Breeder takes on challenge
When Gerald Hargreaves took over the family farm from his father in the 1970s, he wasn't very interested in the angus stud his father had established in 1954. But a comment reported back to him by a friend fired him up.
"My father gave me some cows and I wasn't really interested in the stud to be honest and I sold them, but thought I'd better not sell my father's," Hargreaves says.
"One of the opposition breeders said, 'He probably doesn't know what he's doing, he should have sold the lot'. I said, 'stuff you' - it took someone to challenge me."
Until then, most of Kakahu Stud's bulls went to Molesworth Station but as the business slowly grew Hargreaves joined another local breeder George Hill and formed their own sale in 1975.
"Once the sale was started, we were unable to cater for Molesworth. Slowly we built up a new clientele to where we are today.
"In those days we were selling 30 bulls. Today we have an annual sale of approximately 120 bulls, a yearling easy calving spring sale, and an in-calf heifer sale with tested marbling scores averaging 6+," Hargreaves says.
In 1993, the South Canterbury breeder was invited to join well- known angus men Guy Sargent, Patrick Lane and John Jackson on a trip to America and something clicked for him there.
"I happened to meet Roy Wallace who had run and designed all the big breeding programmes in America. I wouldn't have a clue why to this day but I really understood what he was talking about and I just got on well with him."
Wallace explained it wasn't just the figures that were important but rather the inter-relationship of those figures that gave the muscle mass breeders should be looking for to increase the value of the carcass.
"I suddenly knew what I wanted to aim for, I knew exactly what I wanted. All I had to do then was to try to find the bulls that were sound enough and would suit the expectations of New Zealanders for breeding purposes. I wanted more meat, more marbling, do-ability, soundness and all the rest of it that we in New Zealand have to have."
Every year since that small group, plus one or two others, has gone to America (and often to Australia) to see the best bulls and their descendants, meet top breeders and bring back semen to New Zealand.
"In America, there are 300,000 to 400,000 registrations a year. In Australia and New Zealand, I think there're 30,000 to 40,000. So there's 10 times the population, and you only wanted three bulls for the direction you wanted to go so you had a huge choice."
Over the years, the group met people like American Angus chief executive Bryce Sherman, the top executives at Zeotis, a global animal health company employing 1000 scientists, the American Cattlemen's Association chief executive, among others, and looked at hundreds of bulls.
"It was invaluable because you'll never ever get everything right but it was good chance of getting it right. It's exhausting and you might have only four or five hours sleep a night. We always have two gins before we go to bed, that's the ritual, and talk about the day," Hargreaves says.
US breeders are focused on giving the market the meat it wants, he says, and that means it must be well marbled and consistent.
"There was a lot of experimentation and they came up with two bloodlines, the Precision and O36. Part of the reason for the rapid progress is because these two lines are used extensively.
"They really make the carcass work with the quality on a high- percentage basis. There was possibly too much inbreeding to start with, but that's all been sorted out now and we're moving on."
Hargreaves believes it's a fallacy that American genetics don't work in New Zealand and it's just a matter of selecting the right bulls. "At the end of the day, people say I'm an EBV freak. Of course I am, but the animal's still got to walk and perform, that's taken for granted."
Hargreaves says the only way to get highly marbled meat is by introducing the right genetics. It's not enough to have big, well-fed animals if all the fat is around the outside, likely to be cut off in processing, and not within the meat itself. "Subcutaneous fat is expensive to put on and wasteful. Marbling is also a fat, but it adds huge value and consistency to the carcass.
"The cattle of today won't look like the cattle of tomorrow if you want to have profitable cattle because we're too hung up in New Zealand on head, bone and jaw. When you look at the traits of what those bulls are, it's only feed that's got them looking marvellous.
"One of the things that America has taught us is that we need to find the cattle that will adapt to our climate but will give us the product. At the end of the day, it's the product, it doesn't matter who you are, that will sell at a premium in the market and that's the right genetics which can only be obtained through EBVs.
"We need to be specific and America and Australia are years ahead of us and what worries me in New Zealand hugely is that we're being left behind because of the slow uptake of EBVs which have been validated as a vital tool."