Where performance matches the muscles
Anne Boswell visits a small but highly regarded charolais stud with a two-year waiting list for a bull.
The charolais breed has had its fair share of ups and downs as New Zealand breeders have worked to establish it as the first choice for use as a terminal sire, but a Tauranga farmer has shown the utmost faith as she continues to improve her herd.
Charolais breeder Jan Bell owns and leases the 36ha on which Wairoa Charolais Stud lies and has great admiration for the animals that she says are unbeatable as terminal sires.
Bell was brought up on a dairy farm near Pirongia in the Waikato, but the farm was sold when her parents retired so she found a new path as a legal executive.
Later Bell married and she and her husband moved to Australia, where she worked in conveyancing in Perth. Bell then became a stay-at-home mum after her children were born.
In 1995 the call of New Zealand and the desire to have a piece of land became too great and she bought the 18ha block on Crawford Rd. But it was many years before Bell became a fulltime farmer.
Upon her return to New Zealand she began work in the kiwifruit industry, mainly in the quality and auditing field, and studied for a post graduate diploma in quality systems. Bell went on to become a tutor, teaching post-harvest horticulture and quality control at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.
In 2013 student numbers dropped with the advent of Psa-V and Bell happily accepted redundancy to finally become a fulltime farmer.
Even while working fulltime off-farm, she worked hard to set up the farm, including restructuring fencing and water reticulation, and built a house in 2000.
"I developed the farm and built up a charolais herd little by little each year," she says. "I did what I could, when I could. It all takes time and money."
Bell was first introduced to the charolais breed by her brother and sister-in-law, Mac and Pat Bell, who successfully bred and sold charolais for many years. Bell joined forces with them and they held combined bull sales at Pirongia.
Bell was hooked on the breed and when Mac and Pat retired she carried on breeding charolais.
"I was not ready to give them up," she says.
In 2009 Bell was joined by her partner, Graeme Daniel. Daniel works on the east coast but lends a regular hand with his knowledge of pasture management and renovation, stock grazing, crops and grasses, among other things.
These days, Bell has a small but superb herd. She has 25-30 registered stud breeding cows plus R1 and R2 heifers and bulls.
"Our breeding cows are moderately framed with good bone, good muscling, and are structurally sound," she says. "All the cows must be manageable so a good temperament is essential. In the last few years we have been using French, Irish and Canadian genetics in the breeding herd. They not only look good but they perform well."
Wairoa charolais cattle are highly sought after and there is a waiting list of up to two years for bulls. One of Bell's bulls, Wairoa Golan G3, is a top-ranked animal. Bulls are used as terminal sires, crossing with other breeds - predominantly angus, hereford or dairy beef cows.
"We sell bulls as terminal sires to all sorts of farmers all over the North Island," Bell says. "Our goal is to ensure that the bulls we sell are structurally sound and create no calving problems over mixed-breed cows. The calves they sire will be early-maturing, well-muscled cattle. To achieve this goal we use American or Canadian genetics over our French cows. The resulting calves are often polled and are smoother in the shoulder than the dams."
Bell and Daniel were pleased but not surprised to see charolais weaners getting top dollar at the recent Beef Expo sales.
She is constantly looking at genetics to see how she can improve her herd.
"I've been using different genetics for a long time to get it right for our clients and to also be commercially viable for myself," Bell says. "All our cattle are performance-recorded using the Colorado State University EBV analysis. It is a great tool to have as a breeder.
"In saying that, I believe the breeders' knowledge of the family lines and the traits within those lines is also important. A breeder needs the ability to structurally assess the females they keep and the bulls they use and to be ruthless in culling poor-performing animals. You need to keep your breeding objectives in mind and breed selectively and consistently."
This is a far cry from the charolais breeding disaster of the 1970s.
The semen of the French breed was imported for trials at Lincoln and Ruakura in 1965, and by a commercial farmer the following year.
New Zealand beef breeders hoped to use these large animals to improve the productivity of traditional breeds. However, they had calving difficulties and high feed requirements and as a result didn't replace angus or hereford cattle in commercial herds. Instead, they found their place as a second-to-none terminal sire.
Bell says her overall aim is to breed cattle that perform well as terminal sires.
"I want to keep providing people with good bulls, increasing meat and growth without losing temperament," she says. "The feedback from clients has been positive and helpful in meeting these objectives."
Charolais have rarely been used over dairy cattle in New Zealand, but Bell has been breeding charolais bulls to use over her own dairy cows for many years.
Last year, Imac, a low birthweight charolais bull, was borrowed by a dairy farmer. The resulting calves were born in the range of high 30 to mid 40 kilograms to all breeds of dairy cows with no calving problems. The farmer is extremely pleased with the results.
"A four-day-old charolais-dairy cross calf is a commodity rather than a by-product," Daniel says. "They are fetching $250 a calf for four-day-old heifers and $300 for bull calves in the paddock."
Bell will be collecting semen from Imac and if all goes well this will be available for sale later this year.
Bell is on the council of the New Zealand Charolais Cattle Society, established in 1968, and is a keen advocate of the breed. So much so that she has agreed to fly the charolais flag at this year's National Agricultural Fieldays. It has been a long time since the charolais breed has been showcased at a national event.
Bell enjoys showing her animals at A&P shows around the country, where she can benchmark her cattle against others. She is also a registered judge.
"I find it a pleasure to look at my charolais herd, to own them and to know that I have bred those animals," she says.