Know the basics: Starting a commercial beef herd from scratch

The aim of any well-managed commercial cattle farm is to produce high-quality beef for the market at a profitable level. Magda du Toit provides emerging and aspiring beef cattle farmers with a guideline of the elements they need to consider when embarking on such a venture.

Know the basics: Starting a commercial beef herd from scratch
The condition of the pasture or veld should be given constant attention to ensure that your animals receive the correct energy and nutrients to remain productive.
Photo: FW Archive

Commercial cattle farming forms the backbone of the beef industry in South Africa. Over the past few years, the demand for good-quality South African beef products, both at home and abroad, has continued on a steady upward curve.

In many cases, cattle farming forms part of a diversified farming enterprise, which helps manage production and market risks. Moreover, cattle are often kept on marginal soils that are unsuited to planting crops or are used to complement and add value to grain production by allowing the animals to graze crop stubble after harvesting.

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Farming in South Africa, however, comes with an array of challenges. Unpredictable weather and frequent droughts are common challenges that farmers have to deal with.

This, combined with fluctuations on the market and disease management, means that aspiring beef cattle farmers, or producers hoping to diversify into beef production, must carefully consider the financial implications of every decision they make, including what breed to farm and what production system to implement.

Production systems
Commercial beef cattle production systems can be run under intensive, extensive or semi-intensive conditions. Under an intensive system, cattle are kept in confinement, and must be provided with feed and water.

Under extensive conditions, veld or natural grazing is the main source of feed for cattle. The cattle have the freedom to roam outdoors and have some autonomy over diet selection through grazing, water consumption, and access to shelter.

Under semi-intensive systems, cattle are exposed to a combination of intensive and extensive husbandry methods, either simultaneously, or varied according to changes in climatic conditions or the physiological state of the cattle.

Regardless of the production system you choose to follow, animal selection, nutrition and health remain crucial components of any livestock farming operation.

Animal selection and breed choice
Since livestock farming requires a great deal of capital with a relatively low return on investment, the investment in good genetic material is crucial.

Good-quality genetics are essential to improve the productive capabilities of cows and bulls,
as well as the quality of weaners. Commercial cows are selected according to their size, age, condition, stage of production and market price, and must be largely evaluated on reproduction statistics.

In an article published in Farmer’s Weekly in March 2013, Leslie Bergh, then senior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council, pointed out that there is no ’perfect’ breed. Instead, he said there are better or worse choices for specific conditions and purposes.

Your particular farming environment, production and breeding system, as well as your market requirements, should determine your breed choice. The breed you ultimately select should also match your available feed resources and your specific on-farm conditions.

Moreover, climate and vegetation zones, the seasons and the terrain are also important factors to consider when choosing a breed to farm. These elements should be weighed against the breed’s characteristics and temperament, as well as your beef production strategy, which determines the goals you have for your operation.

Other aspects to take into consideration when choosing a breed are:

  • The affordability of breeding animals, especially bulls. Keep in mind that some breeds demand higher prices on the market.
  • Availability and reliability of performance test data and breeding values. These are important for genomic selection.
  • Average performance of the breed with regard to the traits for your specific circumstances.
  • Size of the genetic pool and variation in the breed. Expanding your herd with limited genetic options can be problematic in the long run.
  • Availability and quality of breeding bulls in your area.

Since all breeds are different in terms of their marketable traits, a crossbreeding programme could be an option for a commercial beef farmer. If properly implemented, crossbreeding may significantly increase your herd’s productivity. Moreover, combining the merits of several breeds may provide you with a competitive edge on the market.

When considering a crossbreeding programme, keep in mind the traits you want to improve in your herd, as well as the heritability of such traits. For instance, characteristics such as reproduction and longevity have low heritability. As such, these traits respond very slowly to selection, as a large portion of the variation observed in them is due to environmental factors and non-additive genetic effects.

As a commercial beef producer, you may want to focus on producing calves with low birthweights and higher weaning weights.

If you’re using an extensive production system, you may also want to focus on improving the walking ability of your animals, for example. Conformation is important in this instance.

Before embarking on a crossbreeding programme, decide what your production goals are, and select breeds that will complement each other to produce the ideal animal for your farm.

Nutrition
The profitability of an animal is determined by feed conversion. Cattle require protein, energy, water, fat, minerals and vitamins. The amounts vary according to environment, the animal’s age, time of year, and production goals and stages.

As a rule, a beef animal consumes up to 3kg of feed per day for each 100kg of body weight. This means that a weaned 300kg calf will eat 9kg of high-quality lucerne hay daily to reach an average weight of 450kg.

When a young beef animal reaches between 250kg and 300kg, it is usually placed on a high-grain/high-energy ration for 100 to 120 days, or until it reaches slaughter weight.

If you are running your beef cattle extensively, the condition of the pasture or veld should receive constant attention, with the goal being continuous improvement through dedicated management. It is essential in this case that the veld or pasture provides adequate energy and nutrients for your grazing animals so that they remain productive.

According to Dr Ockert Einkamerer, senior lecturer in animal science in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS), veld management entails the dedicated long-term management of the available pasture to improve veld condition and quality.

“Veld quality specifically refers to the increase in desirable and nutritious plant species. The focus for grazing management should be on effective pasture utilisation and the dedicated rest thereof to stimulate new growth and translocate nutrients to the roots for growth in the next season. Rest is important, but so are cutting or grazing as a means of getting rid of old growth and stimulating the new. A grazing management system should aim for these goals,” says Einkamerer.

High-quality legume hay, such as lucerne and clover, usually contains enough protein and carbohydrates for the growth and maintenance of cattle. Poor-quality feed, such as grain straw, grass straw or rain-damaged hay, must be supplemented to increase the animals’ protein or energy intake.

