U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



Agricultural Research (February 2013)


Do you know someone who’s temperamental? What about an animal? Amazingly, cattle can be temperamental too, which influences how they should be handled, how they perform, and even how they react to viruses that cause diseases.

For cattle, temperament is defined as the reactivity or fear response to humans or handling. Terms used to describe temperamental animals include “flighty,” “excitable,” and “high strung.” These animals can potentially injure themselves or their handlers.

Beef cattle experience stressful events during routine management practices— weaning, transportation, social mixing, and vaccination. These practices have been shown to induce secretion of the stress-related hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Stress can negatively affect growth, reproduction, welfare, and immune function— predisposing cattle to infectious intestinal and respiratory diseases that cost U.S. cattle producers an estimated $500 million per year. Reducing adverse consequences of stressful incidents and identifying animals that may react differently to stressors may benefit cattle’s growth and health.

A team of scientists in the Agricultural Research Service’s Livestock Issues Research Unit (LIRU) in Lubbock, Texas, Mississippi State University (MSU), and Texas AgriLife Research—a member of the Texas A&M University System—are studying interrelationships of stress and cattle temperament with transportation, immune challenges, and production traits. They have found that, depending on temperament, cattle respond differently.

Testing Temperament

Most studies were done shortly after weaning to emulate what happens in the industry, says Ron Randel, animal physiologist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Overton, Texas. One of the most stressful times for an animal is after it is weaned.

The team was among the first in the United States to adopt and use the exit velocity system developed in Australia, Randel says. The system measures the rate at which an animal exits a squeeze chute or scale box where it’s been restrained or held after transport. A fast exit indicates the animal is showing fear and is stressed by handling and human activity.

Scientists also used pen scoring, a subjective measurement in which small groups of cattle are scored based on their reactions to a human observer. Scores range from 1—calm, docile, and approachable, to 5—aggressive and volatile.