Producing well-balanced animals for maximum profit

Well-balanced stud animals are crucial to the profitability of a commercial beef cattle enterprise, say Jean van der Merwe and Willie Landman, owners of the Black Hills Drakensberger stud near Potchefstroom. They told Annelie Coleman that they breed animals like this by focusing on a number of traits and using a variety of selection techniques.

Van der Merwe (left) and Landman say it is imperative to gain as much data as possible about each animal in order to make informed selection decisions.
Photo: Annelie Coleman

Willie Landman and his business partner, Jean van der Merwe, both mechanical engineers, run a Drakensberger stud on the farm Rooipoortjie between Potchefstroom and Parys. Their stud, Black Hills Drakensberger, was registered in 2009.

The focus of their stud, they emphasise, is to breed well-balanced animals. This calls for the implementation of a holistic selection programme, which includes all possible aspects of successful animal husbandry.

Landman and Van der Merwe say that animal recording, for example, is not the be-all and end-all of producing a top-performing animal, although they do keep detailed records of each animal on the farm. Instead, the essence and value of animal recording is in the interpretation of the data collected.

“Breeders can sometimes become so focused on, and engrossed in, the recording of animal statistics that their actual analysis and interpretation fall by the wayside. The objective of animal recording and estimated breeding values [EBVs] is to improve a cattle herd, and the data must be used to this end.”

However, adds Landman, data is not the only tool. Since the pair launched the Black Hills stud in 2009, they have used several methods in their effort to breed highly fertile cattle.

According to him, the onus is on their cattle to ensure that the business remains profitable, and not on them as owners to spend money keeping the animals going at all cost. This is why it is crucial to know as much as possible about the herd.

Functional efficiency can be determined only by visual appraisal, says Willie Landman.

They use a combination of animal performance recording, interpretation and observation to breed according to their breeding plan.

“Breeding cattle is about making money, and all inputs required to get a newborn calf to weaning need to be brought into the equation. This includes the maintenance of the calf and its mother up to weaning and marketing,” says Landman.

A mathematical model
As engineers, Landman and Van der Merwe build mathematical models of real-life engineering problems in order to simulate, analyse and predict possible outcomes. They have applied this expertise to stud breeding, and follow a systematic approach to selection and breeding, with clearly defined breeding goals.

According to Landman, informed selection is critical to producing top-performing animals.

“All selection decisions will have a long term-impact on the herd,” he says. For this reason, they use as many selection resources as possible to make informed decisions.

“We enjoy the challenge of applying science in a practical way to improve the herd. Performance testing, breeding values, genomics testing, and any measurements we deem practical are used in our quest to breed the ideal herd. Visual evaluation for functional efficiency is equally important to us.”

Frame size
Van der Merwe explains that fertility and reproduction form the foundation of the Black Hills stud, and he and Landman follow a holistic approach in this regard. While EBVs such as birthweight, weaner weight and average daily gain form part of the selection process, they also emphasise conformation.

“For instance, the larger the cow, the higher her energy requirements and nutritional needs. She may reach a point where the environment [natural grazing] can no longer provide enough for her, her calf and her unborn calf. Such a cow will inevitably first take care of her own needs, then the needs of the calf she is raising, and lastly the needs of the unborn calf. To keep such an animal in the herd means providing supplemental feeding, which adds to additional costs.”

Van der Merwe adds that cows that are too large also struggle to cope on the veld, and often have low fertility rates.

“Frame size, nevertheless, calls for a fine balance. Calves from a cow that’s too small are usually not acceptable to feedlots. Selecting for growth at all costs is bound to result in a tall, scrawny and overly muscled animal. That’s why holistic selection is so important,” he says.

Landman says the ideal breeding cow adapts to available grazing and produces a satisfactory calf every year. She makes a reliable genetic and economic contribution to the herd.

“Given the economic and financial challenges of cattle production, objective measurement and quantification of the performance of each breeding cow are becoming increasingly important. Any cow that fails to produce a calf once a year that meets our breeding standards is culled without exception.”

The ideal mature Black Hills cow weighs between 465kg and 515kg.

The right cow
Maternal ability also forms part of Black Hills’ core selection process. Landman says that producing and weaning a healthy calf every year is more important than any other selection objective. High conception rates and calving percentages result in swift genetic progress.

“A cow’s output consists of weaner calves, and the primary input is nutrition. Cows that convert grass efficiently maintain improved production. A veld-adapted cow minimises losses because she requires fewer inputs such as medicine and feed supplements, among others,” he says.

Visual appraisal is an integral part of the pair’s selection programme. Functional efficiency can be evaluated only by looking at an animal, Van der Merwe stresses.

A well-adapted Drakensberger cow has a shiny, black coat, is visibly feminine, and has a well-formed udder and teats. She also produces balanced calves; calves that are too small at birth struggle to develop into top weaner calves, while excessively heavy calves may prevent their dams from recovering in time for the next breeding season.

A strong, heavy weaner is at the core of beef production.

“In our aim for optimal fertility and reproduction, milk production plays a valuable role in the selection process,” says Van der Merwe.

The average birthweight is 34kg, or 7,8% of the dam’s weight.

The intercalving period is 378 days. The average weaner weight is 220kg at 205 days. Heifers weigh 211kg on average at weaning and bull calves weigh about 232kg.

Between 140 and 150 female animals are mated each year, and the average conception rate is 85%. As the stud is still fairly young, a high heifer replacement rate is maintained in order to attain the maximum genetic gain. Some 15 to 20 bulls are marketed a year, and six to eight bulls are used for breeding.

A single breeding season is held on Rooipoortjie. This usually lasts from 1 December to 28 February, but the exact starting date depends on veld condition and rain. Multiple-sire breeding is used on the cow herd to ensure that the most dominant bull produces the most progeny. Single-sire breeding is used on the heifers.

Bulls
The ideal Black Hills bull is medium-framed and well-balanced, with good length, strong secondary fertility traits and balanced breeding values. He should be masculine, eager to work, and able to add beefiness to his progeny. He should be able to service 35 cows in a two- to three-month breeding season.

The ideal scrotal size for a three-year-old bull is about 38cm. Fertile animals are seldom bred from an infertile family tree, according to Van der Merwe. He and Landman consequently place high value on the fertility of an animal’s ancestors.

New technology
Landman and Van der Merwe readily embrace new technologies that make business sense and add value to the herd. These include genomic-enriched breeding values, DNA paternity testing and electronic livestock identification tags.

In genomic selection, dense marker maps are used to predict the breeding value of animals. Accuracies are up to 0,31 higher than those of pedigree indices.

“We evaluate all technological advances, but use only those that fit in with our breeding objectives and practices,” says Landman.

Email Willie Landman at [email protected], or Jean van der Merwe
at [email protected]. Visit blackhillsdrakensbergers.co.za.