Thursday, July 18, 2024
HomeLivestockBeef CattleZero Tolerance for Bad Cows

Zero Tolerance for Bad Cows

I apologize if the following words are too harsh, but they are true.

Unfortunately, some know the feeling all too well. The beef business has risks, and one risk is bad-tempered cows, cows that want to kill you.

Most cows respect their caregivers and have only goodwill. But for those of a different temperament, get them out of the pen. You should have no room in the pen for killer cows.

While calving time brings out maternal behaviors, acceptable behaviors always must include respect for the producer, the primary caregiver. Never, never assume a cow will not harm the very person who cares most for the cow – you; no exceptions.

The truth is the same for bulls, but at this time of year, the cow is the one which we, as producers, are interacting. Once again, never, never assume a cow will not harm you.

I was reminded of this the other night as I turned the corner to walk past the local recreational facility. I was met by several massive tigers. Turns out the Circus was in town! Fortunately, they each were in their cage. Long story short, I walked away. But I still was thinking that if a cage door had come open, what would I do? Let me repeat, they were big, full-grown tigers.

The tigers reminded me of how small I was and no match for a tiger or cow. The outcome would be the same.

An issue today is how we visualize the critters of the world. We view animals on electronic devises – cellphones, television or many other various monitors – in the safety of our home. The hazards are minimized on the devices and we can become haphazard, or take our safety for granted.

Through time, one develops a feel for the rogue cow or calf with a quick look or maybe an intense stare-down. Early signs exist regarding those animals that you just know are not going to be a good co-habitation experience.

I remember, while working the cows in the solid handling facility, the last cow that came through. She made several attempts to leave, and tried to double-stack the chute, or in other words, push by the restraining gatekeeper and join the cow already in the chute. She indiscriminately and defensively kicked the chute wall.

She was diagnosed as pregnant, so now what? Keep or cull? Oddly enough, that would be debated in many cattle circles. I pondered, “If a producer always sorted into the trailer the last few heifers or cows to come through the chute, would life get simpler?” So, keep or cull? Those with adequate help (who have agility included in their job description) might consider keeping this cow. For those who are more “do it yourself,” the answer sways toward culling.

Ask the business partner; the answer is “maybe.” Ask the emergency response team; the answer is “cull.” Ask the night calving crew; the answer is “cull.” Ask the family; the answer is “cull.” Then ask, “Why is she still here?”

In reality, ornery cattle are just ornery and have no business in the cattle population. They are dangerous.

Is behavior or temperament passed on from one generation to the next? Absolutely. Can producers select for mild-mannered cattle? Absolutely. Can producers control the destiny of their herd’s attitude? Absolutely. Should bull breeders castrate the bull calf with an obvious attitude? Absolutely.

Quit making excuses for bad-tempered cattle. Some say they are just scared and want to get away. Some say the issue is the producer. I say, just work with cattle that work for you, not against you.

The question often asked is what to look for, and the answer is this: Cattle that routinely challenge the producer should be sold. Cattle that are very aggressive and are put in a defensive mode easily should be sold. Cattle that are overreactive to the chute environment should be sold.

Awhile back, the Dickinson Research Extension Center purchased a set of yearling steers for summer grazing that had no love for humans. Even as castrated males, their hatred for people and their desire to do bodily harm was real. And I am not making this up.

Having ultrasounded several thousand cows, nervous, high-strung cattle are obvious. One can obviously feel the tense, nervous cow, rigid on the outside but shaking on the inside. She needs to go.

When buying bulls, ask questions on bull attitude and, for heaven’s sake, don’t buy temperamental bulls that challenge the fitting crew, the handling crew, the sale crew or, in the worst-case situation, the buyers. Bulls with an attitude can be neutered and placed in the feedlot well before sale time.

Mysticism surrounds the concept of conquering the wild and taming the untamable. But let’s leave that to others. Friends and family like us to come home, and so we should, safely.

Of course, you have another side to this story: the overly tame cow, or particularly a tame bull. Respect is still the appropriate response. Remember those rare stories when someone adopts a tiger and assumes the tiger is a big pet. No, it is not.

The “tame” bull has taken too many lives. Always respect cattle; care for them, but be safe.

