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Why do we tolerate aggressive cows?

Cattle producers are surprisingly tolerant of aggressive mother cows at calving time and tend to leave them in the herd. They are much more likely to cull a cow that has mis-mothered or abandoned her calf.

These were some of the key findings of a voluntary survey of 168 cattle producers who collectively own over 33,600 cattle conducted recently at two major cattle shows and one educational cattle symposium in Saskatoon.

The results indicate that roughly six per cent of cows with newborn calves are dangerous (they will hurt a producer if given the chance). On the surface this doesn’t seem like a lot. However, these dangerous cattle were reported on 76 per cent of the farms surveyed, indicating they are in fact widespread among beef operations. Surprisingly, only 13 per cent of the cattle that producers identified as dangerous were culled for that reason. Many remain in the herd and therefore the number of dangerous cows likely accumulated over time.

The incidence of mis-mothering was much lower at 1.4 per cent in the surveyed herds; however 56 per cent of producers reported at least one case of mis-mothering. It appears to be much more prevalent in firstcalf heifers. This could in part be due to physiological reasons such as hormones or fear of the offspring. Because 62 per cent of the cows that mis-mothered their calves had been culled these animals were not accumulating in herds to the same extent as dangerous cows.

Obviously these producers are much more tolerant of dangerous cows than ones that mis-mother a calf. A full 33 per cent said they would keep a dangerous cow that raised an above-average calf; only 14 per cent would keep a cow that mis-mothered her calf.

This suggests producers may be willing to cope with a dangerous cow for a short time after calving if she is an excellent producer. Since revenue is derived from the sale of calves, producers are likely more tolerant of a cow that produces a good calf despite her other drawbacks. However, they are less forgiving of cows that fail to mother a calf. Obviously cows that abandon their calf require more time and labour and this is not easily forgiven by producers, whereas the dangerous cow may not require more work, other than to remember to stay away from her. It is also possible that producers put greater value on mothering behaviour while those cows that are dangerous at calving time are perhaps seen as more protective of their calf in other situations such as when confronted by a predator.

This tolerance for dangerous cattle could also be because producers expect them to become less dangerous with time. But in this survey more than one-third of producers admitted these cows do not change over the years and 22 per cent felt these cows become even more dangerous in subsequent calvings.

On the other hand, nearly 30 per cent of the producers believed mismothering cows can become better mothers over time. Only seven per cent said they expected these cows to become worse mothers in the future.

Producers believe genetics is the greatest factor contributing to the incidence of dangerous cows in their herds. Despite this, they were still more willing to keep a dangerous cow than a poor mothering one even though they are potentially selecting for more dangerous cows when they keep their daughters.

Some of the more shocking results of this survey centred on the injuries producers receive and their reaction to them. Nearly 37 per cent were injured by a cow at calving time. But only half of them culled the offending animal. Instead they often made excuses for the animal or blamed themselves for the attack. In some cases the producer would not cull the cow because she was such a good producer. One woman’s injuries caused her to miss an entire curling season which really upset her, but she was equally upset by the fact that her husband would not cull the cow. It was surprising to us, as researchers, that producers would tolerate a cow that injures them, even when they believe the cow would not improve over time!

We wondered whether this tolerance for dangerous cows was related to the producer’s experiences with predation. Predation was in fact a signifi-cant problem for some of them. In the past five years one man lost 85 calves and 37 per cent of these producers experienced some predation, losing an average of eight calves over the five years. It could be that experience made them more tolerant of dangerous cows. However, our survey found no relationship between the number of calves killed by predators and the number of dangerous cattle on an operation.

We found through additional research on our university herd that most cows can distinguish between predators and people and they treat them differently around calving time. We found that the response of cows with newborn calves to people was not related to their response to a predator, indicating that cows that are not aggressive towards people should not be assumed to be less protective when confronted with a predator.

This was seen first hand by Wayne Ray of Fort Fraser, B.C. in the summer of 2010. Many of you will already have seen the pictures circulating on the Internet of Wayne’s cows attacking a black bear. While he was out checking his cattle, he noticed a small black bear wandering around a group of cows. When the bear decided to head toward one of the calves in the herd, the calf’s mother immediately charged the bear, knocking it flying. Two other cows joined in and the three of them stomped, kicked and crushed the bear with their feet, heads and chests. When the bear finally gave up he was seen bleeding from the nose and mouth and limping away into the forest.

Wayne insists these cows are extremely calm around people and even when they have newborn calves he has no problem handling them. In fact, his family keeps extensive records of their cattle and they actively cull cattle that are “even slightly protective or aggressive.

“We know too many people who have been injured by aggressive or protective cows,” he says.

There appears to be a disconnect between how cows protect their calves against predators and what some producers feel they must tolerate in order to have protective mothers. Each year there are producers who suffer injuries from overly aggressive cows at the time of calving. Over a 15-year period in Canada, 23 people were killed by cows. Injury surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. found 14 per cent of fatalities caused by cattle were due to beef cows nursing calves. There is now evidence suggesting cattle can be excellent mothers and protect their calf from a predator without showing aggression towards humans as well. We should be able to select for cattle that are intolerant of predators but remain calm around producers who must handle their newborn calf.

Brooke Aitken is an MSc graduate student in the department of large animal clinical science at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

Joseph Stookey is a professor of large animal clinical science in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

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