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Temperament and docility in Limousine cattle

Presented at the International Limousin Conference, France 2000

Written by P. Le Neindre, G. Trillat, X. Boivin, A. Boissy, J. Sapa, F. Menissier

ACS-ERH, INRA Theix, 63122, France

Since a long time essential production traits (Growth, milk production) have been studied and selected in Limousine cattle. However beyond those traits, new goals have now to be considered including high meat quality, animal welfare and ease of handling :


It is known that the meat of stressed animals can be of low quality. The stress can be induced by the physical environment (travel conditions in particular) but also by psychological stressors including the contacts with humans.


There is a large public concern at least in the European Community on the welfare of the animal. Animals should not be subjected to unacceptable constraints which lead to physical or psychological sufferings.


Fearful cattle can jeopardise human safety by aggressive or at least by increasing the difficulty and duration of handling.

A large scientific program has been developed during the last 10 Years with the Limousin breeders to study the genetic determinism of the relationships between cattle and human and will be presented here.

Genetic selection and husbandry systems have been said to modify the reaction of cattle to humans. Large differences exist between cattle from different breeds and for example fighting bulls are different from dairy cows. It has been said that such a variability exists also within breeds. Beef cattle can be reared in very different environments which have large consequences on their reactivity in particular towards humans. In France veal calves are handled twice a day for suckling their mothers but in range conditions animals have very few contacts with humans and those contacts are usually negative.

The first objective has been to develop new tools to measure the reactivity of cattle to humans. A "docility test" has been developed including the handling of an isolated animal in a corral pen : The experimenter has to restrain the animal for 30 seconds in a 2x2m zone in corner of the testing pen with only a short stick and his arms as restraint tools. A docility score is calculated combining different behaviours measured during the test. That score is reasonably repeatable and allows to discriminate animals. It has been used successfully in France but also in New Zealand, Australia and Germany. Another test has also been recently developed to more specifically detect aggressive animals. Our tests are different from 'Temperament" tests, usually measuring animals reaction when they are restrained in a crush. Temperament seems to be a very complex trait which is difficult to measure. For example, we showed that a crush test is genetically correlated with the docility test if a human is close to the animal during the test. If there is no human in sight when the animal is in the crush its behaviour is not correlated with our docility score.

Using our methodology the offspring of 4000 males and 2700 females have been tested. Heritability of the docility score is moderate (0.15 to 0.22) and it can be expected that selection on that trait could be efficient. Ontogenetic factors have also been studied. Short periods of handling during the first weeks after birth or just after weaning improve significantly the subsequent reactions of the animals to humans.

The scientific program is still on going. The main topics which are studied are


The relationship between docility and other behavioural traits (emotivity, maternal behaviour, newborn calf behaviour).


The relationship between the docility of the cattle and meat characteristics.


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Last updated: October 09, 2000 .