Medics links wheat & beef

Swartland wheat farmer Philip de Waal caused a stir scooping the 2007 National Cattle Farmer of the Year award in stiff competition with traditional beef producers. But, as three-year-in-a-row recipient of the ARC Western Cape Beef Herd of the Year award,

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Swartland wheat farmer Philip de Waal caused a stir scooping the 2007 National Cattle Farmer of the Year award in stiff competition with traditional beef producers. But, as three-year-in-a-row recipient of the ARC Western Cape Beef Herd of the Year award, his Locheim Hereford Stud is no stranger to success. Glenneis Erasmus got the low-down on his use of medics to support his herds and maintain wheat quality.

Philip de Waal, who farms near Moorreesburg in the Swartland – a predominantly wheat-producing area – has proven himself as a livestock producer of note. He and his father Willem have diversified their production to such an extent that their enterprise today has exceptional Mutton Merino, Simmentaler and Hereford studs, as well as commercial animals. The commercial animals consist of over 550 beef cows, heifers and calves, as well as 3 000 sheep. The studs consist of 297 Hereford, 170 Simmentaler and 500 Mutton Merinos. Breeding stock is sold in South Africa and abroad, the stud bulls and rams being in such demand that Philip is often almost short of breeding stock for his own operations. While good nutrition is partly the secret for his success, Philip does not go out of his way to provide special feed. “Most of what we do is aimed at improving our wheat production sustainability, as wheat is still our main farming income,” he explains. “We introduced the animal factor to stabilise our income and optimise crop rotation.”

Legumes for all seasons

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Philip uses medics, a legume crop, as crucial link between livestock and wheat. As a rotation crop, it interrupts the wheat monoculture and reduces wheat disease. It also allows him to diversify herbicide use, lowering target infestation tolerance levels. Medics does not require nitrogen application. Legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria, also significantly reducing the amount of nitrogen fertiliser needed by the subsequent crop. “Our nitrogen bill for wheat after medics is around R500/ha lower than if it had been planted after a non-legume crop,” he explains. Philip plants around 15kg/ha of mixed medics seed when establishing new lands. The cultivars include Parabinga, Sephi, Mogul and Santiago. A cultivar mixture spreads flowering time and adapts the pasture to environmental variations. Currently an area of 2 300ha, of which 1 200ha is grazed annually, is under medics. If managed properly, this perennial crop only needs to be established once as it is self-seeding. However, it can be damaged by overgrazing, inappropriate chemical use, disease and insufficient fertiliser, but recovers quickly when overseeded with as little as 5kg/ha of seed. The crop is an excellent forage and grows aggressively. “Once established, it’s hard to overgraze medics. We have found that 50ha can support 50 cattle for at least five months,” explains Philip.

The commercial herd breeds around August and September, and calves from April onwards when medics can carry the animals through to October. The benefits are clear in the good growth of the cattle. In 2007 Philip achieved an average weaning weight of 270kg in a herd with an average EBV for direct birth weight of between 1,5 and 2,0. He says larger cattle can have calving complications. Cows also rapidly regain condition after calving, from around 400kg to an average of 680kg, on medics. One problem with medics is the potential for frothy bloat. Philip puts the cattle on oats lands if signs of bloating are seen. Stud cattle, due to their high economic value, are put on oats more frequently than the commercial animals that are left on medics throughout most of the winter. Straw is used as supplementary roughage for the cattle on medics to prevent bloating. Oats is also an important component in Philip’s crop rotation system. It significantly reduces root disease in the following wheat crop, and simplifies weed control as the weeds are cut and baled with the oats before having had the opportunity to seed. Contact Philip de Waal on (022) 433 2556 or e-mail [email protected].

Crossbreeding limitations and herd management

Philip and Willem have employed crossbreeding as a strategy in their commercial herd for many years. Time has taught them that the advantages of crossbreeding are only evident in first-generation animals. Philip explains that heterosis decreases and variation increases in subsequent mixed breed generations, resulting in negative characteristics becoming more evident. Furthermore, most cattlemen prefer to buy purebred rather than crossbred breeding stock. For this reason, their breeding approach is moving away from crossbreeding to more pure selections. All crossbred bull calves are sold for slaughter. Stud bulls used on crossbred heifers stabilise the effect of crossbreeding in the commercial herd. Philip estimates that most commercial animals, consisting of Hereford x Simmentaler and Hereford x Simmentaler x Brahman, are now around 80% true to the dominant breed. Breeding in the commercial herd is around August and September and the calving season from April onwards.

“Our stud animals have a shorter intercalving period because we manage them more intensively,” Philip explains. “Simmentaler cows produce up to 12 calves in a lifetime. Hereford heifers are put to the bull at 15 months, and the Hereford stud has an intercalving period of 372 days, the cows producing around eight calves in a lifetime. The Simmentaler is a leaner breed that tends to lose or put on weight readily.” All heifers, commercial and stud, are inseminated in May to calve in February, giving them time to recover before breeding again. Semen from two Simmentaler and four Hereford bulls, imported from Canada and the US respectively, is used along with that of selected self-bred Simmentaler and Hereford bulls. A vet examines all pregnant stud cows every second month, and commercial cows twice a year. The cows are inseminated in groups and those that don’t conceive are placed with groups yet to be inseminated, a strategy that effectively manages the process.