Its great to be back after a short break over Christmas and the New Year. Starting 2015 has been really exciting with a few new projects. I've been catching up on some of the agricultural news from around the country and internationally. One particular story did catch my eye.
It was about a producer in England who had been forced to cull his herd of cows as a result of their aggression towards himself and his staff. The story described these particular animals as the German Heck breed, and were breed in the 1930's and 1940's. With the links to the Nazi party, the strangeness of the breed and the danger to people this story has had world wide attention!
I'm not really in any position to make a comment on the animals, the farmer or the story. Rather it was a story that made me start thinking about handling cattle and the importance of focussing on temperament within a herd.
I reckon temperament is one of the most important things you should be selecting for in your herd. It is a highly heritable trait. So focussing on breeding cattle with better temperaments will show improvements within the herd.
There are plenty of ways you can focus on, and select for better temperament. Within your herd the most obvious starting point is to identify any animals that show aggression towards you or other people.
These animals really have no place in your herd, and are dangerous. You should remove them from your herd and if your records are good enough, look at the behaviour of the progeny and consider their temperament in the overall direction of your program.
An objective method of assessing temperament is to record the behaviour of each animal in the crush or the race. Let each animal come up and stand in the crush or the race by itself. Note down the ones that stand calmly, the ones that are restless and the ones that can't settle and try to jump or exit the race.
If you do this with every animal you can identify the quiet ones through to the ones with much poorer temperament.
Other methods to assess temperament include a flight speed test. This basically is two light beams set apart at the end of the crush. When the animal leaves the crush it breaks the first beam, and then shortly afterwards the second beam. How quickly it breaks the beams is related to its speed and overall temperament. Many breeders have used both crush scores and flight speed to identify animals for breeding, and these scores can be submitted for inclusion into EBV records.
Selection for better temperament and removal of individuals are the two key strategies for improving your animals temperament. However I reckon its just as important to remember that how you handle and treat your animals will also impact on their behaviour.
Cattle are herd animals, and don't like to be left alone, particularly in strange or threatening places. If you do have to put animals in a yard, try and put them with a mate. This will help them feel more safe.
Cattle have a flight zone which they rely on to keep them out of danger. Any perceived threats, including people, results in them moving away. If they can't move away, such as in the yards, then they often fall back on the only option which is to threaten the thing causing them fear. This is why formerly quiet animals may suddenly become more anxious or aggressive.
Cows will be very protective of young calves around people and especially dogs. Again the quietest cow can become very threatening if she perceives her calf is in danger.
So it is important to understand how to work with cattle, to recognise the difference between an animal trying to give itself space from a threat, and an animal that is genuinely aggressive. When you take the time to learn how to work with cattle safely, you can avoid causing yourself and the cow unnecessary stress or anger. And the ones that are genuinely dangerous, sell them out of your herd as soon as its safe to do so.
Becoming an accredited pregnancy tester of cattle is one of the best decisions I've made so far in my business. Pregnancy testing certainly isn't glamorous! Its dirty, smelly, and when you're testing herds in late summer its hot and tiring.
Having said all that, its pretty amazing what you can learn when you go about it.
Obviously pregnancy testing will give you a pretty thorough understanding of the fertility levels within a herd, and after a while a snapshot of the district fertility.
For a producer, knowing the pregnancy rate is vital if you are going to make decisions for the next few months on stocking rate, feed requirements, new bulls, culling unproductive cows and forecasting a cash flow.
For me, actually being involved in the testing has given me some big insights into how I can help producers manage those decisions. There is nothing like looking at every cow pretty closely to build up a series of recommendations for the management of the herd, nutritional management and selection of the right bulls for the program.
I reckon the practical application of pregnancy testing coupled with a broader management understanding and industry knowledge makes my involvement in the programs direction much more solid.
Having said that, I've learnt a few more important things. Much more practical, and I reckon they are worth sharing.
My first question when I am asked to come and do pregnancy testing (after I ask how many cows are we doing) is:
What are your yards like?
How well cattle move through yards basically determines what sort of day I'm going to have! I charge my pregnancy testing on a per head basis, not on an hourly rate. So I do like to keep moving which suits me, and it suits the producers I'm working for.
Well designed yards, with a race that allows cattle to move through without turning around and bunching up makes a huge difference! Having a drafting puns and a forcing pen into the race that encourages cattle to flow smoothly makes so much difference.
I really notice a difference in the behaviour of the cattle as well. If they can be moved without hassle, the process seems to be smoother and quicker. If they have to hunted and pushed, they seem to be much more excitable and this impacts on the time taken to test the animal.
What's your crush like?
A good crush is the most important part of handling cattle. Something that is safe to use, restrains cattle safely, and has a vet gate are to my mind the 3 most important features on a crush.
Often I am controlling the animals entry into the crush, so I want to have a slide gate, that is smooth and quiet. I like to have a handle which I can operate to open the bail from the rear of the crush. I don't like the handles which can unlock and swing down loosely when not in operation. I reckon, well I know, there are times when you can't catch a beast with those handles, because they've slipped off the lock.
A vet gate is vital, because I have to stand in behind the cow, and I don't want to be kicked or crushed by the animal. I also need to protect the ultra sound equipment!
Ideally I like the gate to have a spring loaded catch so I can kick the gate shut behind the animal and step in.
I've also learnt the importance of WD40! Spraying some on the catches and slides at the start makes a huge difference to the process.
I generally find now, I look at yards in a completely different way. I'm looking for jam points in the flow, and for the way the crush works. I can pretty quickly work out if the day will work well.
The great thing about these practical lessons is they have enhanced my understanding of good yard design and good handling practices. It has helped a lot recently with two clients rebuilding their yards.
The other thing I've learnt, is the importance of selecting for temperament and for educating your cattle. We know temperament is a highly heritable trait. So removing the cattle with poor temperament will lead to improvements within the herd.
But I reckon you can't rely only on genetic selection! Cattle can be educated to work through yards, to flow through races, and to work through a crush without getting too upset or stirred up. Quiet cattle, or at least ones which flow through the yards make pregnancy testing a more efficient process.
Its not all about me! Better temperament has positive effects on general handling and most importantly on eating quality. These are vital traits every herd should be looking to select for and work on, regardless of your breed choices.
As I said earlier, gaining accreditation to be a pregnancy tester of cattle is one of the best things I've done with RaynerAg.
I love that I'm providing a practical service with immediate results. More importantly I value the chance to use this derive to build plans with owners and managers which can lead to improved productivity and profitability.
And I've learnt a few practical tips about yards and crush that I can apply in quite a few situations! I reckon that has to be a win win situation!
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