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The Aspects Of Behavioural Genetics In Cattle

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Behavioural genetics can be defined as the study of genetics that is used to investigate the difference in nature and behaviour in livestock. It focuses on the influences of genetics mainly the genetics and the environment influences. The concept was discovered by Francis Galton in the 19th century. However, the survey of the literature on genetics was discovered recently where most studies started at the end of the 20th century. The importance of behavioural genetics in animal science(there ia a little evidenve in the literature of effects of major genes on behavioural traits ( Broucek )

The aim of this article is to review the behavioural genetics in cattle and explore its use in breeding programmes. Furthermore, this article will assess the genetic variation in the behavioural traits of cattle. The genetics of behaviour involves the analysis of genes that influence the behavioural characteristics. This paper focuses on the following traits that are relevant for breeding selection, such as temperament, grazing, docility and management, handling, fearfulness ,social behaviour and maternal behaviour.

Temperament and docility

Temperament also known as docility is one of the most important aspects of behavioural genetics and has been defined as the behavioural response of the animals to handling by humans according to Broucek et al. (2008). Other scientists such as Friedrich et al. (2015) describes temperament as individual behaviour differences in response to stressors or environmental challenges. Sebastian et al. (2011) point out that the study of temperament is important to ensure animal and handler safety and decrease the level of stress that animals experience during husbandry processes. In addition, temperament can be used to identify and select animals in order to improve farm productivity. This behavioural trait includes characteristics such as shyness or boldness, exploration or avoidance, activity, sociability and aggressiveness. The trait can be inherited, and it can be used in breeding programmes as it has considerable impact on performance, reproduction, health and animal welfare (Sutherlands et al., 2012). Nonetheless, Friedrich et al. (2015) argues that it is difficult to integrate cattle temperament in breeding programs due to its multidimensionality.

Temperament has been found to be affected by other factors such as age, experience, sex, breed and handling (Broucek et al., 2008). For instance, some studies have found that female and male cattle behave differently to handling whereby females had high temperament scores than steers (Stricklin et al. 1980, Jones 2013). Temperament as a trait can affect productivity traits such as milk yield, milking ability and lactation periods. This was confirmed by a study on Bos indicus according to Burrow (1997), while Takeuchi and Houpt (2003) could not find a significant relationship between temperament and milk yield in Bos Taurus breeds. What does this mean ?

Genetic variances affecting temperament

It has generally been accepted in literature that temperament characteristics in cattle are a result of a genetic variability (Norris et al., 2014). However, Friedrich et al. (2015) argues that the effect of genetic variability on temperament is lower compared to phenotypical variance as a result of environmental factors. The differences in the effect of heritability on temperament can further be observed among different breeds as per different study results in Table 1 below.

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Hearnshaw and Morris 1984

Further some studies have reported different temperament traits between beef cattle and dairy cattle. This was again confirmed by Sewalem et al. (2011) who found that milking temperament scores ranged between 0.13 and 0.25 in Canadian Holstein cattle while that for beef cattle ranged from 0.11 to 0.61. These results suggest that beef cattle have higher temperament than dairy cattle. The study conducted by Murphey et al. (1980) found that dairy cattle showed a higher approachability than beef cattle thereby agreeing with Sewalem et al. 2011.

In their study Norris and co-workers concluded that temperament traits have a positive correlation with performance traits (Norris et al., 2014). In this view Sebastian (2011) reports that low weight gain, poorer feed conversion efficiencies and lower dressing percentages was observed in cattle with poor temperament than those with moderate temperament. Other researchers report that poor temperament of cattle can results in tough meat and bruises which are not good for livestock productivity (Silveira et al., 2012).

Social behaviour

While the social behaviour of cattle can be linked to heritability (Burrow 1997), the study conducted by Dickson et al. (1970) found that the score of heritability of social dominance was almost zero. Animals behave differently towards each other just as humans do. Authors such as Broucek et al. (2008) indicate that about 70 animals in a group can relate and recognise each other and live in communities referred to as herds and often groom each other. In order to understand the effect of genetics on social behaviour and its use in breeding programs this paper will explore two dimensions of this trait in cattle including social dominance and social structure.

