There are over 1 000 cattle breeds in the world today, with more than 30 beef breeds registered in South Africa. These can be divided into three subtypes, or a mixture thereof: Bos taurus, B. indicus and B. taurus africanus, also known as Sanga cattle.
B. taurus cattle, which do not have humps, originated mainly in Eurasia, in areas with high rainfall and low temperatures. They include British breeds such as Angus, Hereford, Sussex and Shorthorn; European breeds such as Simmentaler, Charolais, Braunvieh, Limousin and Pinzgauer; and Japanese breeds such as Wagyu.
B. indicus is the collective name for humped cattle, such as the Brahman, which originated in South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan.
According to Dr Michiel Scholtz, specialist researcher at the Animal Production Institute of the Agricultural Research Council, the Sanga appears to have emerged from East Africa and
crossed with B. indicus and B. taurus cattle as these migrated into Africa.
Indigenous South African cattle, such as the Afrikaner and Nguni are therefore classified as B. taurus africanus.
“These breeds do not have B. indicus blood, because B. indicus breeds are highly susceptible to tsetse fly [bites], resulting in their elimination as they moved down south [from their origins]. The Boran, which originated in East Africa, does, however, have both B. indicus and B. taurus blood,” says Scholtz.
In the search for more efficient cattle, composite breeds, including the Bonsmara (Afrikaner x Hereford and Shorthorn), Brangus (Brahman x Angus) and Beefmaster (Brahman x Hereford and Milking Shorthorn).
Resilience and adaptability
Over the years, much research has been conducted to evaluate the adaptability, production efficiency and meat quality of the different types of cattle, with Dr Jan Bonsma, who developed the Bonsmara breed, doing groundbreaking work in South Africa at the Mara Research Station in the 1930s.
“By recording body temperatures and respiratory rates, and taking performance data such as weight gain and linear body measurements into account, Bonsma and his team helped us better understand the impact of heat stress on production, particularly when it comes to breeds of British and European origin,” says Prof Japie van der Westhuizen, general manager of SA Studbook.
Most of the locally produced British and European breeds have since adapted to South Africa’s environmental conditions, thanks to strategic selection.
“Over time, farmers here have selected for shorter hair, animals that can walk farther and animals that are less affected by heat stress. The problem of eye cancer in Herefords, for instance, has been addressed through strong selection for eyelid pigmentation,” he says.
Breeds with a Sanga or B. indicus heritage are nevertheless generally considered more resilient than their European and British cousins.
Van der Westhuizen explains that, according to literature, B. indicus breeds have shorter digestive systems, allowing them to make better use of poorer-quality veld, such as sourveld, by coping with the heat generated during digestion and the lower palatability.
They also have various mechanisms, such as short coats, loose skin and more efficient sweat glands, that enable them to cope well with high air temperatures. In addition, they are generally more resistant to parasites, such as ticks.
While the genetic make-up of the South African Sanga breeds is closer to that of B. taurus, these animals exhibit many of the unique traits, such as loose skin, a short coat and improved metabolism, that are associated with the resilience and adaptability of the B. indicus breeds.
Van der Westhuizen ascribes this to their being subjected to thousands of years of natural selection under the harsh conditions associated with Africa, resulting in the survival of only the fittest.
The drawback of Sanga and B. indicus, in terms of market requirements, is that they are generally smaller than B. taurus, which is one reason they have faster metabolic rates and can therefore thrive better under suboptimal conditions.
For the same reason, they also have slower growth rates, reach sexual maturity at a later age, and produce smaller carcasses with lower slaughter percentages than B. taurus breeds.
Besides this, B. indicus meat is generally leaner and tougher, and has a lower intramuscular fat content than some of the Sanga and B. taurus breeds.
Van der Westhuizen says that issues with meat quality can be partially addressed through the selection of animals with a calmer temperament.
Some argue that certain Sanga and B. indicus cattle are less vulnerable to predators as they may be predisposed to a more aggressive nature. However, this could also make them quite anxious, which is a problem in feedlots where calm and ease of management are important.
“Animals that are stressed and anxious before they’re slaughtered will yield tough meat,” says Van der Westhuizen.
So what does all this mean for a cattle farmer? Van der Westhuizen says it is much easier and cheaper to farm an animal that is adapted to a farm’s specific production conditions than to try to adapt the environment to the breed.
Historically, pure B. taurus breeds developed under cooler conditions and where grass was generally more palatable, whereas B. indicus and Sanga breeds had to deal with conditions that could be classified as subtropical, where the nutritional sources could vary from low palatability, usually in regions with high rainfall and humidity, to areas prone to regular droughts and sweeter veld.
Many to choose from
The wide range of breeds leaves farmers relatively spoilt for choice. Even so, it should be kept in mind that there is a great deal of variance between animals of the same breed in terms of adaptability, resilience, growth and productivity.
If the market requires a heavier carcass, but the environmental constraints at farm level are taken into consideration, it may also make sense to use the good properties of these breed types in a well-designed crossbreeding programme. To illustrate, small Nguni cows may be crossed with a B. taurus bull to produce offspring that grow faster and produce heavier carcasses.
Van der Westhuizen points out that farmers may also address environmental constraints through the strategic feeding of B. taurus cattle.
“New [plant] growth is highly palatable for all cattle breeds. The palatability is negatively affected only once the growth is older and stalks becomes bulkier.”