Uncompromising standards pay off for Bonsmara farmer

Award-winning cattle farmer Tian Kruger does not believe in shortcuts or compromising on the principles that brought him success. This has earned him a solid reputation for his commercial Bonsmara cattle and above-average prices at auctions. He spoke to Lindi Botha about his approach.

Uncompromising standards pay off for Bonsmara farmer
Tian Kruger’s cattle graze on natural sweetveld and planted pasture. Photo: Melissa Viljoen

Tian Kruger, who won the Voermol 2019 National Cattle Farmer of the Year award, attributes his success to the strict selection process that he follows throughout the female animals’ lives, from birth until the cows are no longer productive.

Striving for excellence comes naturally; when the cattle component was added to Tian Kruger Boerdery in Marble Hall, Limpopo, it joined an already flourishing citrus, table grape, cotton and tobacco operation.

The herd of around 1 700 head of Bonsmara cattle, of which some 1 200 are female, makes up 6% of total business income. The cattle are spread across farms in the Marble Hall and Roedtan areas of Limpopo.

Tian Kruger was the Voermol 2019 National Cattle Farmer of the Year.

When Kruger added the cattle enterprise in 2001, he bought a farm that already had a Simbra herd. But with a personal preference for Bonsmara, he sold the Simbras and started investing in his favourite breed.

“I attended Hoërskool Wagpos in Brits,” he recalls. “Prof Jan Bonsma, who developed the Bonsmara breed, kept a herd at the school. Many of my mentors also farm Bonsmaras, so I’ve always had a liking for the breed.

“It’s a hardy animal that’s very adaptable and fertile, and all the figures and records have been kept since the inception of the breed. This is important to me, because even though I have a commercial herd, my strict selection process follows that of a stud. The figures therefore play an integral role in breeding a good animal.”

Selection
Kruger begins his selection process when the heifer calves are weaned; he bases it on build, taking the dams’ weaning, milk production and inter-calving period (ICP) figures into consideration.

The second selection takes place about a month before the heifers are due to be mated. It is carried out by a senior breed inspector to ensure that the best build is selected and that the animal fulfils the Bonsmara breed standards.

Approximately 65% of the heifers pass the selection and these will eventually become replacement heifers in Kruger’s herd, or breeding heifers to be sold. The 35% that are not selected are sold at the Nu-Alcade Bonsmara study group’s cattle auction in Bela-Bela.

Heifers that have failed to conceive are also sold at the auction.

The selected heifers are sent to a camp where they are mated with a stud bull. Those that fail to conceive are given one more chance to do so. If they succeed, they then form part of the herd; if they fail, they are sold.

In-calf cows are put through another selection round with the senior breed inspector. Kruger explains that a young animal’s build changes as it grows, necessitating the second selection round.

“Those that remain on the farm are thus the best of the best, with the potential to breed superior progeny.”

In addition to strict selection, he uses the most-up-to-date technology available to assist
with herd management. Each cow has an electronic ear tag containing all her details, enabling precise records to be kept of each animal.

Each animal’s reproductive success is assessed annually; those that fail the assessment are sold to a feedlot. All bull calves are also sold to a feedlot.

Breeding policy
A core principle in Kruger’s herd is that he does not breed his own bulls, but buys in stud bulls. Approximately 20% of bulls are replaced each year.

He explains that cows are bred for high meat and milk production.

“My first priority is fertility, then weaning weight, because we farm for meat production. The calf must be 50% of its mother’s weight at weaning.

“Also important are a wide mouth to enable good grass intake and good hooves for mobility.

“We aim for a uniform appearance in our herd, so we look for animals that look alike. This is a personal preference; I don’t want a herd that looks varied. People must be able to spot a Tian Kruger Bonsmara!”

Record-keeping is of utmost importance in the operation.

The figures of each breeding cow and stud bull, which include number of progeny, birthweight, weaning weight and ICP (in the case of the cow), are kept to be used in further selection processes.

Calving seasons
Kruger adheres to two calving seasons: 1 December to the end of February, and 1 June to the end of July. The latter season is shorter to ensure that fewer cows calve before the winter season.

