Three-way crossbreeding for optimal production

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Crossbreeding two beef breeds is a popular practice among South Africa’s commercial beef producers. A KwaZulu-Natal family that has been in the beef farming business for several decades believes it is reaping the benefits from its less common three-way crossbreeding system.

afrikaner-sussex-cow-calf
An Afrikaner-type commercial beef cow that was put to a pure Sussex bull to produce this calf on Alford Farms.
Photo: Lloyd Phillips

The Schefermann family has been farming beef cattle in South Africa for four consecutive generations. So, when the decision was made to change from the more conventional two- way crossbreeding system to a three-way system for the farm’s commercial beef enterprise, it was based on sound knowledge and principles gathered first- hand over many decades.

Alford Farms, a 1 294ha mixed farming business in KwaZulu-Natal, is run by Neville Schefermann, who bought the farm from his father Trevor in 2014. However, Neville had been running the farm himself since 2012.

Situated near Vryheid, the farm consists of 148ha commercial white maize, 14ha yellow silage maize, 609ha sourveld natural grazing, 108ha kikuyu pasture for grazing and forage, 20ha Eragrostis curvula pasture for hay production, and 20ha Brazseed pasture for grazing and baling. All are dryland crops.

Alford Farm’s commercial timber enterprise comprises 219ha black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) and 128ha pine (Pinus elliottii) plantations. In 2014, Neville won the NCT Forestry Cooperative’s Tree Farmer of the Year award, for which he feels highly honoured.

The Alford Simmentaler stud is made up of 236 cows, heifers, bulls and calves, and there is also a commercial beef enterprise of 379 cows, heifers and calves.

Three-way crossbreeding

In 1968, Neville’s late grandfather, Vernon, started the Alford Simmentaler stud by importing five Simmentaler breeding cows from Germany. Then, in 1987, he and Trevor decided to add a commercial beef production enterprise to their business. To this end, they began leasing the Eastwood Sussex herd – which they subsequently bought in the 1990s – to crossbreed with their Simmentaler genetics.

When Alford Farms was able to expand and increase its grazing through local land purchases, Vernon and Trevor added Afrikaner genetics to the commercial beef herd in a three-way crossing system. Neville continued with this programme when he bought the farm from his father.


A graphic illustrating the three-way crossbreeding programme utilised on Alford Farms.
(Courtesy of Neville Schefermann/Alford Farms)

“My family decided to implement a three-way crossbreeding system for a number of reasons,” he recalls. “The primary reason was that it allowed them to have a closed female herd – they would never have to buy in any breeding females. This significantly reduced the risk of introducing venereal diseases into the commercial beef herd. Generations of females that have been born and bred on the property are now well-adapted to the operation’s particular production environment.”

Another attraction of the system was that it would allow the Schefermanns total control over their selection of replacement breeding females, enabling them to refine their breeding cow herd towards their ideal phenotype and genotype targets for enhanced productivity and profitability.

The choice of which beef breeds to use in the programme was simple. They already had the Simmentaler stud, a Bos taurus breed originating in Germany. The breed has good mothering abilities, produces ample milk for its calves and has high fertility figures.

The Sussex genetics, also Bos taurus and originating from south-east England, were desirable because Neville’s family wanted a beefier, fertile, and adaptable animal with good mothering abilities. The Bos indicus Afrikaner breed was chosen for its hardiness, red colour, good temperament and the fact that, according to Neville, the cows invest considerable energy into growing their calves.

Finally, crossing Bos taurus and Bos indicus genetics introduces desirable hybrid vigour. The commercial beef enterprise on Alford Farms currently runs three separate breeding cow herds. These are 65 Simmentaler- type cows marked with green ear tags, 67 Sussex-type cows with red ear tags, and 68 Afrikaner-type cows with orange ear tags.

During the mating season from 5 November to 14 February, each cow herd is allocated four natural veld camps in a 12-camp rotational grazing system. The camps range from 22ha to 56ha each. At the end of the mating season, after the bulls are removed from the herds, the herds are placed in one large group.

