Being tense and temperamental may not be good for a cow’s health

The way cattle exit the chute could be an indicator of their chances of falling prey to a disease

Tense and flighty cattle may be more prone to disease, says Diego Moya Fernandez, an assistant professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.
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Can your herd health improve if you know how to spot and cull the temperamental cattle?

That’s what Diego Moya Fernandez is hoping to find out.

“We are not trying to look for happy or sad cows,” said the assistant professor and researcher at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

“When I talk about temperament, it’s not their mood. Temperament is a specific set of behaviours that we can monitor and characterize in an objective manner.”

An animal’s temperament is revealed by how it reacts in situations and using some high-tech equipment, Moya Fernandez and his team can measure something like how quickly a cow exits a chute. The five-year project will then tie the assessment of an individual animal’s temperament to see if less calm cattle are more prone to disease in a feedlot.

“It’s moving away from considering all animals the same, and moving towards considering all animals individually,” said Moya Fernandez, who is originally from Spain and has a background in beef cattle welfare and behaviour.

Even after many years of research, health issues at the feedlot, such as bovine respiratory disease, acidosis and lameness persist. And so being able to determine which animals are most likely to get sick could lead to improved outcomes.

Looking at behaviour and temperament as an indicator for the possibility of disease is a very different approach from current ones that have a strong focus on treatment, he noted.

“It still causes a lot of costs for the feedlot industry to treat these diseases and try to prevent them,” said Moya Fernandez. “There’s a lot of looking for new vaccines or novel drugs to treat those diseases.”

How fast a cow exits a chute may be an indicator of how likely it is to fall ill with a disease, says Diego Moya Fernandez, who is studying whether the temperament of cattle is linked to health outcomes. photo: Supplied

Most of the research for the $153,000 project (funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) will take place at the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence at the University of Saskatchewan. But researchers will also collaborate with industry partners and commercial feedlots.

In the first stage, Moya Fernandez and his team of students will assess and develop a new chute side test that can be done at a farm to assess cattle behaviour.

“Once those tests have been developed, we will link those tests to health outcomes, whether that is preventing disease, sensitivity to being treated with antimicrobials, performance and all that,” he said.

Cameras and lasers will be used to capture the movement of animals in chutes and how fast they exit the chute. The last stage of the project will include developing health management plans — it’s hoped the findings will lead to more accurate use of antimicrobials and other drugs used in feedlots.

Moya Fernandez can already point to several behaviours that may indicate an animal’s temperament.

One is how fast an animal leaves the chute after being restrained, with the exit speed being connected to levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress.

“We don’t know if the higher level of stress of the animal is connected to worse immune function or making it more prone to diseases such as bovine respiratory disease,” said Moya Fernandez.

Researchers have also observed behaviour at the feed bunk and how it affects feeding patterns.

“There are some animals that are more dominant than others, and this also interferes with how they eat,” he said. “They change their whole feeding pattern depending on how much competition they have at the feed bunk.

“It can also make the animals more prone to acidosis. We’ve found a connection between behaviours we can monitor and the actual health in the short and long term of the feedlot.”

That’s why he has wanted to develop some standardized tests that producers can do when they are handling the animals.

“If we combine these pieces of information, we are confident we can get close to at least characterize the temperament of each individual animal, and that could be linked into how they perform in the feedlot,” he said.

“Some animals in a herd will cope perfectly with a diet and an environment, and some of them will not do so well. It’s a matter of detecting those that will not do so well, so we can handle them.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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