“The ideal is to have 80% of the calves born at the beginning of summer and the remaining 20% in winter, when the grazing potential of the veld is less,” he explains.

Both artificial insemination and natural mating methods are used.

“Generally, the heifers are mated when they reach a weight of between 320kg and 330kg,
but because we find that most heifers reach this weight at 12 months of age, we’ve shifted our season so that animals are mated between 13 and 14 months. This is normal for the Bonsmara breed, but early compared with other breeds.

“All the heifers are weighed before the mating season, as those that are too small will struggle to calve and won’t have sufficient milk. The heifers are placed with the bulls two weeks earlier than the cows to give them a bit of extra time to be mated.”

He emphasises the importance of the ICP.

“We average 379 days for the herd. This is achieved through selection and takes years to achieve. Our best cow has an ICP of 350 days and she weighed 458kg after weaning her second calf. She has produced three calves and is in calf at the moment. Her first two calves were bulls that weighed 267kg and 345kg respectively at weaning. Her third calf was a heifer of 272kg.”

The herd averages a conception rate of 90%, a calving rate of 88%, and a weaning rate of 87%.

Ample grazing
Kruger’s herd has access to 2 900ha of natural sweetveld pasture that comprises white buffalo grass, bottlebrush grass and red grass. An additional 1 500ha has been planted to dryland blue buffalo grass pasture, as well as Eragrostis under irrigation.

The latter is baled and fed to the herd. The average annual rainfall of between 400mm and 450mm is sufficient to keep the veld in good condition.

The farm also has a cash crop component of cotton and peas, and these plants are baled after harvesting. The cotton is a good source of oil and the peas provide protein.

“We’re fortunate, because even when the veld is dry we have a bank of nutritious, baled feed for the cattle. Our stocking rate of about 4 500ha for 1 700 cattle [2,64ha/1 MLU] is therefore higher than it would normally be. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve that if it weren’t for the additional feed they get from the irrigated pastures and baled feed,” says Kruger.

The cattle are divided into groups according to age. The dominant older cows, for example,
are separated into a group of their own.

“If the veld starts to get dry and the dominant cows and heifers are not split from the timid
cattle, the fat, dominant animals get fatter and the thin, timid animals get thinner. The animals are rotated between the camps according to the level of feed available,” says Kruger.

In winter, the cattle feed mostly on the bales and licks.

“In a good year, we don’t have to give them too much additional feed. But during the last two years, with the drought, we had to provide about 7 000 big round bales to the herd.”

The greatest disease challenges are heartwater and catarrhal fever (snotsiekte).

“The farm loses between 15 and 18 animals each year due to snotsiekte, but there’s nothing we can do about it, as there’s a lot of game in the area, so the disease is easily spread,” Kruger says.

He follows a disease programme drawn up specifically for the area. This includes dosing for ticks at least every two weeks in the summer months.

A winning recipe
Breeding animals are sold at the four auctions held on the farm each year. Approximately 25% of the female animals are sold and nearly 100% of the weaner bulls. Kruger says that a large part of his success can be attributed to the fact that he always buys in stud bulls.

“We’re prepared to pay for a good bull. As commercial cattle farmers, we’re essentially meat producers, so we need to produce animals that have a heavy carcass with a high dressing percentage.”

He emphasises the importance of a good reputation.

“It’s important to build up a reputation in the industry if you want to achieve high prices. If we have a cow that was mated with a bull from a well-known Bonsmara stud farmer, then it bodes well for the reputation and quality of our cattle. This has really assisted us in the marketing of our cows.

“At the last auction, the price difference between my cows and the rest was R3 000/head. That’s due to branding and quality. Our reputation is based on persevering in our belief to never breed with our own bulls, but always buy in stud bulls. I believe you lose out in the long run when you start breeding with your own bulls.”

A recent innovation has been to finish off animals in a feedlot on the farm, which has resulted in higher prices.

“We let the weaners graze on the planted, irrigated pasture for between 70 and 80 days. We give them a good lick and then feed them intensively on a high nutrition diet during the last 50 days. In a traditional feedlot, they’d be kept for 120 days on the intensive feeding programme, so with my system I have fewer costs, but still make a very good profit from the finished weaners.”