There are a lot of reasons to select for docile cattle, and they don’t all have to do with keeping repair and vet costs down after the wild ones have torn up your working facilities.
That’s not to say that both animal and handler safety aren’t important, says Bob Weaber, University of Missouri Extension genetics specialist. “The motivation for producers to think about selecting for disposition is based on a number of criteria,” he explains. “One is animal well being; usually animals that have a better temperament have fewer injuries,” he says.
“And obviously, the people who work the livestock have a more enjoyable experience working the gentle, more easy-going animals.” That’s important not only because as ranchers get older, the safety factor becomes more important, but because working cattle is often a multi-generational event. “Certainly, families that have younger children are concerned about safety, so animals that have better docility and temperament are viewed more favorably.”
But there are some bottom-line considerations as well, Weaber says. “Calves at weaning time that are more docile have heavier weaning weights than calves that are more aggressive,” he says. “If we look at a post-weaning period – 55 days in one of the studies we did – the animals that were more desirable in terms of docility gained 0.8 lb./day more than the less docile animals.” In the feedyard, the more docile animals had better feed intakes and better average daily gain than animals with a more sour outlook on life. “So there’s an economic incentive to select for animals that are better behaved,” he says.
And selection pressure can yield results. Weaber’s studies indicate that docility is a relatively heritable trait. “The heritability estimates range from 25% to 40%, so it has similar heritability as weaning weight, yearling weight or some of our carcass traits.”
One question yet to be answered is whether or not cattle can be too docile? “Obviously we want to select against the ones that are really bad, but can we overdo it?” he asks. There are reasons for concern, particularly on the cow side of the equation. Cows that may not respond adequately to predation of their calves or may not have good maternal bonding instincts are not desirable, either. Weaber says there’s not much research to support those assumptions, but it’s a question worth investigating.