The importance of maintaining reproductive health in a herd

Fourth-generation farmer Gerhard Grobler says he has been able to achieve better results from his beef cattle herd after introducing crossbreeding. But, he adds, South Africa’s beef producers need to start managing animal health more proactively.

The importance of maintaining reproductive health in a herd
The farm has 20 grazing camps that vary in size, but are about 56ha on average. Each has at least one dedicated watering point.
Photo: Supplied
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Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Gerhard Grobler, of Smitsfield farm in Lothair, Mpumalanga, started farming intensively about 10 years ago.

His great-grandfather started out as a sheep herder and systematically bought pieces of land in the area. When Grobler began farming, he was breeding Bonsmara cattle, but about three years ago, he started introducing Beefmaster genetics into his herd after realising his farming operation was better suited to a crossbred herd.

His beef herd now consists of 60% Bonsmara cattle and 40% Beefmaster-Bonsmara crossbred animals.

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Gerhard Grobler with his children, three-year-old Zialè (left) and one-year-old Quinike.

Grobler farms on 1 800ha, but only 600ha is cultivated land. He also has 80ha planted to weeping lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula). The rest of the farm is used for natural grazing.
The area has sandy loam soil, receives an average of 650mm of rain per year and is predominantly sourveld, with some red grass (Themeda triandra).

Carrying capacity
On the Highveld, Grobler says, a sustainable grazing capacity is 5ha/LSU.

“Carrying capacity increases if you take into account planted pasture and cropping areas where animals can feed on crop residue after harvesting. If a farmer has enough supplementary feed available, carrying capacity on a farm can increase to about 3,8ha/LSU.”

Grobler plants 600ha to maize and soya bean on a 50/50 rotational basis, which means his livestock has plenty of crop residue to graze on.

He maintains around 20 grazing camps of various sizes. These vary in size, but average 56ha, and each has at least one dedicated watering point.

“I let animals graze a camp until 70% of that camp has been utilised. The herd is then moved to another camp. This ensures the veld has enough time to recover,” he says.

The farm is currently understocked, which provides Grobler with the possibility of expanding. After having had problems with stock theft in the past, Grobler sold his entire flock of Merino sheep.

He now concentrates mostly on the beef component of his operaiton. His herd currently consists of 250 cows, 12 bulls, 100 heifers and 60 weaners.

“I prefer to maintain a bull to cow ratio of around 1:25 to ensure a productive mating period and prevent the exhaustion of bulls,” he explains.

He follows a simple breeding philosophy. “The first impression of a good-quality animal is gained from its physical appearance.”

Grober’s selection process involves giving each animal a score out of 100 based on its physical appearance. “Any animal that scores more than 80 is acceptable for me,” he notes.

He studies the shape of the head and neck; bulls must appear masculine, and female animals feminine. He also looks at muscling, the topline and shoulders; legs and walking ability; depth and length; and the size and shape of the testes, or vulva and udder.

Despite the importance of visual appraisal, he says it is only possible to stick to these criteria when the herd is at its maximum size, and the breeder is only interested in replacing older animals and not growing the herd.

Grobler sources his Beefmaster genetics from Beefmaster stud breeders. He buys in good-quality stud bulls from a variety of breeders to ensure he has a wide breeding pool, thus preventing inbreeding.

“As a result of crossbreeding with Beefmaster, I managed to achieve a 40kg increase in weaning weight and have increased my conception rate dramatically,” he says.

In addition, he wants to expand his farming enterprise exponentially to contribute to the future of beef supply in South Africa. “I would like to increase my herd to 500 cows, with a replacement group of 100 heifers,” he says.

Breeding management
Bulls are tested under veld conditions, and all undergo testing for trichomoniasis and other STDs twice a year.

“The cows also go through a screening by the vet to check for any abnormalities in their sexual organs,” adds Grobler.

Neglected bulls that do not perform to the best of their potential represent a loss on return of investment. They become ‘passengers’ in the herd, he says, costing more to maintain than they earn.

“By the time you realise a particular bull resulted in a bad conception rate in a group of female animals, you’re already one year behind. This is why regular performance testing and testing for reproductive health in all animals on a regular basis is so important.”

Cows are expected to calve once a year. The breeding season runs from September to December. Grobler only recently started making use of artificial insemination (AI).

“I found that AI has more benefits and it lessens the danger of cattle getting infected with STDs,” he says.

AI also allows him to use an exceptional bull on all his heifers, and provides more control over the herd’s genetic progress.

“With AI, there’s no restriction to the number of female animals that can be serviced per bull.”

Cows and heifers graze on crop residue during their first trimester, because Grobler believes this ultimately helps to increase milk production and keeps them in good condition.

“I provide the animals with a good-quality lick available ad lib throughout the year. There are small seasonal changes, but the basic ingredients stay the same.”

Grobler revises his supplementary feed programme on an annual basis.

Marketing and challenges
Some of the challenges he faces are predators such as the black-backed jackal. These pose a threat during the first three months of calving, when cows and calves are most vulnerable.

“During calving season, these predators must be controlled regularly,” says Grobler.

Another challenge, as mentioned, is stock theft. It is labour-intensive, as head counts must be done more often, and boundary fences must be inspected for damage.

He follows a strict disease and vaccination management programme prescribed by the local veterinarian. “From time to time, cattle can be infected [with contagious diseases]and should then be quarantined and symptomatically treated,” he says.

He adds that farmers should not assume that the cattle they buy in are necessarily disease-free.

“I did that once,” he says. “When the cattle arrived on the farm, the vet checked and found that they tested positive for certain diseases. All the cattle had to be slaughtered.”

He makes sure that the cattle he intends buying are tested on their farm of origin before being transported to his farm.

Working together
In terms of national disease control, Grobler says that all farmers in South Africa need to admit that diseases such as brucellosis and trichomoniasis are a threat to the national herd. He adds that they are also a current problem that needs to be solved to ensure the sustainability of the livestock industry.

By accepting the problem, it will become easier for all breeders to start managing this challenge.

“Each breeder should take responsibility for the problem and inform their neighbouring farmers if they detect disease in their herd. This will help contain the spread. Farmers need to work closely with their local vet and adhere to the rules and regulations regarding these threats.”