Breeding Brahmans: Build only on the best

Neil Haines of Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal is one of the top Brahman breeders in South Africa. Wayne Southwood visited him to find out how he managed such success in a relatively short period of time.
Issue date : 18 July 2008

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Neil Haines of Van Farms in Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal established his Brahman stud in 1999 with one bull and 14 heifers. He says he always loved Brahmans and started out with commercial cattle, but then decided to breed his own bulls, rather than having to buy five or more every year.

Today, he has a stud herd of 300 Grey Brahmans. He explains that his successful stud breeding philosophy revolves around four major points: foundation, marketing, genetics and labour. A firm foundation N eil started out with a small initial herd from the Stey Braes herd in Balgowan. Most of the other cattle were bought from Bob Tecklenburg of Warrenton. These animals have formed the foundation herd. Neil believes it’s extremely important to buy right the first time and to create the best foundation possible. During the first two years of running his stud, he spent two hours a day on the internet studying Brahman genetics to gain the knowledge to make the right purchasing and breeding decisions.

Neil would search for specific herds to establish which bulls and combinations the top breeders were using. He has focused on the 288 bloodlines as he finds they work well with his foundation cows. The 288s are also well-known and their progeny sells well. The first bull that Neil bought was a 288 son and he managed to find heifers from this line from Jan van Zyl in Vryburg. Clever marketing eil’s bull market is mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, but his heifers have been sold all over the country as far afield as Zeerust. He feels it’s vital to be visible, which is why attending shows is so important. “If we hadn’t won at the Royal Show, we wouldn’t have had half the buyers at last year’s sale,” he says.

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“Apart from the exposure, the shows are the only real way to compare your animals with those of other breeders.” Part of Neil’s strategy is to ensure that when Van Farms goes to a show, it gets maximum visibility. To this end, Neil has an impressive 30t horse and trailer with a huge advertising board on the back with the forthcoming sale date. He also uses a flagpole to indicate where his cattle are on the showgrounds. Van Farms participates in seven shows a year as far away as Vryburg and when it hits the show circuit, it can be on the road for two weeks at a time with a string of 20 cattle.

Another clever marketing tool is the Van Farms signboard which greets you when travelling into Ladysmith. It reads: “Hey boet, you need a Brahman!” (shown left). And just past the signboard, about 80 Brahman bulls that will be on the current year’s sale can be seen grazing in the veld. This signboard has been a huge success in terms of promoting Neil’s Brahmans and the breed in general. He says it’s generated many calls from prospective clients.

Neil’s marketing strategy revolves predominantly around the highlight of the year, which is the sale on 7 August at which Van Farms will have 30 bulls and 30 stud heifers on sale. An extra offered is free delivery when you buy at a Van Farms sale. Neil says he’s building a special shed, which includes viewing pens around the raised sale ring and an overhead walkway for viewing the cattle.

Pre-sale promotions are important for Van Farms and it holds two farmers’ days early in the year. It also advertises in a number of publications including Farmer’s Weekly, Landbouweekblad and the Brahman Journal while fliers are posted three weeks before the sale. Newsletters are also sent to all previous buyers, who also receive a free copy of the Brahman Journal during the year. Neil is also actively involved in educating buyers about Estimated Breeding Values (EBV/BLUP) and earlier this year offered a course on the farm. He believes that when buyers understand the value of EBV, they’ll be in a better position to buy the right bulls to suit their herds and genetic advancement will be faster.

He has an interesting theory to set the costs of all these marketing exercises – he allows the value of one sale bull for the vet’s costs for fertility tests (R20 000) and two sale bulls for marketing and advertising (R40 000). Getting to grips with genetics “It’s all about genetics,” says Neil, “and I believe our local genetics are superior to that of the US.” He confesses he doesn’t like the long-legged US type. He prefers to breed medium-framed cows with the “milk factor,” that calve every year. He says that the large-framed animals often tend to skip a cycle as they are inclined to take care of themselves and their calves, while medium-framed cows are more fertile. He also explains that every breeder’s aim is to produce a calf every year. Neil always uses double-bred genetics (common parentage) as it makes the genetic pool smaller and the predictability greater.

The phenotype will look the same while variation is much lower. He points out that with an out-cross, you don’t know what you’re getting. Van Farms has now reached the stage where all the calves of the foundation cows look the same. Neil is sometimes referred to as “Mr AI” because he has the biggest and widest collection of semen in the country and his semen room is a mass of nitrogen flasks. He is thus able to select the perfect combination of genetics for each cow and he explains that he prefers to mate his cows all year round. Securing the best labour It’s difficult to find good stockmen these days so when you find them, you need to hang on to them, says Neil.

He therefore pays his staff more than is required in the area, which upsets his neighbours, but in this way, he manages to retain the best men possible, who also remain loyal. The induna even gets a special package that includes a 14th cheque, however the condition of it is that nothing may die on the farm. Besides running Van Farms, Neil is also kept busy as the financial director of an engineering business in Ladysmith and is presently the chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Brahman Club and vice-chairperson of the Brahman Society of SA. Contact Neil Haines on 082 800 3023. |fw