Oftalma Bonsmara stud does it again

The 2008 Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Bonsmara Cow, DFP 98 0151D, was bred by Dr Francois Potgieter of the Oftalma Bonsmara stud.
Issue date : 17 October 2008

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The 2008 Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Bonsmara Cow, DFP 98 0151D, was bred by Dr Francois Potgieter of the Oftalma Bonsmara stud. He farms on the 3 300ha farm Corneliasrus, Bloemfontein, a gem of a land with a long-term average annual rainfall of between 450mm and 500mm, and mixed veld consisting mainly of red grass Themeda triandra. An ophthalmologist by profession – hence the name of the stud – he became a full-time Bonsmara breeder only four years ago, writes Wayne Southwood.

With his 18th annual production sale held in June 2008, Dr Francois Potgieter has been a Free State finalist in the Absa-ARC Beef Cattle Improvement Herd of the Year Awards for the past seven years. One of his bulls – DFP 06 0067 – won a Bayer-Platinum Bull Award in 2008, as did another of his bulls in 2002. Initially farming with commercial cows, Francois established his Bonsmara stud herd 26 years ago with breeding stock bought from a number of prominent breeders. A successful embryo transfer programme to provide the backbone of his genetics followed in the early 1980s, while AI has been selectively used throughout the years.

His cow herd consists of medium-framed animals and this has come about as a result of the Bonsmara system of breeding. Initially there were some large cows in the herd, but over the years the system culled most of them. Under extensive conditions, the medium-framed cows simply do better, calve every year and wean good calves, whereas the large-framed cows are more likely to skip a season and will be eliminated by the Bonsmara system.

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The average cow weighs between 520kg and 540kg, although some of the older cows weigh up to 620kg. The stud herd currently consists of 265 cows, down from 320 due to a devastating fire in February 2007 in which 1 000ha of veld was burnt out. Francois says he chose the Bonsmara because of its functional efficiency and ability to thrive on only veld grass, as he grows no crops, and also because of the compulsory recording and performance testing by the ARC, and the strict selection criteria of the Bonsmara Society.

When Farmer’s Weekly visited the farm in July 2008, the cow DFP98-151 was 10 years old, in great shape and had calved eight times, with the youngest calf still at her heel. Her dam DFP94-109 is also an Elite cow and, remarkably, still productive in the herd. Another of Francois’ exceptional cows reached the incredible ripe old age of 22 after many years as an embryo donor, and before that calved every year.

Francois uses single-sire mating, with normally between 30 and 35 cows per bull. Young bulls are first used at between 12 to 14 months, while heifers are mated at 18 months. He used to mate heifers at 12 months, but reluctantly stopped doing that as his enterprise has no crop factor to supplement veld grazing and re-conception became a problem when mating young under those conditions. Young bulls used for the first time are run with 14 females. The heifers are not necessarily mated with a young bull, but most importantly they are mated with what he calls a “heifer bull” that gives smaller calves and easy calving. Francois uses two mating seasons, a summer season from December to February, and a winter season in July and August. The winter calves are very healthy and after a year or more can’t be distinguished from the summer calves. Should a cow skip a season, she can be mated again six months later. If she doesn’t conceive then, she is culled.
Two seasons make far more economically efficient use of the bulls, while the farm lends itself to winter calving because it has two watercourses with thorn trees and bush to provide shelter from the cold. Without the shelter, winter-calving would be very risky.

Maintaining a breeding standard
Calves are scored on a scale from one to nine at the age of three months. Francois explains that the scores mostly remain the same during an animal’s lifetime and become a reliable source of decision-making information. With that information available, he can decide which bulls to retain and which to sell as stud bulls.
“The advantage of this is that if you use a bull at 12 to 14 months and then score the calves at three months, you already have an idea of how the bull is going to breed before he gets to the sale,” explains Francois.

All surplus females – between 70 and 80 heifers and cows – are sold as stud or commercial animals at Francois’s annual production sale in June, while only about 40 of the best heifers are retained as replacements in the breeding herd. Around 30 bulls are also sold at the sale, because according to Bonsmara practice, all animals not making the grade after Phase D testing on the farm, or Phase C testing at the Glen Bull Test Centre, are slaughtered.

Francois says he considers receiving the Farmer’s Weekly – ARC Best Elite Cow Award a great honour, but believes the greatest achievement in his farming career is that he has been able to produce top-quality cattle and sell them at reasonable prices for the past 18 years, and he has been able to build a client base who come back year after year. He says he is proud of what he calls his “easy-on-the-eye, medium-framed cow herd”.

Veld management
Veld conservation and good management have taken priority for many years. When he first arrived on the farm, the veld was run-down and overgrazed with patches where termites had removed all the grass. The stocking rate was initially low and at times some areas weren’t grazed to allow the veld to recover.
He used a ripper in areas of serious soil compaction. He uses a system of intensive grazing of selected camps followed by a full year’s rest. He points out that guinea fowl play an important role in veld conservation and refuses to let anyone shoot them. With careful management he has been able to restore the veld.
“Start out with the best genetics that you can get your hands on, and work closely with nature to establish as good a cow herd as possible,” is his advice to new farmers.
Contact Dr Francois Potgieter on 083 455 8975. |fw