American stars beef up SA genes

Excellent conception rates, high calving percentages, early weaning and outstanding feed conversion are some of the reasons why Beefmasters are Manuel da Costa and his son Tony’s chosen breed. Wayne Southwood reports on how Manuel and his partners in the Beefmaster Alliance produce bulls with top genetics at affordable prices.
Issue date 24 August 2007

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Manjoh Ranch near Nigel, owned by Manuel da Costa, started breeding commercial cattle in 1973. Manuel started the Beefmaster stud in 1984 when Dr Herman Venter introduced him to the Beefmaster breed, established by the legendary American breeder Tom Lasater. The Beefmaster breed is similar to Prof Jan Bonsma’s Bonsmara breed as they share both Hereford and Shorthorn traits, such as carcass quality. Venter taught him about the Lasater six-point philosophy of breeding cattle: fertility, weight, temperament, conformation, performance and milk production. Manuel set up his feedlot (see box: Manjoh feedlot) in 1989. Manjoh Ranch covers a total of 5 675ha. The 1 300 Beefmaster stud herd is run on 1 800ha, 1 000ha for background grazing and 2 800ha are planted to maize, sugar beans or potatoes.

The maize is processed and packed as super maize meal or special maize meal and the by-products are used in the feedlot. The sugar beans are packaged or sold in bulk. The ranch can store 7 000t of maize; normally it sells off first-grade maize and when necessary buys in third-grade maize for the feedlot. Why Beefmasters? “Manjoh Ranch was looking for cattle that could adapt to SA conditions and give a good return on investment, and Beefmasters have demonstrated this many times,” says Manuel’s son Tony. “We have won several carcass competitions and Beefmasters always come out on top for feed conversion and growth – and that’s where the money lies. With Beefmasters the commercial farmer selling to feedlots (that is, weaners below 220kg) can wean at five to six months. This is a huge advantage as the calves reach their target mass sooner, allowing the cow a longer rest. This improves the calving percentage by 5% to 10%. You get more calves and a premium price,” he explains. Feedlots penalise heavier calves because there is less growth left in the animal, and this is where the profit lies.

Tony points out that early weaning plays a significant role in conception rate. All beef calves in Argentina are weaned at four months and their conception rate is in the upper 90%, whereas in SA most calves are weaned at six to seven months and struggle to get a conception rate of 70%. Another advantage of the Beefmaster is that the cows are highly efficient. At Manjoh Ranch it is not uncommon for a cow to wean a calf of over 70% of her own weight. Cows that don’t conceive or have a weaning index below 90% (200 to 250 cows, or 15% to 20%) are culled and end up in the feedlot. As long as a cow produces good calves she stays – some of the cows are 16 years old. Approximately 350 weaner bulls and 50 weaner heifers are culled at weaning, and about 150 heifers are culled on yearling weights. Some 350 heifers stay in the stud herd. B eefmaster Alliance: the beginning Paul Yiannakis of Compa Stud, with farms in Delmas and Moloto, became interested in Beefmasters in 1978 during a visit to the US. He was impressed with the Lasater six-point breeding plan and the profitability of the cattle. Paul is one of the founder members of the Beefmaster Cattle Breeder Society of SA, and in 1982 he arranged for semen of top bulls to be imported and distributed to some of SA’s Beefmaster breeders.

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In 1988 he again went to the US, this time with Dr Herman Venter, where they bought two bulls from the Lasater herd and 50 frozen embryos. In 1990 Gideon Brits joined Compa and took over the management of its 450-cow herd. Creative Beefmasters at Coldstream near Queenstown is owned by Trevor Stretton who started breeding commercial cattle in 1967. In 1982 he visited Texas and met Laurie Lasater and Charles Probandt of the ISA Cattle Company who convinced him to move to Beefmasters. He upgraded his commercial herd with Beefmaster semen and was very impressed with the results. Trevor’s sons Jeffrey and Justin now run the 300-strong herd under his watchful eye. Five years ago, Trevor, Paul and Manuel combined their herds and formed Beefmaster Alliance.

The alliance follows the six-point Lasater philosophy in selecting their cattle. With the three herds combined they have in the region of 2 000 breeding cows, which gives them a huge gene pool. They now also have greater buying power, especially when negotiating prices for the best genetics. They use a large amount of imported American semen to continually inject the best genetics possible.The main objective of the alliance is to give the commercial cattleman a bull with good genetics at an affordable price. They would rather sell a lot of good bulls at reasonable prices than fewer bulls at higher prices. “We are trying to put stud bulls into the market at commercial prices,” says Tony. At last year’s Beefmaster Alliance sale – the biggest single-breed sale in South Africa – every one of the 176 bulls on offer was sold. (See this year’s sale report on pages 66 and 67). Sale American-style Together the members of the alliance can launch a bigger and better marketing campaign.

The 16-page, full-colour pre-sale pamphlet consists of news about the breeders and the cattle, and there is also a DVD of all the bulls on auction so that buyers can preview the bulls in the comfort of their living rooms. They follow the American sale formula where the day before the sale there are guest speakers, and the bulls are viewed and discussed. Tony explains that this is done because there is not enough time to view all the bulls on the day of the sale. The alliance has a very strict selection programme and only 150 to 200 bulls out of 850 will make it to the sale. The partners run a performance-testing programme in conjunction with the ARC. All bull calves are weaned in May and their weaning weights are sent to the ARC to be processed. Any calf below the 90% index or with faulty conformation is sent to the feedlot.

The selected calves then spend the winter on the veld with an energy lick, a crucial test of their hardiness. Yearling weights are taken in August and the poor performers are culled. In spring and summer, the bulls have to develop on their own with only a salt and mineral lick. The following May all the bulls are put on a low-energy ration for 55 days, after which they are indexed and scrotal circumference and rib eye dimensions are measured. The bulls are evaluated on performance and conformation, and those approved are eligible for the annual sale.

The bulls are catalogued in descending order, the better bulls being offered first. At this stage the bulls approved as herd sires for the next season are selected. To get the fastest genetic improvement, Beefmaster Alliance only uses two-year-old bulls on the herds. These bulls are afterwards offered for sale as three-year-olds at the following year’s sale. Contact Tony da Costa on 083 254 1847, Gideon Brits on 082 457 2816 or Trevor Stretton on 083 578 1628. |fw