Assessment of Temperament in Cattle and Its Effect on Weight Gain and Meat Quality and Other Research on Hairwhorls, Coat Color, Bone Thickness, and Fertility

(Updated November 2017)

Temple Grandin
Department of Animal Sciences
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523-1171


Cattle that remain calm during handling in squeeze chutes have higher average daily gains than cattle that become agitated when restrained in a squeeze chute. This article will summarize some of the research the author and her students have done on temperament. Temperament was assessed on a 4 point scale while the animals were held in a squeeze chute.

  1. Calm no movement
  2. Restless shifting
  3. Squirming continuous shaking of the squeeze chute
  4. Rearing, twisting, continuous violent struggle

Another good measure of temperament is recording speed when cattle exit from a squeeze chute. Exit speed can be recorded by two methods. The first is a police radar unit that is used for measuring speeding cars and the second is recording the animal's gait. Gait can be recorded as walk, trot, run, or jump. Gait scoring is very objective because the different gaits are very distinct.

Both Bos Taurus (European/English) cattle and Bos indicus (Brahman cross) cattle that became agitated during handling had significantly lower weight gains (Voisinet et al., 1997a). Calm animals had 14% to 10% higher weight gain. After these cattle were processed, their meat quality was measured. In the Brahman cross group, the animals that became excited and agitated in the squeeze chute had more borderline dark cutters and tougher meat. The calmest animals that stood still in the squeeze had Warner Bratzler Shear Force measurements that averaged 2.86 kg and the cattle that cattle that struggled violently during restraint had tougher meat that averaged 3.63 kg (Voisinet et al., 1997b). Forty percent of the agitated cattle had shear force measurements that were over 3.9 kg which is the threshold value for acceptability in food service establishments. Hiefers became more agitated in the squeeze chute than steers (Voisinet et al., 1997a).


Update on Cattle Temperament Testing (August 2003)

Since Voisenet et al. (1997) was published, researchers have conducted further studies on the relationship between cattle temperament and performance. Burrows and Dillon (1997) and Fell et al. (1999) used radar speed cameras to measure the speed of cattle exiting a squeeze chute. Cattle with faster exit speeds had lower weight gains, more sickness, and more dark cutting meat.

Measuring the speed of cattle exiting a squeeze chute may be a less subjective and more accurate measurement of temperament than chute score where an observer assigns a score to the degree of agitation in the squeeze chute. Lanier et al. (2002) used both chute score and exit speed score to determine if cattle that had thin foreleg bones were more excitable. Exit speed scores were assigned for walk, trot, canter, or jump after exiting. The standard horse gaits were used and were assigned numbers of 1, 2, 3, or 4. This is less subjective than chute scores and no equipment is required. Cattle with thin foreleg bones exited at a faster gait. Chute score showed no significant differneces due to higher variability. Research by Baker et al. (2003) indicated that exit speed score is more accurate than chute score. They timed the speed of cattle movement between two laser sensors which were spaced 1.83 M (6 ft.) apart in front of the squeeze chute. Heifers exited faster than steers and high speeders had lower weight gains. R.D. Randel at Texas A&M University explained that for beef calves, chute score and exit score will both work. Chute scoring becomes much less accurate for old tame cows that are accustomed to the squeeze chute. For these animals, exit speed score is recommended. The use of laser sensors would be impractical on many ranches and more practical alternatives are the radar camera or simple gait scoring of walk, trot, canter, or jump. Both methods are less subjective than chute scores. Another way to improve chute score accuracy is to use four ratings as shown in this paper instead of five. When cattle are being temperament scored, the same people should move all of the cattle into the chute. Calm quiet handling is essential for accurate temperament scores. Yelling or excessive use of electric prods will distort temperament scores.


Experience Versus Genetics

Both an animal's genetics and its previous experiences with handling will affect how it will react during handling. In one study Grandin (1993) assessed the temperament of bulls when they were handled in a squeeze chute four times at 30 day intervals. The same four point rating scale was used. The temperament scores were stable over time for the calmest and the most agitated animals. Animals with middle ranking scores of 2 or 3 were more variable.

