Reviving the Afrikaner breed

Infusing Bonsmara genetics into the Afrikaner through a goal-directed breeding initiative boosts its fertility and meat quality, making this traditional breed competitive once more. Dr Richter Jordaan spoke to Susan Botes about this controversial concept.
Issue date 31 August 2007

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A breed is only as strong its weakest genetic link. Afrikaner breeder Dr Richter Jordaan believes that to survive in a highly competitive beef industry there is a need to evaluate and improve the breed, particularly in the areas of fertility and meat quality. I nterestingly, the idea of an alternative breeding initiative (ABI) originated with the legendary animal scientist Dr Jan Bonsma, father of the Bonsmara breed. More than a decade ago Jordaan, a retired physician, discussed the problems the Afrikaner breed was experiencing with Bonsma, who suggested “infusing” Bonsmara genes back into the Afrikaner as a solution. He recommended that Jordaan get in touch with the eminent animal scientist Danie Bosman, who would be the best person to help him. “This just shows Bonsma’s greatness,” says Jordaan. “He did not want to keep the Bonsmara to himself, but wanted everybody to share in the breed and its good qualities.” The “infusion” technique S imply stated, the ABI transfers or “infuses” specific Bonsmara genetics into the Afrikaner. Jordaan was the first to take this initiative and has been involved in the programme for the past 10 years.

The ABI not only improves the breed, but also enlarges the gene pool. It is interesting to note that, using a similar approach, American breeders transfer or infuse Black Angus genetics into almost any breed, because the Angus genes are said to improve the quality of the beef. Angus certified beef is renowned throughout the world. Loss of genetic variety Competition from other breeds has contributed to a drop in Afrikaner numbers. With decreasing numbers, variation within the breed has narrowed to a large extent, leading to inbreeding and a slower improvement of economically based production traits, says Bosman. Jordaan points out that a certain degree of genetic diversity is needed for genetic improvement. Jordaan’s decision to introduce the ABI had both a scientific and a business basis. He believed the programme was essential for the breed to regain its rightful place in the beef cattle industry. Bosman has been involved from the beginning and has given Jordaan valuable advice and guidance. The advantages of the Afrikaner breed Afrikaners are well adapted to global warming.

They flourish in warm summer temperatures that exceed 30ºC, Jordaan says, and their short glossy coat ensures that they handle the heat well. loose skin of the Afrikaner also assists in thermal regulation. evenly distributed covering of fat on the carcass is another important feature of the Afrikaner breed. animals walk with ease, have a strong herding instinct and calve easily. According to the ARC Performance Testing Scheme’s information (1991 to 1995), the loss of calves from birth to weaning is about 2,2% for the Afrikaner but about 6,7% for the late-maturing European breeds. Monitoring by the ACBS The ABI programme has been approved by the Afrikaner Cattle Breeders’ Society (ACBS) and the society is involved in the outline of the programme and the inspection of animals. At this stage the programme is experimental and not intended to be long-term, but its future will ultimately be decided by the society. Breeders who wish to participate must apply to the society.There are many Afrikaner breeders who are happy with the breed as it is, and are not interested in ABI. However, it is gaining popularity in some circles as the advantages become evident. The society’s president, David van der Linde, was the second breeder to implement the ABI, which is currently followed by seven ACBS members. They include Estienne Cronjé, the 2007 Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Cow winner, who switched about three years ago, and his father and cousins. Although the results take time to unfold, Jordaan is optimistic and pleased with the progress to date. Restoring lost genetics in Afrikaners As Bonsmaras are five-eighths Afrikaner, the two breeds are a great match. Only Bonsmara bulls that lean towards the Afrikaner breed are used in Jordaan’s herd, and Bosman personally identifies these bulls.

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The bulls must retain the excellent adaptability, ease of calving and meat quality traits of the Afrikaner. BLUP is applied as a selection aid, together with visual traits that correlate with function. Jordaan is very particular about good, preferably black hooves (for protection against sunburn), a sound scrotum size and shape, a relatively short (but not tight) sheath, a masculine head and good body depth. The Bonsmara genetics are introduced through AI on purebred Afrikaner cows. The first generation (F1) is half Afrikaner and half Bonsmara. The F1 females are mated back to Afrikaner bulls to produce the F2, which is three-quarters Afrikaner and one-quarter Bonsmara. The F2 females are again mated to Afrikaner bulls to produce nearly pure Afrikaners (seven-eighths Afrikaner, one-eighth Bonsmara).

The ACBS inspects all animals to see if they comply with certain criteria and effectively represent the Afrikaner breed. If not, they are rejected and culled. Pleasing results In his herd, animals bred from the ABI have proved to be more fertile than previous generations, Jordaan says. At 18 months his heifers are ready for mating. If the heifers are not pregnant after the first mating they are culled. The cows also have a shorter inter-calving period. “I am very strict about fertility,” Jordaan explains. The weaning weight of these newly bred Afrikaners is about 15% higher than in the original stock. Bosman says a certain amount of hybrid vigour will be present, but is soon lost past the F2 stage. The cattle “infused” with Bonsmara genetics also have better carcass characteristics and can produce more meat because of their heavier bone structure. Jordaan regularly conducts Gene Star tests on his bulls for marbling and tenderness. “We prefer to use Afrikaner bulls that have been tested for beef tenderness,” he says. The meat quality of the last group of new Afrikaners impressed the abattoir so much that they phoned Jordaan to enquire about the breed that it represented.

Top breeders Jordaan can be considered an exceptional breeder. Embryos from one of his “new” Afrikaner bulls have already been exported to Brazil. Two of his top bulls were nominated for the ARC National Beef Cattle Improvement Scheme and two of his cows received Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Cow Awards. In 2006 the ACBS presented him with a scroll in recognition of his contribution to the improvement of the Afrikaner breed. Estienne Cronjé, owner of this year’s Farmer’s Weekly-ARC Best Elite Cow, has followed the ABI programme for the past three years and his F1 calves weaned in May. He is busy with phase D testing and has already seen an improvement of between 5% and 10%. “My first figures are looking much better, but I can’t say what the long-term impact will be,” Cronjé comments. He believes the animals have a better build and carcass quality and that the market will prefer them to his previous ones. Contact Dr Richter Jordaan on 082 573 4781. |fw