Taking the guesswork out of breeding

Bertus Mong is one of SA’s leading beef producers, having won the ARC-ABSA Beef Cattle Improvement Herd of the Year with his BM Hereford stud for three consecutive years. He recently spoke to Glenneis Erasmus about the benefits of performance testing.
Issue date : 20 June 2008

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Bertus Mong, of the pp mong Farming Trust outside Villiersdorp in the ARC-ABSA Beef Cattle Improvement Herd of the Year awards from 1999 to 2001 and is known for his award-winning animals. He believes his success is due to a scientific approach to animal reproduction. “In the past, farmers were totally dependent on subjective evaluations of animals for breeding selection.

But performance testing has helped me to reduce the guesswork, so that I can make informed decisions,” says Bertus. Performance testing should be done over a long period of time to gather sufficient information about a specific animal and its progeny. “accuracy of breeding values for my stud was only around 30% when I started out – some farmers think this has no value, but knowing there’s a 30% chance that an animal will produce a specific trait is better than knowing nothing at all,” he admits.

Achieving accuracy As the information pool grows, the accuracy of breeding estimates improves. Today, Bertus has breeding values of more than 90% accuracy. Values that were low at the start of the tests have in most cases increased, which illustrates that predictions were right even when herd information was limited. Bertus emphasises the importance of sending a representative sample of bulls from the stud for Phase C testing. “You can’t send your best animals and pat yourself on the back because of the good performance of these bulls.

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The group must be a random sample including strong and weak animals, so you can get an indication of how your animals perform compared to others in the breed and your stud, as well as to track your stud’s genetic performance,” he stresses. Jakkie du Toit from the Agricultural Research Council’s Livestock Business Division says that it would be best to send progeny from every sire.

Then a farmer will be able to gather information about the performance of a specific bull and compare it to other sires in his herd. H e adds that some farmers are still hesitant to use BLUP because they don’t understand how it can supply accurate data. “They [wrongfully] argue that environmental influences are not taken into account in these measurements,” he says. (See box: BLUP’s formula).

The value of linear evaluation P erformance testing is a good tool to use when selecting the best animal where the physical or phenotypic values are on the same level. However, Jakkie warns that it doesn’t replace linear evaluations. Farmers must also use their common sense and consider animals’ conformation before buying or making production decisions. Bertus comments, “If an animal has exceptionally high performance testing scores, but its conformation does not conform to your breed standards, then you might not want its genes in your stud.”

When it comes to physical appearance, Bertus looks at the head, body and hooves of the animals to ensure that they comply with SA Hereford breed standards and his own breeding policy. He says SA Hereford is currently developing linear classification codes for the breed. “Where farmers previously depended on verbal descriptions or photos of animals, they will now have standardised codes from which they can judge the physical appearances of animals,” he says.

The classification code has not yet been released, but it would have various descriptors such as sex, scrotum, frame, pigmentation, eyes, legs, muscles etc. Values to quantify or qualify the description will also be added. For example, a physical measurement of the scrotum would be coded with a number from one to nine. Each code would then have an implied meaning. “One” could mean that the scrotum is small, while “three” could mean that the scrotum is rotated. The data is interpreted by the ARC’s Livestock Business Division and this helps Bertus know which bull to use on which cow.

He has also been using this data to improve milk production. Increasing milk production in most breeds can have a negative impact on beef quality, but through careful selection, Bertus has been able to achieve it without adversely affecting beef production. The mating game A mating programme is used to select the bulls that will provide the maximum and minimum values for the traits Bertus would like to reinforce or maintain in the herd. It also determines the degree of inbreeding permissable. The four most suitable bulls are then selected for each cow.

The database Livestock Operational and Genetic Exchange Programme (Logix), which is network-connected to Bertus’s mating programme and can be found on www.logix.org.za, is used to search for other bulls that would be suitable in the breed. Bertus aims for some variation in the gene pool.

He bought the Kyanama stud a few years ago and recently the Vissersdrift Hereford stud to complement his BM Hereford stud. He currently has 100 cows and sells 30 to 40 bulls a year. “Having variation means greater selection opportunities in your stud.” He adds that using semen from other sires helps to expand the bloodline in his stud. “Many farmers think they can start a stud by using a couple of commercial animals. But breeding stud animals is a scientific ‘art’ – you can’t build a good stud in a year’s time,” Bertus cautions. Contact Bertus Mong on (028) 841 4914 and Jakkie du Toit on (021) 809 3515.