Sunday, February 26, 2012

The myth of “breed type disposition”

Herefords are thought of as being gentle, while Brahma, Limousine, and Saler, cattle are thought of by most cattlemen in this country as being harder to handle because of their disposition. The fact that they can be harder to handle has more to do with the frequency and methods used handling them than their actual disposition. Now that half of you are ready to tar and feather me, then run me off the cyber range, I have a couple of simple questions for you to ponder.
Why is it that the above mentioned breeds which many of us consider to have bad attitudes, considered to be gentle breeds in their country of origin? If Hereford cattle are so inherently gentle, then why are there areas with a lot of high headed Herefords that streak off across the pasture with a knot in their tail at the sight of a person on horseback?
I started wondering about those two questions over forty years ago. Twenty years ago I had the unique opportunity to halter break the show calves for a big registered outfit. Part of their show string was several Red Angus embryo transplant calves which were full brother/sister. One would think that the genetically inherent gentle nature of their breeding. Three of the calves were out of recip cows which were raised on the ranch. These mothers had been handled half right all of their lives and were fairly gentle. These three broke to lead fast and enjoyed the brushing and grooming. The recip cow for calf number four was a Hereford purchased from a neighboring ranch which culled her because she was too wild. Despite having identical genetics, she was harder to halter break, kept kicking when a person groomed her and ran away with the herdsman several times at the show. Long story short, she had been trained by her mother to be wild and obnoxious.
On the other end of the spectrum, several years ago I was sent a bunch of smooth mouth Santa Gertrudis cows for the winter. We were to calve them out and ship the mothers to the packers at weaning time. These cows came off a ranch where they gather mainly with helicopters. When they do use cowboys the man to cow ratio is usually around 1 to 20. When they came off the truck, half of them were hunting and ready to run over a man on foot, and would challenge a man on horseback. After working on settling them down a couple of hours we turned them out in a small trap.
When I started to gather the trap a few days later, all the cattle ran to the back corner and wadded up. Thinking it would be better to go out a gate and move them off the fence from the outside, I headed away from the cattle and towards a gate. Before making it to the gate,there was the screeching sound of breaking wire and the cattle were out and running out and running.
After only seven months of being handled with low stress methods, three of us penned over 500 of these cows, sorted the calves off the cows and shipped them. The cattle manager of the ranch owing the cows was amazed as he had never seen the cattle penned that easily or worked that quietly.
The moral of these examples is that how cattle are handled (and the frequency they are handled) affects the disposition and behavior of cattle as much as genetics.After working with tens of thousands of cattle, and watching people work them, it is easy to understand how there can be so much confusion on low stress cattle handling and understanding of cattle behavior. Our knowledge is only the sum of our actual experience combined with what we have learned through educational experiences. Until we observe cattle acting as a herd and without stress, our observations of cattle behavior will not be accurate as our base opinions are based upon faulty information.

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