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Are Jersey Bulls Mean?

Debunking the Myth and Exploring Calf Rearing Methods

When it comes to bulls, especially in the dairy industry, misconceptions often abound. One of the most persistent myths concerns Jersey bulls, which are often considered mean or aggressive. However, to truly understand the behavior of these animals, it’s crucial to look at the science and research surrounding the topic. Are Jersey bulls inherently mean? Let’s explore that question, drawing on insights from the work of renowned animal behavior experts Temple Grandin and Ed Price. Additionally, we’ll examine the correlation between hand-rearing bull calves and aggressive behavior, and discuss the benefits of raising bull calves on cows in a herd setting.

The Behavior of Jersey Bulls

Jersey bulls, like all cattle, are products of their genetics, upbringing, and environment. Their behavior can vary significantly depending on these factors. To gain a deeper understanding of this, we can turn to the work of renowned animal behavior expert Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin has been an educator in animal science at Colorado State’s College of Agricultural Sciences for over 30 years and has designed humane handling facilities for some of the world’s largest meatpacking companies. Her understanding of natural animal behaviors has revolutionized the animal welfare standards of livestock production. 

Regarding the behavior of male cattle, Grandin emphasizes that the expression of aggression in bulls often arises from a lack of socialization and proper handling of bull calves during their early development. She argues that if bulls are raised in a stressful or isolated environment, they may become more prone to aggressive behavior. Cattle are herd animals, and herds have a dominance hierarchy. If cattle are raised in isolation with mostly human contact, they view humans as part of the “herd.” When the young males reach puberty, they will begin to assert their dominance upon their human herd members as part of their natural process of climbing the social ladder in an attempt to become the dominant herd bull. If done in the context of an actual herd inside an appropriate peer group, this competition is a healthy way for breeding males to discover if they have what it takes to pass on their genetics to the next generation. It’s how nature weeds out the weak and allows the ancient game of “survival of the fittest” to play out. If there is no herd or peer group, the human handlers become the objects of aggression and people become the obstacles that must be overcome to reach dominance and sexual maturity.

Dr. Ed Price, a livestock handling specialist, highlights that bulls, when managed and handled correctly, can exhibit gentle temperaments. Price emphasizes the importance of appropriate handling techniques and early socialization to mitigate potential aggression. In a study done on Hereford bulls and published in 1990 Price found that individually-reared bulls were more hostile toward the handler than group-reared bulls. On Day 1, six of eight individually-reared bulls directly threatened the handler, but only one of nine group-reared subjects did so. Furthermore, two individually-reared bulls attacked the handler on multiple occasions, whereas none of the group-reared bulls initiated attacks. Price attributed the individually-reared bulls’ aggressiveness directly to both hand-rearing by humans and physical separation from herdmates. Through his research, Price found that hand-rearing lessens animals’ respect for people, whereas physical isolation prevents animals from understanding social cues for expressing appropriate submissive behavior. 

Benefits of Raising Bull Calves on a Cow in a Herd Setting

Given the well-established link between hand-rearing and aggressive behavior in bull calves, those of us who raise bull calves for breeding have a responsibility to ask: is there a better way? If we are going to expose our families, employees and customers to breeding-age bulls we have raised, isn’t it our duty to those people to raise these bulls in the most responsible manner that has the lowest possible chance of fostering aggression? Shouldn’t we produce animals that possess a proper respect for humans?  Following both Grandin and Price’s recommendations, let’s explore the benefits of raising bull calves on a cow in a herd setting.

  • Natural Socialization
    Rearing bull calves on their dams or on nurse cows allows them to naturally socialize from a young age. They learn important social cues and hierarchies within the herd, which can help prevent aggressive behavior later in life.
  • Reduced Stress
    Being with their mothers and other cows reduces the stress experienced by bull calves. Stress can lead to behavioral issues, including aggression, so minimizing stress is crucial for their well-being.
  • Mimicking Natural Conditions
    Raising bull calves in a herd setting closely mimics the natural conditions in which cattle evolved. This environment promotes healthier psychological development and can result in more well-adjusted animals.
  • Cost Efficiency
    Raising bull calves with their dams can also be cost-effective. It reduces the need for specialized facilities and labor required for hand-rearing, making it a practical choice for many dairy operations.

Raising calves on cows, whether through “calf-sharing” or on nurse cows, is an entirely new concept to most dairies. Like any new system, it requires a different way of thinking as well as a different way of doing things, with skills and practices that you will need to develop and learn. Failure is inevitable, especially in the first year. Don’t expect to adopt this new system, hit the ground running, and become an expert as soon as you begin. It will take time to develop the herdsmanship necessary to raise a healthy herd of calves and produce bulls that are well-behaved and easy to handle. 

The perception that all Jersey bulls are inherently mean is not entirely accurate. The behavior of any bull of any breed is influenced by a combination of genetics, upbringing, and environmental factors. Experts on the subject stress the importance of proper handling, socialization, and early care in shaping the temperament of Jersey bulls. Research indicates a correlation between hand-rearing bull calves and increased aggression, emphasizing the benefits of raising them on a cow in a herd setting. Ultimately, the key to managing Jersey bulls successfully lies in understanding their animal nature and providing them with the proper social environment from an early age. By doing so, we can foster gentler and more manageable animals, challenging the stereotype of the “mean Jersey bull.”