realize I don’t have all of the answers for how cattle and predators can co-exist. However, it’s high time we have that conversation and offer real solutions for the ranchers who lose dozens of calves each year to wolves, coyotes and mountain lions.
What do you think about Grandin’s suggestion to reteach cattle predator instincts? How do you manage your problems with predators? How important is docility to you in your operation? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Penton Agriculture.
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