‘Wild’ cattle – tough beef

Farmers have never considered cattle temperament a commercial problem, but new evidence shows stress-prone cattle gain less weight, have darker beef and are more likely to have unusable carcasses. Australia has even added temperament to the Breedplan EBVs to help farmers breed for docility, says Dr Heather Burrows, CEO of Australia’s Cooperative Research Centre for Cattle and Beef Quality. Annelie Coleman reports.
Issue date: 01 May 2009

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Farmers have never considered cattle temperament a commercial problem, but new evidence shows stress-prone cattle gain less weight, have darker beef and are more likely to have unusable carcasses. Australia has even added temperament to the Breedplan EBVs to help farmers breed for docility, says Dr Heather Burrows, CEO of Australia’s Cooperative Research Centre for Cattle and Beef Quality. Annelie Coleman reports.

Cattle should be selected for docility, as there’s a strong correlation between an animal’s temperament and the quality of its meat. Wild cattle, or those upset at the time of slaughtering, tend to have darker beef with a shorter shelf life. So says Dr Heather Burrows, CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Cattle and Beef Quality at the University of New England (Australia). She explains Australian and US research consistently shows a link between temperament and performance in intensive systems such as feedlots.

“For a long time, temperament was thought to be just an inconvenience,” she says. “The fact that some animals were more difficult to handle wasn’t considered a problem for the consumer. Breeders concentrated on more tangible traits such as birth and weaning weights. But there’s a drastic difference in the performance of calm animals and nervous, highly strung (“wild”) ones, which may have poor quality beef (“dark cutters”).” Wild heifers were more likely than steers to be dark cutters due to their oestrus activity, and bulls are more likely to be dark cutters because of testosterone levels.

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Difference of up to 400g/day
Studies at Texas A&M University in 2002 showed wild cattle gained no weight in the first 50 days after weaning, Dr Burrows says. “The docile weaners kept gaining weight as if they were still being nursed by their dams,” she says. “So even if wild calves wean at a good weight, they’ll cost more to feed. Wild steers ate less and lost an average of 11lb (5kg) in the first 50 days after weaning, compared to a weight gain of 30lb (13,6kg) in the docile calves.”

“After 78 days on feed, the nervous animals had gained 1,04kg/day, and the calm animals 1,42kg/day. None of the calm animals were pulled during the feedlot period, whereas 42% of the wild animals were taken to the hospital pen at some time. Docile animals lost less weight during long distance transport and recovered it more rapidly. They grew faster in feedlots, resulting in a better feed conversion ratio and heavier carcasses.”

Cattle that stress easily are also more likely to have poor-quality carcasses that are usually discounted or condemned, causing huge losses.
Studies in New Zealand found docile cattle have up to 85% fewer dark cutters than wild cattle do.

Genetics combined with management
“Wild cattle are a product of genetics combined with management,” says Dr Burrows. “A nervous, flighty animal can often be calmed with patient, quiet and careful handling. Likewise, a calm animal can be made wild by incorrect handling.
“Cattle can learn to trust and tolerate people if they’re treated with understanding and gentleness, but some animals never calm down. Quiet, consistent handling on the farm will result in animals that perform better in the feedlot.

EBV: flight time
Temperament was measured by an animal’s flight time, explains Dr Burrows. “This is the electronically measured time taken for an animal to cover a 2m distance upon leaving a weighing crush. The wilder an animal, the quicker it will leave the crush. The time can range from 0,12m/s (very docile) to 4,12m/s (very wild).“Flight time has been added as a new trait to the Australian beef genetic evaluation system Breedplan, which is also used extensively in South Africa. It lets breeders record flight times of contemporary groups of animals shortly after weaning, when the animals are familiar with the yard facilities but the conditions haven’t modified their behaviour yet.”

Comparative flight times can identify which animals will perform well under intensive conditions, such as in feedlots. Breedplan’s estimated breeding values (EBVs) can also be used to improve temperament genetically. Feedlotters can use flight time as a selection tool to identify which animals will grow faster, with a higher feed conversion efficiency. Without sophisticated electronic equipment, crush scoring can be used to measure temperament. A crush score is a subjective assessment on a scale of 1 to 5, from docile (1), to restless (2), nervous (3), flighty (4) and aggressive (5). This test is inexpensive and quick to implement on the farm. However, it isn’t always reliable because behaviour in a yard or paddock situation might depend on specific circumstances.

The role of breed
“Differences in feedlot performance due to temperament are remarkably consistent across British and tropically adapted breeds,” says Dr Burrows.
“Brahman-derived steers with slow flight times grew faster and had heavier carcasses. The docile animals had a higher feed intake, improving growth. Nervous British breed (Angus x Hereford cross and Hereford) steers had a significantly lower average daily gain and significantly higher morbidity during the 85 days in a feedlot.
Source: Brangus Cattle Breeders Society.     |fw

Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.