Intelligence Testing Cattle

DCC Ranch e-News #261 - 11-25-21

by Darol Dickinson


Every person and animal has an "intelligence quotient" (IQ). Some have birth virtues to be thankful for and some do not. A cow herd can be bred with a higher IQ and some can be educated to have a higher IQ -- there is a difference. Some people have skills to educate their cattle. Some cattle have cleverness to out-smart their owners.

Little Johnny arrived from school with dastardly low report card grades. When his father confiscated the report card, he totally exploded and asked Johnny, "What in the world is wrong with you?" After a period of abject fear, Johnny answered, "I don't know -- is it genetic -- or environmental?" Therein is the basis of where the pendulum swings with all cattle IQ.

Sit on the front row of a cattle auction. Observe the deportment of each bovine during its one minute of public evaluation. Most have never been subjected to this loud, bright, hamburger-eating crowd. Some cattle will slowly look around, survey the cage, and slowly walk out. Others will go ballistic, tear down the sale sign, paw the shavings, bounce off the fence, trample their calves, and require a cape to get them out of this scary place. Was that environmental or genetic? Were the critters genetically stupid/crazy or were the people who raised them, let’s say, one mattress short of a bunk bed? Although the sale attendees may not be able to tell the difference, there are ways cattle IQ can be determined.

People are visual. Most of our major decisions are a result of seeing--evaluating fearful places or seeing pleasant, peaceful things. Second is hearing in making important decisions. With cattle, smell is very big, sound is second, and visual is last. Cattle hear and smell things people totally miss. Like people, cattle like to socialize with trusted friends and are less comfortable in strange, unknown places.

Cattle have emotions (Jaak Panksepp, 2011). Their emotional reactions fall into these categories:

  • FEAR - Motivates animals to avoid predators
  • RAGE - Anger
  • PANIC - Distress at being separated
  • SEEK - Curiosity: the urge to explore
  • LUST - Reproductive behavior
  • NURTURE - Mothering, licking, grooming
  • PLAY - All young animals do it

Calm, quiet handling is essential for intelligent livestock movements. Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University has researched cattle temperaments and handling during her long career. She says, "Cattle that remain calm during handling in squeeze chutes have higher average daily gain than cattle that become agitated when restrained." She also found that highly reactive cows produce less milk.

Dr. Grandin's early research led to her well-known "Exit scores." Her scoring system has been used around the world to evaluate thousands of cattle and the speed they depart a squeeze chute after restraint. On large ranches where hundreds of cattle were worked per day, radar guns were used to evaluate departure speeds. She found if the same cattle were tested on a different day, the scores were consistent. The nervous/silly cattle blasted out fast and the quiet ones came out slow.

Gearing down to smaller operations, Dr. Grandin developed her "gait scoring" system to score cattle by the gait they departed the squeeze. The 4 score speeds recorded were walk, trot, run, and jump. She also found on different days there was a consistency in this score which correlated to genetic intelligence. She cautions it is important for accurate scores that every critter be handled in the same way.

Also of interest. Lanier (2002) found that fine-boned cattle with slender front foreleg bones were more flighty, and ran out of the squeeze faster. The foreleg bone was 9% wider in the calmer animals.

Voisinet et al., 1997, documented that heifers became more agitated in the squeeze chute than steers.

At Dickinson Cattle Company, most intelligence scores are gathered during halter training. We tried to halter train the first Texas Longhorn calves born in 1967. At that point, under today's standards every calf flunked. Like most registered producers, it was determined that we had started out with the wrong kind of cattle and had to start over.