Temperament scoring will probably be more accurate for detecting genetic differences in animals when it is done in a novel environment. Cattle that are quietly handled every day in a squeeze chute will often become accustomed to it and learning will cause their temperament score to decrease. Therefore if bulls are being scored for temperament it would be best to score them the first time they are handled in the squeeze chute. They should also be scored whenever they are handled. Unless they are handled very frequently in the squeeze chute, learning is less likely to affect the scores of either the most agitated or the calmest animals. Littlefield et all., 2001, found that cattle became easier to handle when they were carefully and quietly handled in a squeeze chute every day for eight days. The wildest most excitable animals remained in the back of the group and were the last animals to move through the squeeze chutes.

Ranchers have observed that some cattle may be calm at the home ranch and then become highly agitated and crash into a fence at an auction. Animals that have flighty, excitable genetics may act calm at home where they are with familiar people, but may become highly agitated when they are suddenly driven into a novel environment such as an auction ring. Cattle with calmer genetics will usually behave in a relatively calm manner both at the home ranch and in a novel environment such as an auction. For more information on how new experiences affect behavior refer to (Grandin 1997, 1998, 2000). The genetic effects on an animal's reactivity and agitation are more likely to be exhibited when the animal is tested in a novel unfamiliar place.

Sensitivity to Stimuli and Temperament

Lanier et al. (2000) reported that one of the factors which is part of an animal's temperament is sensitivity to high pitched intermittent noise and rapid movement. Cattle were observed at cattle auctions in two different states. When each animal entered the ring it was rated for temperament. A rating of 1 stood still or walked, a rating of 2, trotted, a rating of 3 moved faster than a trot and a rating of 4 charged the fence or tried to jump out.

The cattle that flinched when the ringman swung his arm and "yipped" to take a bid were more likely to have a higher temperament score. What this means is that sensitivity to high pitched noise and rapid movement is one of the factors which comprises the temperament of an animal. Cattle that become agitated in an auction ring are more sensitive to certain stimuli. These animals appear to be more aware of what is going on in their environment. Observations by both the author and ranchers indicate that cattle that have the tendency to become easily agitated are the first animals to raise their heads and point their ears and eyes towards new sights and sounds.

Hairwhorls, Physical Traits, and Temperament

Two studies have shown that the position of the spiral hairwhorl on the forehead of cattle is related to their temperament score both in the squeeze chute and in the auction ring. A total of 1500 cattle were observed while they were being handled at a commercial feedlot. Cattle with a spiral hairwhorl above the eyes were more likely to become agitated in the squeeze chute than cattle with spiral hairwhorl below the eyes (Grandin et al., 1995). Figure 1 shows an animal with a low hairwhirl. Lanier et al. (2000) found that cattle with a hairwhorl above the eyes were also more likely to become agitated in the auction ring. There were no purebred Brahman or zebu cattle in these studies. Some of the cattle were Brahman crosses and the others were either English or European breeds. Purebred brahmans are one breed that does not have a spiral hairwhorl on the forehead. Even in the English/European cattle about 22% had no hairwhorl. Cattle with no hairwhorl also become more agitated than cattle with normal spiral whorl (Lanier et al., 2000). Lanier et al., 2002, found that fine boned cattle with slender front foreleg bones were more flighty and ran out of the squeeze chute faster than cattle with thicker foreleg bones. The foreleg bone was 9% wider in the calmer animals. The cattle in this experiment were crossbreds of English and European beef breeds. The body weight of the animal had no effect on temperatment scores. In another experiment, temperament and coat coloration in Holstein dairy cows was related. Rose et al (2002), found that Holsteins with mostly white heads were more flighty. Animals with large amounts of black coloration on their heads were calmer.

