Published on 12/23/03

Cranky calves cost cattlemen calamity, cash

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Finding out which calves act naughty or nice can help cattlemen add value to their herds and manage them better.

Different dispositions

Jerry Baker, an associate professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is working on a scoring system farmers can use to list the good and the bad.

"Calves with poor dispositions can cause costly damage to equipment, gates and fences and harm handlers," he said, "and can generally take longer to work."

Calmer calves, on the other hand, are easier on equipment, he said. They're more easily handled. And their meat might even be more tender than their cantankerous counterparts.

Speed test

Baker believes the speed at which a calf leaves a squeeze chute and close human contact can say a lot about that calf's disposition.

To check for health or give medications, a cattleman will place a calf in a squeeze chute to hold it. After he's worked with the calf, he releases it from the chute.

A troubled, angry calf will bolt from the chute when released, Baker said. A calm, happy calf will ease out when released.

At the UGA Tifton, Ga., campus, Baker devised a way to measure a calf's chute-exit speed. He also worked with R.D. Randel at Texas A&M University.

Two infrared sensors were set up, one as the chute opened and one 6 feet away. The sensors started and stopped a clock as the calf passed them.

Exit speeds were dramatically different, he said. One calf covered the 6 feet in 0.14 seconds. Another leisurely made the distance in 19 seconds.

To get accurate disposition responses, all of the calves were placed quietly and not prodded into chutes.

They were then given a number score relating to how fast they left the chutes. For example, a calf that covered the 6 feet in a second or more scored in the calm range. Female calves tended to exit the chute faster than males.

Fast v. slow

Baker found that calves with higher chute-exit speeds tended to gain less weight after weaning than those with lower speeds. This is important to know, because how fast and how much weight a calf gains during a given time can affect the farmer's bottom line when he sells that calf.

Steaks of slow and fast calves in Baker's study have been checked for tenderness. The steaks of slower calves are more tender than those from faster calves. The muscles of stressed calves are more often rigid with angst. This could lead to tougher steaks, Baker said.

Cattlemen can use the chute-exit speed score, along with other scoring systems that judge a calf's behavior while in the chute and holding pin, to make herd management decisions.

With the information, a cattleman can know which calves he wants to keep or sell. He could keep calm calves in hopes that their "calm" genes, and the benefits linked to those genes, might be passed on to offspring.

Baker will continue the study to find out if calm calves have calm offspring. He believes they will. With clear, documented scores about his herd's disposition, a cattleman could better market his cattle, too.

"It would depend on the direction the grower wanted to go with his cattle management and breeding," Baker said.

A herd that's too calm could be a problem, too, he said.

Georgia cattlemen sell about $325 million worth of cattle each year.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.