SA’s best commercial beef cow

The best commercial cow at the Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Cow Awards was bred by veterinary scientist Dr RD Bigalke.

The 2011 Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Cow in the commercial category is 1372 00 0040, a Bonsmara-type cow in Dr RD Bigalke’s commercial beef herd on Wangenella farm near Steynsrus, Free State.

Dr Bigalke, a retired veterinary scientist and researcher, was director of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute from 1980 to 1988 and deputy director-general of agriculture until his retirement in 1996.

1372 00 0040 was sired by the registered Bonsmara bull DV 94 424, bred by Die Viljee Trust out of grandsire JJF L 86, a registered Bonsmara bull bred by JJ Fourie. She was born on 9 November 2000 and was 10 years old on the evaluation date.

Starting at 36 months old she has produced six bull calves and two heifers at an average intercalving period of 363 days, a reproduction index of 110 and an average efficiency index of 106. One heifer has been retained in the herd.

Dr Bigalke established his herd in 1976 on the farm Vlakfontein near Steenbokpan in the then Transvaal. From a nucleus of 30 females and one bull from various herds, he has built it up to 55 to 60 breeding cows with around 10 replacement heifers.

The herd
The herd is run under natural and semi-extensive conditions on 862ha veld grazing, supplemented with a phosphate/salt lick in summer and a lick containing urea in winter. Dr Bigalke selects for easy calving, fertility, 12-months and 18-months growth and conformation.

The herd annually produces 45 to 50 weaners, of which the steers and culled heifers are marketed directly off the veld at 24 to 30 months, along with eight to 10 culled cows. The herd has participated in the Commercial Beef Cattle category of the National Beef Performance Recording and Improvement Scheme and its predecessors since 1976.

All animals born are performance-recorded: birth date, weaning date and weight, and dam’s weight at weaning. Dr Bigalke uses bulls from various sources, and occasionally bred in the herd. He selects bulls mainly on estimated breeding values (EBVs) and performance data to sire calves with low birth weights and high weaning weights (230kg for bull calves and 210kg for heifers).

If a bull performs satisfactorily he will be used for up to eight seasons before being sold. On average, two bulls run with the herd at any given time. Cows are culled based on fertility, performance and age, heifers on performance data and conformation.

Heifers and cows together are run in single-sire breeding herds at a ratio of one bull per 20 to 30 females. The 10-week summer breeding season lasts from 15 December to 28 February, and the eight-week winter breeding season from 1 August to 30 September.

Most heifers are first put to the bull at around 26 months to calve at around 36 months, though some are put to the bull at around 18 months. The average conception rate in relation to the number of females mated is around 95% for heifers and 88% for cows respectively, the average calving rate is 95% and 88%, and the average weaning rate is 92% and 85%.

Lessons learnt
Dr Bigalke lives in Pretoria, and farming from nearly 300km away requires a solid proxy on the farm. Flip Tshabalala, who lives on Wangenella, has been with Dr Bigalke for 19 years and is entrusted with all the day-to-day and week-to-week management.

Dr Bigalke says buying his own farm has had the biggest positive impact on his herd. “I can make my own management decisions, such as participation in the scheme.” Marketing is his biggest challenge. “The grading system in this country, and the prices obtained, discriminate against yellow fat, which is characteristic of beef rounded off on natural veld, in contrast to the white fat of feedlotted animals. It’s a ludicrous situation.”

To young cattleman just starting out, he advises, “Farm naturally and extensively with as few mechanical inputs as possible. You won’t make a massive income farming cattle, but won’t build up massive debt either.”

Call Dr RD Bigalke on 012 460 8224 or email [email protected]