Tips on Temperament Selection

There is a need to select cattle and other animals to have a calm temperament. However over selection for any single physical or behavioral trait can cause problems (Grandin, 1998). It is probably a bad idea to select for the absolute most calm animals. Doing this might cause problems. For example, the Holstein dairy cow is very calm but she is a poor mother. Over selection for the calmest might cause a loss of other beneficial traits such as mothering ability or motivation to forage long distances on a pasture. A good approach to temperament selection is to cull the highly excitable animals that become highly agitated during handling. Cattle that kick, rear, jump fences or struggle violently during handling are dangerous and difficult to handle. These animals also cause other cattle in a herd to become excited. They definitely should be culled.

A good principle when selecting for temperament is to cull the animals that rate a 4 and get rid of the "crazy" cattle. One also has to be careful not to cull a good animal that becomes highly agitated because the one in front of it was rearing or struggling.


2015 Update on Temperament

Several newer studies have shown that cattle that remain calm during handling will have better reproductive performance (Kasimanickam, et al, 2014). Cooke et al (2009, 2012) found that acclimating heifers to moving quietly through the handling races also improved reproduction and reduced exit speed scores. Animal learning is very specific. Habituation cattle to a person feeding them does not transfer to handling in the corrals (Cooke, et al. 2009). Animals need to be habituated to each new thing because their memories are sensory based (Thinking in Pictures, Grandin and Johnson, 2005). Another example of highly specific thinking is an experiment by Leiner and Fendt (2011). Training a horse to tolerate sudden opening of a blue and white umbrella does not transfer to an orange canvas. The first time the horses saw the canvas, they became frightened.
Simple Exit Speed Scoring
The use of electronic devices to measure exit speed from a squeeze chute is not very practical out on a ranch (Vetters, et al, 2014. and Kasimanickam, et al, 2014). Both report that exit speed can be assessed by observing behavior. Scoring cattle exiting the squeeze chute as (1) walk, (2) trot, or (3) canter, correlated well with electronic measurements (Vetters, et al, 2014).

The temperament tests describe in this article mainly measure fearfulness. Cattle temperament may consist of other traits. The ability of a mother cow to defend her calf out on the range may not be related to exit speed score (Perez-Torres, et al, 2014). Further studied by Floreke et al (2012) indicated that the height of the hairwhorl on a cow's forehead is related to vigilance. A vigilant cow will notice a potential threat to her calf more quickly. There are also individual differences in a mother cow vocalizing to call her calf. Some mother cows call their calf and others do not. There is a possibility that the trait of being vigilant can be separated from the fearfulness trait that is measured with standard chute scoring and exit speed scoring (Grandin and Deesing, 2013).

Ranchers that graze cattle on extensive pasture which has many predators often select cows using the following criteria:

  1. Wean a calf every year

  2. Breed back quickly

  3. Be gentle around people. Cows that attack people are culled.

Normally a hairwhorl high on the forehead and a high fearful chute score or fast exit score occur together. When the above selection criteria are used, the trait of vigilance (awareness of surroundings) may get separated from the fear trait. The resulting animal has a high hairwhorl is heavy boned and calm around people. There is much more to be learned about temperament. In conclusion, never over select for any trait. Over selection for the lowest, slowest exit speed may reduce mothering or foraging. Breeders should look for an optimum selection for different traits and not become narrow minded over selecting for single traits.

References for 2015 Update
Cook, R.F. et al. 2009. Effects of acclimation to human interaction on performance, temperament, physiological response, and pregnancy rates in Brahman crossbred cows. Journal of Animal Science. 87:4125-4132.

Cook, R.F. et al. 2012. Effects of temperament and acclimation to handling on reproduction performance of Bos Tauras females. Journal of Animal Science. 90:3547-3555.

Florcke, C. et al. 2012. Individual differences in calf defence patterns in Red Angus beef cows. Applied Animal Behavior Science. 139:203-208.

Grandin, T. and Johnson, C. 2005. Animals in Translation. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY.

Grandin, T. and Deesing, D. M. 2013. Genetics and behavior during handling, restraint, and herding. In . Academic Press (Elsevier).

Kasimanickam, R. et al, 2014. Calm temperament improves reproduction performance of beef cows. Reproduction of Domestic Animals. 49:1063-1067.

