Cattle breeding is like a three-legged pot: Keeping it all together

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

  • The primary focus at Kermar Brangus is to get a calf on the ground in one breeding season from every female in the herd.
  • Stockfarm wanted to know more about this stud breeding operation after it was selected as a finalist in last year’s Livestock Registering Federation (LRF) Stud Breeder of the Year award.
  • By using selection criteria, the Kermar Brangus-stud was able to eliminate sub-fertility in the herd as well as allow the environment the farm is situated in to dictate which animals are suitable for the conditions in the area.
  • The farm was recently divided into camps of 15 to 20ha using electric fencing in a bid to improve the soil and grass species which, in turn, should increase the carrying capacity.
  • Mark Cockin, owner of Kermar Brangus, believes that none of the selection methods they employ can be achieved without incorporating some sort of measuring process to assist them in unlocking their herd’s potential.

The primary focus at Kermar Brangus, a beef producer in the Cathcart district in the Eastern Cape, is to get a calf on the ground in one breeding season from every female in the herd. This eliminates subfertility in the herd, and allows the environment to dictate which animals are suitable for these conditions.

Stockfarm wanted to know more about this stud breeding operation after it was selected as a finalist in last year’s Livestock Registering Federation (LRF) Stud Breeder of the Year award, sponsored by Molatek and Veeplaas.

The owner, Mark Cockin, grew up on a sheep and commercial cattle farm near Morgan Bay where he learned the traits of sheep and commercial cattle farming from his late father, Shaun Cockin, and late grandfather, Vernon Cockin.

“My passion for livestock and farming developed through them. We started out farming mainly Beefmaster and Bonsmara type cattle until we moved to Cathcart where most of the producers were successfully invested in South Devon and Angus breeds.” Mark says he always enjoys a touch of Indicus in the cattle he farms, and having predominantly Angus type commercial cows, he then decided that the Brangus would be the breed he would settle to farm.

Read more about successful cattle breeding practices here.

Benefits of pregnancy testing

“I started by registering 90 Angus type cows as my base herd and used registered Brangus bulls which I acquired from several herds across the country. The process entailed slowly upgrading the herd into what Kermar Brangus is today. From the start the primary goal was to get a calf from every cow in the heard within one breeding season.”

This is achieved by pregnancy testing the herd in mid-March every year, usually four weeks after the bulls are removed. “We then sort all the non-pregnant females into a separate herd and once the calves are weaned in April, we market every non-pregnant female to the abattoir or store cow buyers.”

By using these selection criteria, they were able to eliminate sub-fertility in the herd as well as allow the environment the farm is situated in to dictate which animals are suitable for the conditions in the area. “Our cattle have developed into early maturing, easy care, low maintenance animals which portray most of the attributes the Brangus breed offers.”

The intercalving period of the current herd is 372 days. They have one breeding season of 90 days. The cows and heifers calve each year from 10 August to 10 November. Mark says they are striving to shorten this period to 65 days, as they have found that 73% of the heifers are already calving down within that period.

In their area, which consists predominantly of sourveld with 450mm of rain per year, supplementation in the form of licks for the cattle is a vital necessity to maintain reasonable body condition throughout the cold winter months. Furthermore, it ensures that females calve down in relatively fair condition for ovary development for the following year.

Increasing veld capacity

The farm was recently divided into camps of 15 to 20ha using electric fencing in a bid to improve the soil and grass species which, in turn, should increase the carrying capacity. While they try to strategically practice heavy stocking rates at certain times of the year, they do incorporate a minimum rest period of 65 days per camp before returning the animals to that camp.

“One of our biggest challenges is remembering that we are soil and grass farmers first and foremost. The livestock component is the only one that can convert grass into a valuable, sought-after commodity. Increasing organic matter in concentrated areas is the cheapest form of fertiliser for our farm, which over time will allow us to expand vertically on our properties.”

During the harsh winter months, the cattle are fed a 46 to 50% protein lick which is combined with a phosphate supplement throughout the spring and summer months. (Photograph: Mark Cockin)
During the harsh winter months, the cattle are fed a 46 to 50% protein lick which is combined with a phosphate supplement throughout the spring and summer months. (Photograph: Mark Cockin)

Like a three-legged pot

Mark believes that none of the selection methods they employ can be achieved without incorporating some sort of measuring process to assist them in unlocking their herd’s potential. “My father-in-law, John Miller, who breeds South Devons in our area, always says that breeding is like a three-legged pot where each of the legs represents phenotype, genotype and performance testing/EBVs. If one of the legs is missing, the pot inevitably will fall over and its contents will spill out.”

The calves are weaned off their mothers from around 20 April and are then weighed for their 200-day weight. “We also weigh every female animal at weaning to determine the cow-calf ratio of the herd. We are currently averaging a 47,5% calf-cow ratio and improving annually to achieve 50% plus in the near future.”

Yearling animals are all weighed again in November for their 400-day weight, and a second culling occurs to eliminate animals which have not done well through their first winter. Young yearling bulls are run on the veld with a phase-D ration at 750g per bull per day for 120 days. This, according to Mark, ensures that these animals have the best chance of developing and growing a solid frame under their conditions. “We try to limit growth to 1,2kg per day throughout the duration of this period.”

The last and final weighing session for the 18-month-old animals is done at 600 days, generally around April of every year. These animals then move onto their winter maintenance ration until September. Heifers are artificially inseminated in early November, followed by the bulls being put with the females. Mark believes in working all their two-year old bulls to ensure faster genetic improvement in the herd, as well as breeding soundness of the animals before they are sold as three-year old bulls.

Ensuring a profitable business

Each year they sell their bulls as a ‘by-product’ of what they breed at the East Cape Brangus Club Sale and the Winston South Devon production sales. Mark is a member of the club which he believes offers a unique and inclusive setup for all its 33 members. The club was founded 19 years ago and has been the platform for its members to find outlets for the animals they are producing.

“As a club, we like to keep things simple yet effective and relevant, but at the same time continue the camaraderie and friendship spirit that we have fostered the past years. We do not have other entities in our farming businesses to subsidise the livestock aspect, which means we are forced to breed animals that perform and pay the bills.

“In doing this, I have found the willingness of older breeders and members to help, encourage and support new breeders in the industry, at no personal gain, an incredible quality which our club offers to the industry. That is what makes us functional.

“I am honoured and privileged to have been given a passion for farming by my parents, as well as to have the support of close friends, family and a community, to be enjoying what I do today.” – Carin Venter, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Mark Cockin on 083 674 5630 or kermar@nokwi.co.za.

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