Cattle Respond to Low-Stress Handling

Using chute scores to evaluate cattle temperament, after an acclimation period and calm handling, could aid in heifer selection. ( John Maday )

While it seems intuitive that gentle handling will lead to calmer cattle, we need objective measurements to evaluate progress, especially among cattle that naturally are nervous during initial processing at a new facility. The assessment of temperament particularly comes into play in selecting replacement heifers.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska and Virginia Tech University recently completed a three-year study evaluating behavior in newly weaned heifer calves at a facility in Virginia. Their report, titled “Repeated Calm Handling Can Lead to More Docile Cattle, is available in the 2018 Nebraska Beef Cattle Report.

 The researchers studied groups of 40 spring-born heifer calves, which arrived at the facility each year following a one-week period of fenceline weaning. Their objectives included comparing chute scores and exit scores for evaluating behavior indicative of stress and to determine whether behavior changes

over time. Toward those objectives, they used two measurement protocols – frequent and infrequent – with three processing events beginning on Oct. 13, Nov. 10, and Dec. 8.

The frequent measurement protocol entailed collecting behavioral measurements over three consecutive days within each event while infrequent measurement protocol involved collecting behavioral just on the first day of each event.

The study generated three key findings.

  • Chute scores changed more over time than exit scores, suggesting chute scores might be a more sensitive measurement of temperament.
  • Chute scores improved over the study period as heifers became calmer with repeated gentle handling, especially those in the more frequently handled treatment groups.
  • Heifers with higher chute scores on the first day of handling, meaning those initially the most temperamental, had the largest reduction in score over the course of the study.

Among their conclusions, the researchers suggest producers might benefit from allowing cattle a few days to acclimate to new working facilities before assessing docility.