It is also important that cattle receive an adequate amount of minerals, as they help to build bones and teeth, and contribute to the functioning of proteins and lipids.

These can be provided via natural feed or supplementation, the latter of which can be supplied either as a lick or mixed into feed.

When purchasing feed, ensure that you buy good-quality hay from reputable dealers, and make certain that the feed trucks are disinfected and cleaned, especially if they are also used to transport animals to abattoirs.

Clean water is essential at all times. Depending on the weather, and the size and age of the cattle, an adult animal will drink between 20ℓ and 70ℓ of water a day. Remember that heat dramatically increases water consumption.

Einkamerer emphasises the following in terms of water and nutrition:

  • Always ensure that animals have access to cool, clean drinking water at all times.
  • Animals should be kept healthy, as healthy animals are productive animals. Nutrients cannot be utilised effectively by an animal that is under any stress.
  • Make sure that feed troughs always contain feed. Rumination becomes less effective when the microbial population in the rumen declines, and a hungry animal may overconsume feed, which could cause metabolic diseases. It is equally important to not provide too much feed, as this might result in the animals sorting the feed components, especially higher-moisture feeds, and the feed deteriorating in quality.
  • When providing licks, ensure they have the correct salt content, as this helps to correct nutrient intake to supplement any shortages. The correct lick should be provided for the season, animal requirement, environment and animal response.
  • Ensure the animals are checked every day for condition and possible symptoms of disease.
  • Know the quality and nutritional composition of the feed you provide to your animals. Formulations and animal response are only as good as the nutrients provided.

Herd health and disease prevention
Maintaining herd health is a key element for successful beef production. Some diseases as well as internal and external parasites are often prevalent in specific areas. Make sure your animals are vaccinated annually against notifiable and prevalent diseases, and that your parasite control programme is applied according to regional requirements and in liaison with your veterinarian’s recommendations.

Your veterinarian should visit your farm twice a year, and it is crucial that herds be tested regularly for certain controlled and notifiable animal diseases. For example, all animals should be vaccinated against lumpy skin disease, Rift Valley fever (RVF), three-day stiff sickness, black quarter, botulism and anthrax.

To protect the health of your herd, see to it that you take the necessary precautionary measures when bringing other cattle onto your farm.

Do not allow any bull that is not certified disease-free onto your farm. According to the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation, the following should be verified by a veterinarian before new animals are brought into your herd:

The duration of the period the animals resided at the purchase or previous location;
Whether there have been any recent disease outbreaks in the location;

  • Whether the brand mark clearly confirms ownership;
  • Whether a vaccination programme was followed and whether proof of this can be verified by a registered veterinarian;
  • What the local prevalent external parasites were at the place of origin, and whether a parasite control programme was routinely implemented;
  • Whether a veterinarian-supported control programme against transmittable diseases was followed;
  • Whether a sufficient number of tests for reproductive diseases of both male and female animals was conducted, and the dates on which these occurred; and
  • Whether the cattle were tested for zoonotic diseases, and the dates on which these tests were conducted.

When you bring new animals onto your farm, process all newcomers within 24 hours of their arrival and equip each individual with a unique ID tag brand.

These animals should also be dipped, dosed, and vaccinated as necessary. It is very important that you isolate the new cattle from your herd, as well as all shared facilities, for at least 21 days after introducing them to your farm. This will allow you some time to monitor the animals and test for any diseases of concern.

Even if the animals were tested before, it is a good idea to retest them for diseases prevalent in your area.

According to Leon Kruger, lecturer on animal health in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at UFS, it isn’t always easy to follow a set health management programme in livestock production, as the many diseases affecting livestock are influenced by weather patterns and conditions.

“The good rain the country recently experienced brings a higher incidence of vector-borne diseases such as RVF, heartwater and anaplasmosis,“ he explains.

He adds that you need to adapt your disease control programme to the prevailing environmental conditions, and points out the following five critical aspects:

Know the condition of your herd.
“A farmer must see and touch the animals by walking amongst the herd. Only by being in close proximity to the animals will you be able to ascertain their true status.“

Know the health status of your animals, especially with regard to diseases that don’t present with symptoms.
“Test your female animals for brucellosis at least once every three years and vaccinate heifers between the ages of four and eight months. Brucellosis is a controlled disease and the state veterinarian can assist with this.”

Trust only laboratory results when purchasing new animals (don’t take the seller’s word for it!). Kruger says this is particularly important when buying in bulls. Trichomoniasis, for example, doesn’t present with any symptoms. If it is introduced onto your farm, your herd’s conception rate will drop significantly, and you’ll ultimately have to cull the bull since the prognosis upon treatment of the disease is very poor.

Biosecurity starts at the farm gate.
“Be alert to the movement of people on the farm; this includes workers not residing on the farm. Diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease are transferred to farms through fomites [objects or materials likely to carry infection].“

As far as possible, use target-specific treatment to prevent diseases from infecting your herd. “Dip [your cattle] when ticks become a problem. Dose when necessary, and vaccinate according to a programme relevant to your specific area. Certain vaccinations, such as those for RVF and brucellosis, are essential. Others must be discussed with your veterinarian.”

Lukas Eksteen, executive manager of livestock at Bufland Agri near Mookgophong, Limpopo, says biosecurity must be a way of life.

“Buy animals from reputable sellers, and test bulls for trichomoniasis and vibriosis every year. It’s good practice to implement stringent access-control measures on your farm.“

Email Dr Ockert Einkamerer at [email protected], Dr Leon Kruger at [email protected], or Lukas Eksteen at [email protected]