May you find all your ear tags!


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Kris Ringwall
Kris Ringwall
Dr. Ringwall is the director of North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Extension Center. The Center was established to research crop production and improvements to native and introduced forage crops for ranchers on the Missouri Plateau region. The Center's runs a herd of May calving cattle.


  1. Great article. We had a polled Hereford bull that the children could sat on but he took a pickup fender off one day as we drove back from deer hunting. After we washed off the blood he was fine.
    Worked with a producer in Iowa who had a bad heifer. He liked her looks until she broke an arm and leg. Would have killed him if he wasn’t armed. Medical bills were more $$ than the replacement.
    Attitude is very heritable in animals and humans. just saying.

  2. Agree 100% and further. Behaviors, even little quirky ones, can be highly heritable. Livestock must not only have a “good temperament” as in not want to kill you, but must also be CO-OPERATIVE in everyway. On most farms labor is the biggest hurdle & expense. Don’t waste your time mucking about with uncooperative animals or even worse perpetuating uncooperative, dangerous, time-wasting genetics! Stop making excuses for sh*t animal behavior. Get rid of them & get on with your life. Charging in ANY situation is completely unacceptable. Fence crawling. Running away. Hiding in bushes. Stopping & not keeping up with the mob. Going down on front knees in the crush/bail etc etc etc.
    Do your sanity & productivity a favor & just get rid of them!

  3. Excellent article. There’s no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of bad actors come from nasty parents. This is true of any domestic species. There does seem to be at least one exception. We bought a 8 month old highly bred Cotswold ram. Our only other sheep was an an ancient wether. This new ram wasn’t pushy & seemed to respect space. Both of us were used to reading animals & this fellow didn’t act nasty, just overly friendly. However red flags popped up when his owner said she always treated him very gently & encouraged him to be friendly with her. We debated taking a chance with him & finally brought him home. He is now three & he feels strongly that he is superior to people. We have kept him, partly because he has an incredible fleece. But there are rules. No one goes into his pen alone. If he won’t keep his distance he gets put on the ground & kept there until we leave. We believe his “friendliness” isn’t aggression, rather from being treated like a dog as a baby. Presently only two people are allowed in his pen. His lambs do not show any of his pushy behavior & ewe lambs are respectful, easily caught & handled so we’re pretty sure his behavior is how he was raised. Nevertheless, he is a danger & will be culled if his lack of respect worsens. Thanks for reminding us of the dangers a nasty animal & the need for culling.

  4. Thanks for this post. i just had run in number 1 with our 11 month old bull. My husband does not want to even discuss it.

  5. I have always found that a high percentage of less then friendly livestock are not worth holding onto . They end up costing more money than they are worth and your just passing those traits into the rest of your livestock operation. Being a big believer in keeping my dog in between me and any bull has kept me free of injuries working alone. Great piece of advice in this article.

  6. Oogie, boy do I agree. Last fall I sent a really nice six year old ram to slaughter. There had been a major change in operations and there was no longer 75 ewes for him to breed, just 20 and to say he got more than a little frustrated is an understatement. He tore up facilities and for the first time since knowing him, he charged me. He fell short of ramming me, but that was the last straw.

    I work alone and with an eye on improving my stock, including kindness towards me, such rams and bad acting ewes are culled.

    This summer am making a long drive to bring home a couple rams from a breeder that has a solid reputation for kind and very good quality rams.

  7. The same goes for sheep or any livestock. We have a 1 strike and you’re out rule for our sheep flock. A ram lamb can play butt us 1 time, as a lamb and he better not be gunning for us but more of a test. He gets chased away until he is submissive just like another ram would do. Second time he butts us, no matter how good he is, he’s on the slaughter trailer. Any sheep that jumps out of the chute is gone, anyone that is hard to hold or restrain is gone, any that kick too much for shearer is gone and so on. End result, 20 years later and we have a very well behaved flock of sheep. I can safely go into a pen of 30 adult rams and while I never trust them fully they all respect my space and I don’t fear for my life when I enter unlike some other flocks I know.

    Whether disposition is heritable or a factor of the environment in which the animal grows up can be debated but there is no debate that culling bad attitudes goes a long way towards making caring for the livestock fun and easy.

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