Genetics vs feeding vs management at Caberfeidh
If you are keen to know how bulls of different types perform under comparable commercial conditions, it is worth following a beef progeny test launched by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ).
The test involves about 2200 cows and heifers and is being run over two years, across five large properties. One of these is Caberfeidh in South Canterbury's Hakataramea Valley.
Caberfeidh, operated by Lone Star Farms, is a large, privately owned sheep and beef farming enterprise across 6000 hectares. The 5400 effective hectares are mostly flat to rolling with 1350 hectares of over-sown hill country.
Five years ago, when manager Andrew Harding arrived on Caberfeidh, the herd of predominantly angus was a mix of "types". All offspring were sold at weaning as steers and heifers, with new heifer yearlings bought in post-winter. The average cow was 650 kilograms and the herd was scanning 85 per cent and calving 80-82 per cent.
"The cows were great big slabby things and not very efficient," Harding said. "We wanted a medium-framed animal with higher fertility and higher growth rates. We started keeping the heifers and now add 60-85 heifers into the herd annually. We began using angus bulls from Focus Genetics Islington in the Hawke's Bay."
Today the cow herd is made up of 360 mixed-age angus breeding cows, and 102 in-calf rising-one-year-old heifers.
All heifer calves are retained and about 120 head are mated to the newest bulls - being the bulls on the property with the best genetics - for 2.5 cycles. They are then cycle-scanned and Caberfeidh usually retains only those which get in-calf during the first cycle. The heifers weigh 340 kilograms when they go to the bull, having self-fed on lucerne silage for 120 days over winter.
"Good mating weights and the introduction of a BVD vaccination programme saw the percentage figures jump quickly and they are now 96 per cent for scanning and 92 per cent for calving," Harding said.
"Weaning weights and dates are also vastly improved. We were weaning late April and into early May at 180-200 kilograms. Now we wean by mid March at an average of 212 kilograms. This year we were done by 20 February and the R2 heifers weaned 202 kilogram calves."
Male calves are castrated and fed fodder beet for 120 days over winter. Last year they averaged 900 grams per day live weight gain, Harding said.
Cull heifers and male calves are kept one winter, before being either processed or going to Anzco's Five Star Beef feedlot.
When Caberfeidh does have a "B-herd" of about 70 cows, Harding doesn't "muck around" with terminal sires for the sake of a relatively small number of head; instead he uses angus bulls over both mixed-age and yearling females.
For the past three years Lone Star Farms have been part of the Focus Genetics embryo transplant programme and select the exact cow and bull they want to produce their bulls. The selection criteria favour maternal traits and take into account low birth weight and easy calving, high growth rates - including weaning and 300-day growth rates - and high eye muscle area.
"Basically we are looking for a more moderate frame with a high growth rate. We want to bring the cow weight down to about 550kg," Harding said.
"In my opinion if you have to start feeding beef cows, they are not economic. They need to be hard enough to do it really tough; you've got to be able to use them as a tool and produce a decent 250 kilogram calf at weaning time."
Caberfeidh buys in three bulls annually and uses these over the heifers before using them over the main herd in subsequent seasons.
Bearing in mind the bulls have been pre-ordered, Harding's selection of individual bulls involves less need to scrutinise the figures "on the day."
"I visually assess them in the yard, looking for soundness, type and testicles, before checking the animal's figures and using both sets of information to make my final choices."
At Caberfeidh, the B+LNZ genetics beef progeny test involves artificially inseminating only the heifers - in the 2014/15 and again in the 2015/16 season - with both internationally and New Zealand sourced semen. At Caberfeidh the bulls were first selected based on being safe options for mating to heifers. They were then selected against Caberfeidh's goals which included good growth rates and moderate cow size. The final bull selection represents a range of types and carcase traits, so comparisons can be made around which genetics are performing at Cabfeidh.
The heifers and cows are DNA recorded and all progeny will be tracked with their parentage verified. Steers and cull heifers will be assessed on the carcase traits, with replacement heifers tracked for their maternal characteristics.
"It's exciting," Harding says. "It's something a lot of the beef industry needs to see; how important it is to select high EBV bulls, which produce cows that can be productive and economic.
"For us it will be interesting to know how much of a role genetics play in the improvements we have made, and the improvements we will make over the three years of the programme. Management has changed a lot, so it's about learning how much is genetics versus feeding versus management.