Tulbagh in autumn is probably one of the most charming sights South Africa has to offer. The imposing mountains bear witness to the first winter rains by providing a lush green backdrop for the red, gold and russet colours of vineyards and fruit orchards falling slowly into their winter slumber. It is here that the Du Toits of La Rhone farm produce a variety of stone fruit and wine grapes.
The orchards and vineyards take up only 58% of the total area of 308ha and to utilise the farm to its maximum potential, the Du Toits decided to run a mixed beef herd. With their primary focus on fruit, the beef was a sideline operation, explains AJ, Trudene and André Du Toit’s son, who manages the La Rhone Limousin stud. Nine years ago they ran their group of cows with a Limousin bull and noticed a remarkable difference in the quality of the calves.
“They grew faster with a better feed conversion ratio,” AJ recalls. “We marketed them at between seven to eight months and got far better prices for them than for those sired by the other bulls. This sparked our interest in the Limousin breed and we began to look for more bulls. We soon found that there was a gap in the market in the Western Cape for good quality Limousins.” They saw an opportunity to start their own Limousin breeding programme and have gone from strength to strength since then.
La Rhone Limousin breeder AJ du Toit (left) with herd manager Leon du Toit.
Establishing the stud
“After we decided to start a Limousin herd, we spent three years scouring the country for the very best in local Limousin genetics and bought animals on 14 different occasions,” AJ recalls. “We never went to an auction with the idea that we needed to buy a large number of animals. Our only focus was quality.” Reliving those early years of attending auction after auction, AJ says that they researched the animals on offer thoroughly.
They bought only those cows and heifers that came out of the same genetic stock as the best performing stud bulls in the country. “We knew what we were looking for – females with milking and mothering ability that could raise an above-average calf every year. We looked for good udders and calm temperaments. The males had to be well-conformed, medium-framed, masculine animals. We wanted genetically superior animals for our breeding programme.”
Breeding and selection
The Du Toits currently run 120 breeding cows with a 10% to 15% replacement rate. They use natural mating and artificial insemination (AI) in their breeding programme. About 75% of breeding is done by AI with semen imported from France. They also use the best proven local genetics. “This is a breed of European descent. But it is very important to us to breed animals adapted to Southern African conditions,” explains AJ. “So while we import semen to ensure that we keep improving the genetics of our herd, we make sure to match it to hardy, adapted, locally bred females.
The Du Toits do not practice seasonal breeding but do expect their cows to calve annually. “If a cow or heifer does not conceive to first AI she goes to the bull, but if she fails to conceive again, we cull her.” Heifers enter the breeding programme at between 17 and 22 months. The productive lifetime of breeding cows is between 12 and 15 years. Calves run with their dams in the veld for six to eight months until weaning, when the first round of selection takes place.
The animals at La Rhone are reared outdoors and bred to be adapted to Southern African conditions. Photo by AJ du Toit
“We never select a certain number or percentage of animals,” says AJ. “We focus on quality and select the best. If we are not satisfied with an animal, we cull it.” There are four rounds of selection – the first at weaning, the second at 12 months, and the third and fourth at 18 and 24 months respectively. Weaners marked for culling are sold for slaughter at between 12 and 24 months. “We send them directly to the abattoir. They do not go on auction as we want to make sure they do not find their way back into breeding programmes.”
AJ selects on visual appraisal, looking at conformation and a solid medium frame with well balanced proportions. The herd participates in Breedplan, a genetic evaluation system for beef cattle that uses BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Prediction) to produce estimated breeding values (EBVs).
The selection process also takes an animal’s EBVs into consideration, but AJ stresses that they do not breed strictly according to these figures. “There should be a correlation between what we see on paper and what we see in front of us. We feel that appearance is still the best selling point and we want to breed good-looking animals.”
Central to their breeding philosophy is that cattle are not pampered. They live in and off the veld. None of La Rhone’s animals are subjected to a feedlot environment which helps the Du Toits realise one of their main aims: to breed animals particularly suited and adapted to survive under South African conditions. Animals receive supplementary feed before shows and sales, and before breeding to get them into top condition. Other than that, they run on veld. At weaning, calves receive a lick supplement, but stay outdoors.
La Rhone grows nectarines, plums, prunes, peaches and wine grapes and markets its produce mainly in South Africa.
Because the Du Toits farm in an area not traditionally known for beef cattle breeding, they are reasonably remote from other herds and are fortunate to have few problems with disease. However, since their animals go to other areas, they follow a preventative vaccination programme. Cattle transported from one area to another need to be checked and vet certified before they can be moved. “We vaccinate for lumpy skin, pink eye, anthrax, botulism and blackleg,” explains AJ. “More recently we started vaccinating our animals for Rift Valley fever. We do tick management as and when necessary.”
Establishing a quality trademark
The Du Toits are not new to the world of promoting their own brand. According to AJ they know the value of good marketing and establishing a trusted brand. Their experience in the competitive fruit industry has taught them the golden rule of retail – customer is king! La Rhone Limousins, delivers animals bought at its auctions to buyers, at no additional cost, within seven days of purchase.
This has been a significant investment in successful marketing. “We are not situated near the heart of beef cattle farming in South Africa,” André explains, “If we want people to come to our auctions, we have to make it worth their while. We don’t want them to worry about shipping animals home.”
Marketing through shows
Through unwavering attention to quality, it wasn’t long before their cattle started competing in shows. Between 2005 and 2007 on a winning streak, they won top positions in 12 consecutive interbreed shows. “Not all breeders are keen on showing, but we see it as an ideal marketing opportunity,” stresses AJ.
It helps that they have consistently done well at shows. A notable highlight was winning 18 gold medals at the sixth National Limousin Championship in 2010. These included the Junior Champion Interbreed Bull and the Champion Breedplan Interbreed Bull (both won by LR 08 10 La Rhone Hitman).
Auctions and value for money
The stud has built up an impressive auction record, including the current record for the highest prices ever paid on auction in South Africa for a Limousin bull (R280 000), cow (R160 000) and heifer (R65 000). “Our approach to auctions is to see things from the buyer’s point of view. We aim to offer people what they want, the best quality available, value for money and an honest auctioneer,” says AJ.
La Rhone auctions always include carefully selected bulls for the commercial cattleman at between R20 000 and R30 000. The stud has been presenting auctions since 2007, but from 2011 it has hosted the annual La Rhone Prestige Spring Sale on the farm on the first Saturday of September. Stockmen from all nine provinces and some from neighbouring countries such as Namibia and Botswana attend this auction.
According to Trudene, who does much of the organising, it has turned into the social event on the local Limousin calendar.
“Our auctions are popular because buyers know that we offer our best animals. For the past four years, and this year it will be same, we have included national champions. This makes our offering quite unique because few other stud breeders are willing to sell their genetically superior animals,” AJ remarks.
As a parting thought he adds that while they have achieved more with their La Rhone Limousins during these past few years than they ever thought possible, there is always room for improvement. The Du Toits hope to achieve this by staying at the forefront of genetic advances. The next La Rhone Prestige Spring Sale will be held on 1 September 2012.
Contact AJ du Toit on 072 377 3792 or Trudene du Toit on 082 566 4319, www.larhone.co.za