Genetics: Making gains with selection for docility

When selecting cattle with top genetics, beef producers focus on temperament as one trait of great importance.


This is the result of a recent survey of more than 1200 beef producers across Australia which found temperament was the most important trait when selecting replacement bulls. The temperament of an animal can be defined as its behaviour when it is confined or it is put under habitual conditions (e.g. being separated from the herd). A calm disposition of the animals involves major benefits in the management of the farm, as it follows:


  • Lower production costs
  • Make cattle easier to muster and handle
  • Reduce damage to infrastructure g. yards and fences
  • Decrease the risk of injury and stress to cattle
  • Decrease risk of injury and stress to stock handlers
  • Decrease weight loss during transit
  • Improvement of feedlot performance
  • Improvement of beef quality (much tender beef)


Temperament is highly heritable, so we can make improvements in temperament without impacting negatively on other traits within the breeding objective.


Beef producers aiming to improve the genetics of their herd for temperament can achieve this through the implementation of two main selection strategies; culling for poor temperament and selection of sires with superior temperament genetics.


Culling for Poor Temperament

Weed out from the breeding herd animals that show unacceptable temperament. This can be done in an “ad-hoc” manner: observe animals and assess their temperament while being handled, or use a more formal, structured process involving the collection of docility scores.

Docility scores are recorded on animals at weaning or shortly afterwards. The advantage of scoring at weaning is that all calves should have had minimal handling and so will express variation in temperament. Docility scores are collected on animals in two ways: each of the calves are selected and separated from the herd for 10 seconds or each of them is put in a contention box, but not necessarily head bailed.

This information can not only provide valuable information for the decision to retain an individual in the herd but can also help to assess it as a breeder.


Selecting Animals with Superior Temperament

In order to obtain the best mother-cows for your breeding herd, it is particularly important to take into account their docility scores when purchasing sires, due to their overall influence of the genetics in a herd both short-term and long-term through retained daughters. Selecting sires with higher docility scores to those used in the previous joining will result in long term genetic improvement.

Like all production traits of economic importance, the observed temperament of an animal is a combination of the genetics inherited from the sire and dam and the environment and management from which the animal has been run. Temperament related traits (as other traits as well) focus on the genetic differences between animals for temperament by accounting for any environment and management influences.