Perez-Torres, L. 2014. Maternal protective behavior of zebu type cattle (Bos Indicus) and it's association with temperament. Journal of Animal Science. 92:4694-4700.

Vetters, M.D. et al. 2014. Comparison of flight speed an dexit score as measurements of temperament in beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science. 91:374-381.


2017 Update

Cattle Temperament

During the last twenty years, ranchers in North America have been selecting beef cattle for a calmer temperament. In some parts of the U.S, cattle are less reactive during handling. At our experiment station at Colorado State University, we have selected cattle for a quiet temperament. Recently I had the opportunity to handle a group of Angus calves which contained one animal with a flighty temperament. Even thought all the cattle had been handled under identical conditions, this one calf had a flight zone that was three times larger. When a person got really close to her in the chute, her reaction was much more violent. It was totally obvious that this calf came from a sire with more reactive genetics. When cattle temperament is measured with either a chute score or a flight speed score, it is probably mainly a measurement of fear.

Animal Emotions

Jaak Panksepp (2011) has outlined basic emotional systems all animals have. They are:

Now that many cattle are less fearful, researchers have been able to measure behavioral traits that are different from fear. Florcke et al (2012) found that some mother cows will call (vocalize) when their calf is threatened by a strange vehicle and other remain gsilent. This may be due to differencesin the strength of the separation distress trait. Cows with high hairwhorls were more vigilant and alerted more quickly when the vehicle approached. The trait of fear as measured by exit speed score is not associated with the intensity of calf defense (Perez-Torres et al, 2014). The author hypothesizes that exit speed measures fear and calf defense may be an expression of the rage (anger) trait.

Pasture Use Patterns

A series of studies sow that both within a breed of cattle and between breeds there are big differences in the distance that cattle will graze (Dolev et al, 2014; Bailey et al, 2015). Some cattle are "go getters" and other are "laid back" (Goodman et al, 2016). GPS collars were used to determine that some individuals are more active and will go out and graze more territory. The "laid back" cattle would rather rest around the water hole. I hypothesize that the "go getters" had a greater expression of the Panksepp SEEK trait. Baily et al (2006, 2004) has observed that some cattle are more willing to climb up hills. This could be an advantage in rough country. Some cattle were "hill climbers" and others were "bottom dwellers." Certain breeds are more willing to climb hills than others. There is also individual differences within a breed. Sire may have an effect on this.

In conclusion of this update, these studies indicate that four different emotional traits may be being assessed. These would be fearfulness in traditional temperament tests. Calf defense may be RAGE (anger), which is separate from fear. A cow vocalizing to call her calf is probably motivated by the separation distress trait. All the studies that show differign behavior on pasture use may be measuring the strenth of the SEEK exploration trait. In looking at a range of scientific studies, the following Pankseep emotional traits may be assessed:

References for 2017 Update
Bailey, D.W. et al. 2004. Research observation: Daily movement pattern of hill climbing and bottom dwelling cows. Journal of Range Management. 57:20-28.

Bailey, D.W. et al. 2006. Individual animal selection has the potential to improve uniformity of grazing foothill rangeland. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 59:351-358.

Bailey, D.W. et al. 20015. Genetic influence of cattle grazing distribution: Association of genetic markers with terrain use in cattle. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 68:142-149.

Dolev, A. et al. 2014. Foraging behavior of two breeds of cattle, a whole year study. Journal of Animal Science. 92:758-766.

Florcke, C. et al. 2012. Differences in calf defense patterns in Red Angus beef cows. Applied Animal Behavior Science. 138:203-208.

Goodman, L.E. et al. 2016. Temperament affects rangeland use patterns and reproductive performance of beef cows. Rangelands. 38:292-296.

Panksepp, J. 2011. The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have affective lives? Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 35:1791-1804.

Perez-Tores, L. et al. 2014. Maternal protective behavior of Zebu type cattle (Bos indicus) and it's association with temperament. Journal of Animal Science. 92:4694-4700


Hairwhorls and Fertility

Cattle with abnormal asymetrical facial hairwhorls may also be less fertile. Meola et al (2002) found that Black Angus bulls with a perfect round spiral whorl on the forehead had a higher percentage of animals that passed the breeding soundness exam.