Social dominance is a trait that is found in various community of farm animals. During literature review it was not possible to find an agreeable definition of dominance while Drews (1993) define dominance as an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agonistic interactions between two animals, characterised by a consistent outcome in favour of the two interacting animals. Drews (1993) stated that social dominance might occur when the presence of an animal inhibited the behaviour of another animal. There are several factors that influence social dominance such as age, weight, sex, breeds and presences of horns. For instance, male calves are found to often dominate females of the same age group. This relationship between males and females can create social order which can be important during selection programmes. As far as males and females are concern, males increase their dominance as their age increases as oppose to females whose dominance decreases with age (Broucek et al., 2008). According to Wagnon et al. (1966) as reported by Broucek et al, (2008) dominance of cattle differ between various breeds. They state that Angus portrayed higher dominance over Shorthorn while Shorthorn dominated Hereford, and that different breeds gave different numbers of agonistic encounters. Some studies have reported that there is a high level of agonistic behaviour in intensive environment than in extensive environment for dairy cattle (Takeuchi and Houpt, 2003).

As noted above cattle are organized in societies thereby creating a social structure of their own. According to Sowell et al. (1999) cattle can form subgroups within the herd according to their clan. Each subgroup would have its own behavioural pattern such as foraging, resting, travelling and drinking which is usually bconsistent within the herd. According to Sowell (1999), there is evidence that most social structures for cattle are based on matriarchal families which are cemented by mutual friendships. However, Lazo (1994) found that there was a strong social affinity among animals that were within the same age-sex group. In some instances, animals associate due to the presence of a good leader who has knowledge of the environment which are resourceful (Sowell et al., 1999). Leaders always start the movement that cause other animals to follow by communicating through vocal or visual communication. Bouissou et al (2001).


  1. Friedrich, J., Brand, B., & Schwerin, M. (2015). Genetics of cattle temperament and its impact on livestock production and breeding–a review. Archives Animal Breeding, 58(1), 13-21.
  2. Brouček, J., Uhrinčať, M., Šoch, M., & Kišac, P. (2008). Genetics of behaviour in cattle. Slovak Journal of Animal Science, 41(4), 166-172.
  3. Stricklin, W. R. (1980). Heritability of temperament in beef cattle. J. Anim. Sci., 51, 109.
  4. Jones, T. (2013). Measurement of Temperament in Beef Cattle and its Relationships to Animal Production Characteristics(Doctoral dissertation).
  5. Burrow, H. M., & Dillon, R. D. (1997). Relationships between temperament and growth in a feedlot and commercial carcass traits of Bos indicus crossbreds. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 37(4), 407-411.
  6. Sutherland, M. A., Rogers, A. R., & Verkerk, G. A. (2012). The effect of temperament and responsiveness towards humans on the behavior, physiology and milk production of multi-parous dairy cows in a familiar and novel milking environment. Physiology & behavior, 107(3), 329-337.
  7. Sewalem, A., Miglior, F., & Kistemaker, G. J. (2011). Genetic parameters of milking temperament and milking speed in Canadian Holsteins. Journal of dairy science, 94(1), 512-516.
  8. Murphey, R. M., Duarte, F. A. M., & Penedo, M. C. T. (1980). Approachability of bovine cattle in pastures: breed comparisons and a breed× treatment analysis. Behavior Genetics, 10(2), 171-181.
  9. Sebastian, T., Watts, J., Stookey, J., Buchanan, F., & Waldner, C. (2011). Temperament in beef cattle: Methods of measurement and their relationship to production. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 91(4), 557-565.
  10. Norris, D., Ngambi, J. W., Mabelebele, M., Alabi, O. J., & Benyi, K. (2014). Genetic selection for docility: A review. Journal of Animal and Plant Sciences, 24(2), 13-18.
  11. Silveira, I. D. B., Fischer, V., Farinatti, L. H. E., Restle, J., Alves Filho, D. C., & Menezes, L. F. G. D. (2012). Relationship between temperament with performance and meat quality of feedlot steers with predominantly Charolais or Nellore breed. Revista Brasileira de Zootecnia, 41(6), 1468-1476.
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  14. Sowell, B. F., Mosley, J. C., & Bowman, J. G. P. (2000). Social behavior of grazing beef cattle: Implications for management. Journal of Animal Science, 77(E-Suppl), 1-6.
  15. Lazo, A. (1994). Social segregation and the maintenance of social stability in a feral cattle population. Animal behaviour, 48(5), 1133-1141.

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