Today Doug Burris is charged with halter training every bull retained by DCC for a potential herd sire. He and his assistants do the scoring during a one-week "stage one" halter-training course. This evaluation goes beyond the quick radar Grandin score system. Here are his comments:

  • I look at the rate of improvement over the course of the week. More often than not, calves that improve rapidly whether in leading or handling continue to improve and get very gentle.
  • After the full week on halter and just before I untie them, I read their initial response to human pressure. I briskly walk up to each calf and make contact in some way to see how it reacts.
  • As far as the leading-on-halter aspect goes, I observe several things throughout the week. First, the calf will have some sort of a response to being tied for 24 hours and left alone to “figure it out on his own.” I look to see if a calf will give in to pressure and learn to relieve that pain by following the person leading as small tugs are applied. Some calves will lead right off the bat and others will have the adverse response, pulling and fighting continuously.
  • Secondly, I again observe the rate of progress on leading. I hope to see steady improvement each time calves go though the routine. Lastly, at the end of the week I make a quick judgment on how they lead for 20 feet or so. I also look at how they stop and respond to the halter while just standing still, as if in a show scenario. I try to make this final leading judgment non-biased as I can even though I have been with them for 6 days and usually have some favorable calves picked in my head. All of these little cues get compounded into the scoring process.
  • I look into the brushing and handling on the last day and try to judge them throughout the week, biasing myself and not giving the calf a fair shake if major improvement is gained. To judge this aspect, I brush and touch all over the calf and on both sides. I have had some calves score very high on one side and almost pull the rope out of the wall on the other side. Each side can be a different animal in a sense, so it is important to check both sides when scoring.
  • Some smaller cues I factor into the scoring are the initial response to people or noises, for example, how nervous calves are overall when a door opens and someone walks into the barn. Typically calves that score lower will jump up and be ready to react when the barn door opens or they hear an unknown noise. The calf that continues to chew its cud and stare at the wall when you walk in or bang a bucket against the wall is a good quiet one. This is not always true, but normally this response translates into how they are around people who are trying to handle them. Just pay attention when you or someone else barges in the door.

At the end of the week, each bull gets a score from 1 to 5, with 5 being puppy-dog gentle and leading on a loose rope. (Never kick my granddaughter or you will quickly lose 2 points.) Most never score a 5 due to the short training period. If a bull is continuously difficult, nervous, kicky, or aggravating, he goes to the steer pasture. In recent years at DCC, few bulls fail the intelligence test. By contrast, years ago 3-11% flunked. It was a genetic issue that DCC identified and eliminated over 53 years.

Environmental: This is about management and training. Cattle can increase their IQ with experiences to learn and be handled with ease by planning educational experiences.

At DCC, every young bull and heifer is driven through a different trailer and hops out the front escape door. This lesson trains them that they must go where pointed. They must learn to trust and be aware. When critters have gone right through a trailer 3 times, they will load with minimal force forever. This lesson turns normal animal fear into a fun game.

Driving cattle in roads or lanes trains them there is no splitting off. No running for the brush. All go together. It is okay. The more cattle are driven with authority, the higher their IQ. Intelligent cattle will hunt the gate when first driven from a pasture. They recall where the gates are. They don't fear driving, handling, or being corralled. Increasing the IQ of the herd happens every time a successful handling procedure is done.

AI and embryo transfer often cost hundreds of dollars for semen and handling. A single jump or movement can cause expensive losses. Keeping cows casual, relaxed, and quiet during a procedure can be as simple as offering a pan of grain. Soon they will walk into the squeeze slowly and hunt their treat instead of starting a barnyard war.

Years ago, low-IQ cows would fight and push one another when penned to the point it was dangerous to walk among them. Trouble-makers need to be spotted and eliminated. Soon with careful visual observation and serious culling, certain families of cattle can be eleminated. Today, DCC cattle will seldom scrap in a pen confinement -- their IQ has increased with selective genetics and continuing education.

When the herd sire has a high IQ, then his progeny are more likely to share that quality. It is a long-term herd thing and may only make small improvements per generation. Raising great cattle is a life long study.

If cattle are well educated and have a good IQ, they can be handled with less help, less stress, and more quickly. It pays to educate cattle when they are young. They will remember it when they weigh over a ton. It also pays to raise intelligent cattle.

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