Figure 1: Perfect spiral hairwhorl with a round epicenter that is located below the eyes. Cattle with hairwhorls above the top of the eyes are more excitable. Cattle with hairwhorls below the eyes are calmer. Bulls with perfect round hairwhorls with a round epicenter may be more fertile.

Bulls with an abnormal asymetrical forehead hair pattern that had an elongated epicenter that looked like a crooked line, were more likely to fail the breeding soundness exam.

Figure 2: Abnormal, asymetrical hair pattern with an elongated epicenter that is longer than the width of the eyes. Bulls with abnormal hairwhorl patterns like this may be less fertile.

Bulls were sorted into two groups. Animals with perfect round spirals with round epicenters and bulls with a single crooked line that was longer than the width of their eyes. Eighty three percent of the bulls with perfect round spirals passed the breeding soundess exam and only 50% of the bulls with a long crooked line passed.

References and Further Reading

Baker, J.E., Randel, R.D., and Long, C.R. Breed type and gender effects on chute exit velocity and chute temperament score in beef calves. J. Anim. Sci., 81:120 (Supl. 1) (Abstract).

Burrows, H.M. and Dillon, R.D. 1997. Relationship between temperament and growth in a feedlot and commercial carcass traits in Bos indicus crossbreds. Aust. J. Exper. Agric. 37:407-411.

Fell, L.R. Colditz, I.G., Walker, K.H., and Watson, D.L. 1999. Associations between temperament, performance, and immune function in cattle entering a commercial feedlot. Aust. J. Exper. Agric. 39:795-802.

Grandin, T. 1993. Behavioral agitation is persistent over time. Appl. Anim. Behaviour Sci. 36:1-9.

Grandin, T., M.J. Deesing, J.J. Struthers and A.M. Swinker. 1995. Cattle with hairwhorls above the eyes are more behaviorally agitated during restraint. Appl. Anim. Behaviour Sci. 46:117-123.

Grandin, T., 1997. Assessment of stress during handling and transport. J. Anim. Sci. 75:249-257.

Grandin, T. 1998. (Editor) Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals, Academic Press, San Diego, California.

Grandin, T. 2000 (Editor) Livestock Handling and Transport, 2nd Edition, CAB International Wallingford, Oxon, United Kingdom.

Lanier, J.L., T. Grandin, R.D. Green, and K. McGee. 2000. The relationship between reaction to sudden intermittent movements and sounds and temperament. J. Anim. Sci. 78:1467-1474.

Lanier, J.L., T. Grandin. 2002. The relationship between Bos Taurus feedlot cattle temperament and foreleg bone measurements. Western Section, American Society of Animal Science, Vol. 53:97-98.

Littlefield V., Grandin, T., and Lanier, J.L. 2001. Quiet handling of heifers reduces aversion to restraint. Journal of Animal Science, 79:277, (Supl. 1))(Abstract).

Meola, M., Grandin, T., Burns, P.D., and Mortimes, R.G. 2002. Quality of spermatozoal morphology in Angus yearling bulls may be related to hairwhorl shape. Western Section, American Society of Animal Science, 53:124-126.

Rose, S., Grandin, T., and Wailes, W.R. 2002. The relationship between Holstein head coloration and temperament. Animal Sciences Research Report. Colorado State University. pp. 147-148.

Voisinet, B.D., T. Grandin, S.F. O'Connor, J.D. Tatum and M.J. Deesing. 1997b.Bos indicus cross feedlot cattle with excitable temperaments have tough meat and a higher incidence of borderline dark cutters, Meat Sci. 46:367-377.

Voisinet, B.D., T. Grandin, J.D. Tatum, S.F. O'Connor and J.J. Struthers. 1997a. Feedlot cattle with calm temperaments have higher average daily gains than cattle with excitable temperaments. J. Anim. Sci. 75:892-896.


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