The Santa’s gift to beef farmers

First impressions last, and since getting their fingers burned with bad genetics in the 1970s, many KZN beef farmers have shied away from the Santa Gertrudis breed. But the Santa’s supporters, including breed director Martin Seyfferdt and breeder Garth Ellis, argue this breed could do wonders for beef enterprises in the province. Lloyd Phillips reports.
Issue date : 01 August 2008

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The first Santa Gertrudis were imported from the US into SA in 1952, and the earliest imported genetics went to beef farmers in KZN. Unfortunately, the large numbers of the breed entering the country at the time also harboured poor genetic specimens. Sold to various KZN farmers, these animals created a very bad impression that lingers in the minds of many KZN beef producers over 30 years later.

But according to KZN stud and commercial Gertrudis farmer Garth Ellis of Winfield Stud and Farms near Greytown, this breed has since become famous for its hardiness and adaptability to almost all beef-farming conditions worldwide. “Stud and commercial beef farmers in KZN today need to realise the breed has come a long way since the 1970s,” Garth argues. “There’s a small group of very successful farmers in KZN presently, and a much larger and equally successful group in the rest of the country.

The modern breed standards for the South African Gertrudis have resulted in a breed that gives beef farmers, and the feedlot industry, animals ideally suited to improving financial bottom lines.” Martin Seyfferdt, breed director of Gertrudis SA, argues the can offer farmers a modern red, medium-framed, fully pigmented, short-haired animal that’s hardy and well-adapted to a variety of climatic conditions.

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H e adds the cows are highly fertile with excellent mothering traits and abundant milk. The breed also produces small calves at birth, meaning easy calving. Finally, Martin says the Santa has outstanding growth potential, a low feed intake and a very high dressing percentage, and crosses very well with other beef breeds. T he Santa Gertrudis beef breed was developed in Texas, US, in the 1920s. A composite of Brahman and Shorthorn genetics, the now internationally recognised breed was the result of the efforts of King Ranch brothers Robert J Kleberg Jr and Richard M Kleberg Sr, to produce a beef animal that met their standards of performance, endurance and profitability.

“Even though the Gertrudis is large-framed, which some producers might find undesirable, the breed can tolerate high temperatures, and has strong legs for walking long distances over rough terrain,” Garth explains. “Many of the Santa’s characteristics are the same as, or often better than, other common beef breeds around the world. KZN beef farmers could do very well to adopt this breed on a wider scale for stud or commercial purposes.” The voices of experience Garth has worked with Santas in KZN for 18 years.

He says to overcome the historical stigma attach to this breed, its supporters need to prove the Santa is performing very well commercially and in the stud industry. Garth’s Santas have won many awards, including Best Steer on the Hoof at the Royal Show three times in the past five years. His animals have also frequently won supreme beef awards at both the Royal and Pretoria shows. At the renowned Show carcass competition over the past 10 years, Santa Stud and Winfield Farms have produced the top beef carcass three times, while earning one or more of the top three positions seven times. Craig Marwick of the Marwick brothers’ Harmony Santa Gertrudis Stud near Richmond, KZN, won the Farmer’s Weekly/Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Best Elite Cow award for the fifth time this year.

More importantly, the brothers’ Santa Gertrudis herd has won the KZN regional title of ARC Beef Cattle Improvement Herd of the Year award 10 times and the national award a phenomenal four times. These latter awards are for the best herd out of all beef breeds in the KZN region and the country respectively. “I’m impressed by the Santa Gertrudis’s feed conversion rate (FCR) and its hardiness, stemming from the breed’s Brahman and Shorthorn genetic foundations,” Craig says.

“This breed can adjust to any production conditions, and no longer needs any fidgeting around with its genetics. It’s very stable and productive, both for stud and crossbreeding purposes. A lot of beef breeders in KZN go for English breeds because they mature early, but I can confidently say the Santa’s medium-maturing traits aren’t far behind. These animals can almost look after themselves.” Garth agrees.

“The proof is there that this is an outstanding beef breed for KZN and the rest of SA. At production auctions my Santa Gertrudis cow culls tend to fetch higher prices than animals from other beef breeds, underscoring the Santa’s popularity in the meat industry. Some people might say this is because of my feeding regime, but I say it’s because of the breed’s widespread, positive reputation. There are many Santa Gertrudis farmers in the country who get the same prices. Butchers know that with the Santa Gertrudis, they get better carcass quality in terms of the meat to bone ratio.” Breeding for beef Garth says profit in the beef-breeding herd depends on cow fertility and the weight of calves at weaning. Some local Santa breeders achieve 98% to 100% conception rates in their herds.

While cow fertility plays a major role in conception levels, SA’s Santa bulls have been subjected to rigorous selection since the 1970s to produce animals which can service cows effectively while still retaining breed characteristics. “Modern Santa Gertrudis bulls now have a bigger than average sheath,” says Garth. “This was considered undesirable in the early Santa Gertrudis males, but rigorous genetic selection over the years has also improved both the angle of the bulls’ sheath and the size of the sheath opening. It’s guaranteed that bulls that pass breed classification inspections nowadays have a functionally efficient sheath.

This improves herd conception levels remarkably.” Garth adds that across SA’s Santa Gertrudis herd, the breed’s intercalving period (ICP) averages a respectable 400 days. Craig even achieves average ICPs of under 370 days in his herd. Santa Gertrudis SA adds that most of the Santa calves are small at birth, resulting in easy calving for both purebred or crossbred Santa Gertrudis cows under extensive beef production conditions, with little risk of losing valuable cows or calves during the process. Garth says Santa cows offer their calves more milk than most other beef breeds, resulting in heavier weaners faster and a better return on investment. In addition, the breed’s Brahman heritage provides good mothering ability, with protective and nurturing characteristics.

Two or three cows will often “baby-sit” a group of calves while the other mothers are grazing. Martin continues, “According to both local and overseas trial results, Santas produce the heaviest weaned calves of all beef breeds, on average 20kg to 30kg heavier at weaning.” Excellent feed conversion “Feedlots worldwide have also shown that Santa Gertrudis steers have one of the best feed conversion ratios,” Martin continues. “In an official test a Santa Gertrudis bull used 3,84kg of feed to gain 1kg of live mass.” He adds the breed’s carcasses have excellent grading and one of the highest dressing mass percentages, averaging 63%.

He states the average daily weight gain of Santa steers under feedlot conditions is unbeatable, and that in a survey of 4 380 Santa Gertrudis steers in 24 feedlots, their dressing mass averaged 62,8%. Garth adds the Santa’s deep body, good muscling and good body length put more meat on the carcass without compromising functional efficiency on the veld.

“The Santa was developed and bred for hot subtropical conditions, as well as more moderate temperatures,” Martin explains. “They thrive under extensive bushveld conditions as well as in cooler areas.” “This breed requires standard maintenance licks depending on the season and on grass quality, but no more than any beef breed, and fares no worse than other breeds in terms of disease.” Garth concludes. Contact Martin Seyfferdt at (051) 444 0418, fax (015) 444 0920, e-mail [email protected] or visit Contact Garth Ellis on 082 372 0085 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw