“The notion that Afrikaners aren’t suited for feedlotting is nonsense,” says cattle farmer Susan Scheepers of Stoffberg, Mpumalanga.
“The breed is a viable option for commercial weaner producers, especially under tough conditions. There’s great variation within the breed, and the performance of animals earmarked for feedlotting depends on their selection. I select and market my weaners directly from the veld.”
And Susan’s Samaroux herd of Afrikaners has been lauded as “outstanding” by Herman Duvenhage, Afrikaner breed director.
Selecting for fertility is essential
Susan runs a commercial herd of 1 000 animals with 500 breeding cows on 3 000ha. Around 100 replacement heifers are retained every year, the exact number depending on the animals’ quality. Susan selects ruthlessly for fertility. Any animal that doesn’t make the grade is sent to slaughter.
“My biggest mistake was not selecting ruthlessly enough for fertility from the onset,” she says. “It costs too much to keep a cow that doesn’t produce a calf every year.
At one point I changed the calving season to spring, which was a mistake. It’s ideal to have all cows calving in winter as winter calves in our area are healthier and can be marketed in February before the market is overstocked with weaners.”
Susan is converting the entire herd to a winter-calving season.
In the meantime she still maintains a summer- and winter-calving season, putting bulls to cows from mid-November until February, and again from July until mid-September.
The great trek
The herd is run in summer on mixed sweet and sour veld with a carrying capacity of 3ha per mature livestock unit representing a transition between Mpumalanga’s Highveld and Lowveld. In winter the herd is moved down into the Steelpoort River Valley.
Susan aims for medium-framed animals with strong legs and feet suited to walking long distances over rocky terrain. “In winter we trek the herd 25km on foot to our farm Luiperdshoek in Steelpoort with its sweet veld, and back to Stoffberg again in spring.
The herd is so used to the annual trek that animals congregate at the gate as soon as the first cold spell occurs.
“It’s an absolute pleasure to trek with our animals as we select very strictly for temperament. Animals deviating from this are culled. We moved cows and small calves in early May on a five-hour trek with no problems.”
Survival of the fittest
Other breeds struggle in this area, says Susan. “We farm in an area where heartwater, redwater and gall sickness occur. Then there’s the blue tick – the longer the hair, the bigger the problem.
That’s why the Afrikaner’s sleek, smooth coat and thick hide make it the ideal choice. Animals are injected with Ivomac Gold in November to keep them tick-free in December and January.
“The Afrikaner’s disease resistance is so good, we seldom lose an animal, even when there’s a serious outbreak of blue ticks as there was this season due to late rain.” Cold winters and hot summers are an added strain, but the Afrikaner copes under all conditions due to its exceptional hardiness and adaptation to the veld.
Predation is another problem. Leopard, Brown hyena and jackal are the main culprits. The Samaroux herd is spread out over a large area and has to fend for itself.
Any other breed would be difficult to manage under these conditions, but the Afrikaner’s outstanding maternal instinct comes into play and a cow will defend its calf fiercely, says Susan. “In our extensive system, an easy-calving breed that rears a calf on its own is crucial.
“We don’t dehorn our cows, as horns are essential for defence and defending calves. And besides, we like Afrikaners with horns,” she admits. “But bull calves are dehorned to avoid injuries later in life.”
Bottom line in achieving excellence
Susan feels that optimum meat production and muscling are crucial. “The bottom line for me is the amount of beef produced per hectare. I look for meat production, muscling, veld adaptability and milk production. I want medium-frame cows, weighing between 450kg and 500kg, that can wean a calf at seven months at 50% of its bodyweight.”
Susan’s Afrikaners have received top performance reviews in feedlots. “Our weaners are kept there for 84 days before they’re market-ready. The Afrikaner carcass might not weigh the same as that of other breeds, but the animals mature early and are market-ready sooner.
The mortality rate is also very low. “This year we’ve decided to round off our weaners on our own maize in small camps, because of the current low maize price,” she says. “This way we’ll also obtain data on performance.
“Feedlotters prefer weaners between 180kg and 220kg, making our weaners an excellent choice. For example, most feedlots penalise weaner producers for animals weighing between 235kg and 245kg, and even more for animals weighing between 245kg and 260kg.”
Aggressive marketing needed
“It’s high time that an Afrikaner veld beef niche market is developed in South Africa,” says Susan, noting that Afrikaner beef is very nutritious with a low cholesterol level. “Most beef in South Africa is channelled through supermarkets.
The Afrikaner fraternity has to consider marketing our exceptional beef quality aggressively to add value to our industry. It’s still early days, but I believe we must start lobbying to convince the medical fraternity of Afrikaner veld beef’s nutrient quality and counter the unfounded perception that red meat is unhealthy.
“I was shocked to find antibiotic-free veld beef imported from Namibia in a leading chain store in Witbank at R100/kg,” notes Susan. “There’s no reason at all for such imports when local producers can produce the same or even better quality beef.“
But producing veld beef has its challenges, she says. “The animals have to be run on the veld for two or three years. This is expensive and requires a price premium for the producer to make a veld-beef production profitable.
“As veld-reared animals are kept much longer than weaners, a producer needs at least R10 000 for a carcass, as the income from veld-beef production must cover the loss of at least two calves. These animals use grazing that could’ve been used more effectively to breed cows.”
With these challenges in mind, Herman is impressed with the Samaroux herd’s astounding balance between meat production and quality.
“Through strict, informed selection Susan has found how to maintain this balance and not lose out on reproduction and fertility. Her herd proves the Afrikaner is an excellent dam-line option for both feedlot- and veld-produced beef.”
Susan Scheepers can be contacted on 082 805 3228.