HomeMagazinesGerLou Simbras: Feed efficiency requires balanced selection

GerLou Simbras: Feed efficiency requires balanced selection

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

  • Feed efficient cows are better producers because of their ability to maintain condition and their lighter per-unit footprint on the veld.
  • This is according to Lourens Muller of GerLou Simbras.
  • My selection criteria were functional udders, walking ability, ability to maintain condition, and fertility.
  • The main goal with his stud, says Lourens, is breeding replacement heifers.
  • He also makes an extra effort in caring for and testing the bull calves earmarked as herd sires.

Feed efficient cows are better producers because of their ability to maintain condition and their lighter per-unit footprint on the veld. Notwithstanding, producers are in it for the long haul if feed efficiency is their goal. The commercial criterion against which it should be measured is kilograms of meat produced/ha/year.

This is according to Lourens Muller of GerLou Simbras. Lourens farms near Lindley in the Eastern Free State. He and his father, Hilgard, began the stud enterprise in 2014. “We decided on the Simbra and bought cattle from various breeders across the country as well as Namibia. The herd building phase lasted until 2019 and from there I selected the best cow for a commercial herd and took the others off the books.”

The starting phase

“My selection criteria were functional udders, walking ability, ability to maintain condition, and fertility. The next step was to select strictly for phenotype with the criteria being frame type, conformation and colour.

“The veld in our region is on the sour side and the cow that thrives in these conditions has exceptional rumen capacity. Furthermore, my stud cows need to be feminine with a strong wedge shape and good hormonal balance. She must have highly functional legs as well as good length from hip to pinbone.

“Animals’ necks and shoulders must be well coupled, they must be able to walk without difficulty, and thrive in any environment. I also look for well-developed and functional udders, and cows without excessively coarse hair coats. Ample skin, a smooth coat, and the right pigment are signs of hardiness. If all these traits are present, I will give preference to a red cow with a white head. Cows weigh between 450 and 550kg.”

What followed the first selection criteria was selection based solely on fertility. “Each cow in the stud herd must wean a calf annually. That is my top criterion when selecting females. If a calf dies for whatever reason, the mother is given one last chance.”

The breeding period for mature cows and bulls is only 65 days, says Lourens. The stud’s average intercalving period is down to 371 days because of this. The stud is also run under commercial conditions with these animals getting the same attention and nutrition the commercial herd does. “If your goal is breeding cattle that need to thrive under commercial, extensive conditions, you need to include these conditions during selection.”

HLM 2065 GerLou Valentino, the 2023 ARC Special Performance Test Class Simbra winner. (Photograph: André Pretorius Photography)

Selection of Simbra heifers

The main goal with his stud, says Lourens, is breeding replacement heifers. “I also sell in-calf heifers, which is why selection is so important. The better your choice of bull, the more first calvers are retained in the herd.”

He does his first round of selection during weaning – the weakest animals, which are clearly not adapted, are removed. The remaining animals are reared in the veld until they are two years old. At two years they go to the bull for 45 days. Lourens retains the heifers that conceive during this time. The rest still need to conceive and are then sold.

“The big test is getting the heifers that conceived first to reconceive. Heifers calve on green pasture where they are given a production lick. They must reconceive within 95 days. This, I believe, is the best way of testing whether your system is working or not. Only the best lines survive this selection. In terms of my first calvers, I aim for a conception rate that is 5% lower than the rate of my mature cows – 80 to 90% conception with a weaning percentage of 70%.”

Another crucial criterion is weight gain – a cow should wean a calf that weighs at least 50% of her body weight. “I’ve meticulously recorded the performance of every cow over the years. The data provides accurate figures regarding their efficiency. For instance, it revealed that some of my best cows wean their calves at 60% of their mature weight, while it is around 30% for the underperforming cows.”

It is easy to overreact when you see figures like these, says Lourens. One often tends to concentrate only on that one trait. This is a slippery slope, however, as selecting for a single trait rarely pays any dividends. A balanced approach is needed.

“I never penalise cows that wean light calves, but I wouldn’t select herd sires from that group either. Only bulls in the top 30% of the herd, and whose mothers wean heavy calves, are selected. These are the cows that produce profitably from the veld.”

Selection of Simbra bulls

When it comes to the selection of bulls, the first point of importance is not to provide additional feed for females, other than standard licks. His cows must utilise whatever veld is available and his target is a conception rate of 85 to 95%. He considers a weaning rate of less than 75% a complete loss.

To learn more about value of bulls click here.

“I know my cows thrive under extensive conditions because that is where I test them. I make an extra effort in caring for the bull calves earmarked as herd sires so as to support their development. Bulls should gain an average of roughly 1kg/day from weaning until they go to the cows at the age of two. I prefer no more than 1kg/day and no less than 800g. For me, this is the most responsible option. What you don’t want to do is leave your young bulls in the veld and then finish them on a warm ration in record time three months before the auction.”

Weaned bull calves go through the winter on greenfeed followed by crop residues. This is followed by summer veld and a summer lick. Another key factor is parasite control to keep liver fluke and ticks at bay. Starting February, a winter lick is fed until they enter the growth test.

“I do not subject weaned calves to a growth test. They undergo this test the following winter when they are around 18 months old. Come summer I send the best young bulls to my own stud while the others are included in the commercial herd. I sell these bulls at my production auction the following winter.”

Some of Lourens’ cows and calves on summer pasture. (Photograph: Lourens Muller)

Weaning of calves

The bull calves weaned in June are put on greenfeed. Lourens undertakes the first round of selection in November, weeding out the bottom 20% based on conformation, health and growth. The next round takes place the following February. Young bulls with substandard growth, that are sick or clearly not bull material on the phenotypic front, do not make the cut – this represents another 20% of bulls.

“The ones that remain are subjected to a Phase C growth test in May, during which we also measure net feed intake. But before this, I remove another 10% or so.”

Once the growth test has come to an end, and if the bulls have grown as they should, Lourens conducts his last round of selection. “Bulls weigh an average of 400kg at the end of the test. The criteria I use for selecting the best candidates are functionality, structural soundness, meat traits, masculinity, capacity and conformation. All these qualities contribute quantitatively to the final score.”

Afterwards, the remaining bulls undergo an ultrasound scan to determine their meat traits and measure scrotal circumference.

Lourens studies the performance data of the remaining 25% of bulls from the original group. Among others, he assesses average daily gain, feed conversion ratio and net feed intake, and then selects the most feed efficient bulls for his own stud. The others go to the commercial herd or are prepared for auction. “These are no doubt superior bulls – the best 25% of the particular year’s crop – and I can market them with confidence.” Feed efficiency, he believes, will become more important going forward. “If you have 500 cows and each consumes 1kg less per day but performs the same, this theoretically means you can run 50 more cows on the same piece of veld, because you have 500kg more veld available per day. This is the way forward – the population is growing, but land area is not.” – Izak Hofmeyr, Plaas Media

For more information, contact Lourens Muller on 066 290 9880.

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