Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
An early-maturing, easy fleshing, short on the leg animal with excellent hormonal balance. That is the breeding objective that drives the selection philosophy of the Baynesfield Beefmaster herd outside Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. And the results are clearly visible, I observed as Ndumiso Gule, cattle manager of the Baynesfield Estate, showed me around his animals.
A product of the Cedara College of Agriculture outside Hilton, Ndumiso started at the Baynesfield Estate in December 2015. Studying the weaning weights of the calves at that time, he realised they could do better, and after a conversation with the managing director of the estate, Myles van Deventer, they decided they would start using Beefmaster bulls on the herd to increase weaning weights.
This led Ndumiso to study the Beefmaster and he came across the six essentials that have been shaping Beefmaster breeding ever since Tom Lasater, father of the breed, formulated them in the early 1930s. These six essentials are fertility, weight, conformation, milk production, hardiness and disposition. Tom’s concept involved selecting cattle based on these six traits of economic relevance, to the exclusion of those that have little economic value.
A gift to the nation
Baynesfield Estate is the legacy of a remarkable entrepreneur called Joseph Baynes, who in many ways shaped agriculture at the time, bringing numerous innovations to the beef, dairy and crop industries. Apart from convincing producers to work together to attain economies of scale, he had the first dip tank in the country built on the farm in 1901. The tank is still there and today is a national heritage site.
Over the span of his lifetime, he steadily increased his land holdings so that at the time of his death in 1925, he had some 9 300ha on the hills and dales of the area between Pietermaritzburg and Richmond. Dying without an heir, he bequeathed his estate “as a gift to the nation” and stipulated that it should become a centre for agricultural and scientific research.
Today, Baynesfield Estate is a vast commercial agricultural operation, consisting of a piggery with 2 200 sows, beef cattle, avocado orchards, field crops and a forestry branch. The crops, mainly maize and soya, are mixed into pig rations in an impressive feed mill on the estate.
In fulfilling Joseph Baynes’s final wish, the estate has a primary school, pig training academy and offers graduate work experience.
A unique breeding programme
With a licence to acquire Beefmaster bulls, Ndumiso joined the annual Beefmaster Breeders Tour in KwaZulu-Natal in 2017, visiting some 15 of the top Beefmaster breeders in the province. This enabled him to embark on a well-informed bull buying spree to acquire the right type of bulls for their specific objectives.
“Apart from Tom Lasater, I was also greatly influenced by the breeding approach of Kit Pharo of the Pharo Cattle Company in the United States, who believes in an early-maturing type of cow that requires minimum inputs to wean a superior calf every year. Selecting for early-maturing traits, he believes, is the gateway to profitability.”
Because the estate is situated where it is, it allows Ndumiso to follow a breeding programme that would not necessarily be viable in other areas.
“We mate our heifers at 14 months of age for 63 days, from 1 June to 3 August, and perform pregnancy tests eight weeks later. Heifers that are not in calf go back to the bull in the traditional mating season, from 1 November to mid-January.
“The mature cows go to the bull on 1 July to 16 September, for 75 days, with pregnancy testing done eight weeks later. Those not in calf are also re-mated from mid-November and, along with the heifers, sold once confirmed pregnant in February,” says Ndumiso.
This means the calving season at the Baynes Estate starts in March. Due to the ample supply of maize stover, silage and cover crops, winter feed is not a problem, which in turn means they can leave the calves with the cows for around nine months and then wean them at roughly 270kg.
“Although our system works against nature to an extent, this has several benefits for us. The first is that we can market our weaners in February, during a time when weaners are in short supply, which ensures a premium price. Secondly, we are able to get the animals that failed to conceive the first time around, in calf in time to be sold in February when most producers with a normal summer breeding season are looking for in-calf cows.
Ndumiso stresses, however, that it is their particular environment and fodder-flow system that allows for this approach. The cows have more than adequate nutrition right through the year. “From a nutritional point of view, they don’t actually experience winter,” he says.
“Apart from the natural veld in summer and maize stover in winter, we also have abundant cover crops on maize fields utilised for silage, as well as additional silage and kikuyu pastures that we utilise to cover possible gaps in the fodder-flow programme.”
Weaning and bull selection
The calves are weaned in February and all heifer calves are subjected to pelvic measurements. Those which do not make the grade are marketed as weaners along with the bull calves. The bull calves, in turn, are inspected by well-known cattleman Barry Symons, and those with potential to become bulls are retained while the rest are marketed.
“Out of the 500 bull calves, we retain around 100. They are put with the heifers at 14 months of age in June. At the end of the breeding season, we re-evaluate them and cull about half, based on their development and how they withstood the breeding season. The remaining 50 are used again for breeding in the following breeding season, after which their numbers are again halved. We keep the top half and sell the bottom half as breeding bulls.”
Shift in phenotype
The effect of this approach, says Ndumiso, is that the early-maturing animals with good hormonal balance are being identified. Over time the average cow in the herd is becoming shorter in the leg, but wide and deep of body. As they select bulls only from mothers that were mated at 14 months, these bulls are also becoming shorter in the leg with wide, deep frames that are easily fleshed.
“The animal we look for has a quick turn-around of nutrition, very good hormonal balance and a cow-to-calf weaning weight ratio of 50% plus.”
Over time, Ndumiso believes, the smaller cow frames will allow them to carry more cows per hectare, which in turn will improve their meat production per hectare per year. “At the moment our carrying capacity is around 2,5ha for every cow. At a weaning weight of around 250kg, our meat production per hectare is therefore roughly 100kg weaned per hectare.
“If we can improve our veld through holistic grazing management to below 2,5ha/cow, and can further bring down our cow size through selection for early-maturing type, we can improve on this figure. This is our aim. We don’t think it is impossible to bring our carrying capacity down to as low as 1,75ha/animal.”
For more information, contact Ndumiso Gule on 073 674 1559.