Replacement heifers, which are put to the bulls from 5 October to 14 February, are also removed and placed on kikuyu camps to maintain condition for their first calving. “Three rest camps are then allocated from the 12 camps. The now-single group of mated breeding cows rotates quickly through the remaining nine camps, based on the size of the camp and a 30-day rest period per camp. This is done to get better grazing utilisation,” explains Neville.

  • Nutrition: From October to April, the grazing allocated to these herds of breeding females is supplemented only with a phosphate lick block. From May, the large group of mated breeding cows, together with the mated heifers, are moved to graze on maize stover, either as three individual groups on three separate lands or in one large group, depending on water availability and how quickly the maize is harvested. When the stover is finished, the herds are combined and put into the three rested natural veld camps on a quick rotation until the first spring rains arrive. During this time, the cattle are supplemented with a protein lick block and Eragrostis curvula hay produced on-farm.

Mating and calving
Four bought-in pure Sussex stud bulls are mated to Neville’s Afrikaner-type cows, four bought-in pure Afrikaner stud bulls are mated to the Simmentaler-type cows, and four registered Simmentaler bulls selected from the Alford Simmentaler stud are mated to the Sussex-type cows. The bulls range from three to nine years old, and are all tested for disease and fertility annually. Bulls that fail any test are culled immediately.

“The first step that I take in selecting bulls is to analyse their estimated breeding values provided by the respective breed societies,” Neville explains.

“I want bulls that have the traits of low birth weights, ease of calving, good milk production, and good weaning weights. My final decision on which bulls to buy on auction or select from our Simmentaler stud is based on my visual appraisal of them.”

After an average gestation length of 283 days, Alford Farms’s commercial beef breeding females calve down from
1 August to 30 November.

Most calves are born while their dams are on the maize stover. Within two days of being born, a calf is ear-tagged to indicate the breeds of its sire and dam. Male calves are fitted with castration rings. All calves are dehorned when they are two to three months old and the MSD Animal Health programme is administered.

The calves remain with their mothers until forced weaning at around 15 April, depending on grass availability and weather forecasts. At this stage, the calves are about seven or eight months old and weigh between 180kg and 260kg.

Selection
“To minimise stress to the mothers, I have pregnancy testing conducted on the breeding females when I remove the calves. The target is to get an average of 88% gestation, but this can vary depending on weather conditions such as drought or too much rain,” explains Neville.

The process begins on a Monday, with the weighing of the stud cows and calves, followed by the selection of the stud calves. The stud cows are then pregnancy-tested. On the Tuesday, the commercial calves are weighed and selected and cows are pregnancy-tested in the afternoon. Commercial cows are not weighed.

On the Wednesday morning, the stud calves that were screened out and all the male commercial calves and unwanted female calves are loaded onto a truck bound for SIS Feedlotters. All cows that are to be culled, for whatever reason, are placed in Alford Farms’s feed pens and the feeding programme of silage and ration begins.

Heifers
“We retain about 50 commercial heifer calves every year as replacement breeding females for our commercial beef enterprise. These replacement heifers are run initially in a single herd compromising a mix of approximately 1/3 Simmentaler-type females, 1/3 Sussex-type females and 1/3 Afrikaner-type females.

“When they are 22 to 26 months old, and from 5 October every year, these replacement heifers are separated into herds oftheir breed types and mated to pure bulls of the appropriate breed, namely Sussex bulls to the Afrikaner-type heifers,

Simmentaler bulls to Sussex-type heifers, and Afrikaner bulls to the Simmentaler-type heifers.” Neville prefers to first mate the replacement heifers at this greater age to avoid potential stunting of the young females’ development. This would have a negative knock-on effect on the remainder of the affected breeding females’ productive life.

“Putting the replacement heifers to the bulls a month before the cows means these first calvers will calve down a month before the cows. This gives the first-calvers an extra month to recover before they are put to the bulls again.

This rest period helps to improve our conception percentages for the second calving.” In future, Neville would like to increasingly employ the services of expert beef consultants to help “get on top of lick costs and improve grazing utilisation.”

Contact Neville Schefermann on 072 458 9589 or [email protected].