Prime focus on genetics

00:55, Jun 12 2012
Fraser MacBeth
TOUGH COUNTRY: Fraser MacBeth with his herd of jersey and kiwicross cows at his Kikiwa farm.

It is tough dairying country around Kikiwa.

The winters are cold, the springs often unpredictable and the summers and autumns can be worryingly dry.

And if you do not have irrigation, growing enough grass to feed your cows is a challenge.

But it has not stopped Fraser MacBeth from breeding one of the top herds in the country – 54th out of 11,700 at last count.

And now he has achieved what most breeders dream of, getting a bull selected in one of Livestock Improvement's premier sire teams.

Two-year-old Cawdor Pharoah is one of 25 bulls in the DNA proven kiwicross team. He was one of about 2500 bulls tested last year by LIC.


It is a big deal because bulls chosen for LIC's teams account for more than 70 per cent of the New Zealand dairy industry's artificial inseminations and provide the next generation of top animals. LIC estimates that its premier sire programme is worth $300 million a year to the economy.

Not that you will get Mr MacBeth – a member of LIC's shareholder council who describes breeding as a hobby as well as a job – shouting about his success.

Pushed, he will admit to being "pretty excited" about getting a bull selected, ranking it up there with buying his 120-hectare farm on the Korere–Tophouse Rd seven years ago.

However, the 49-year-old is quick to add it also involved a large element of luck, and that the proof of how good his bull really is will not be known until his daughters start producing.

The son of a Christchurch surgeon, Mr MacBeth always wanted to be a farmer. Cows appealed because he liked their nature and they were easier to individually monitor and that stimulated his interest in genetics.

He and wife Christine spent 15 years sharemilking and managing farms, including the dairy unit at Lincoln College where he did his degree, before scraping up the deposit to buy their "challenging" property just before land values spiked out of reach.

With high debt, the first few years were a struggle but through sheer hard work, canny buying and selling of stock and an uncompromising focus on improving the genetics of their 220 jersey-kiwicross herd they have made the farm profitable.

"It's a stretch doing it without any labour but it makes it stack up financially.

"I probably skimp on every farm cost except genetics. They have really been the driver in the dairy industry. Eighty per cent of productivity gains we have made have been due to genetics rather than anything else we have done."

It means he uses the best semen that he can afford and tries to get as many of his cows pregnant as possible so he has more calves to choose from and can select replacements from his top cows.

That includes getting his yearlings artificially inseminated. "Most people don't do it because it's more of a hassle and an extra cost but your best genetics on average come from young stock so it's a wasted resource not using them."

Mr MacBeth also culls hard, particularly among his younger animals. Selling his lower performers to other farmers provides extra income.

He is also an advocate of embryo transfer technology, which he says allows farmers to "jump to the next level".

"It has allowed us to take multiple progeny out of our top cows."

It was how he bred the mother of Cawdor Pharoah, a cow rated among the top 150 in the country, although he says science can only do so much.

"We were very lucky that the grandmother of Pharoah, who we bought from Taranaki when we were sharemilking, came from a very good line of animals. She has performed significantly better than her ancestry indicated every time we milked her or she had another daughter. Embryo transfer multiples that."

With 26 descendants in the herd, she is still providing eggs despite looking "skinny as a rake".

Pharoah, who was the product of a normal artificial insemination and is now owned by LIC, was the 21st bull Mr MacBeth has had DNA-tested to see if he had what it takes to make the premier sires team.

But inclusion in the DNA proven team is no guarantee of success or wealth.

"His ancestry is definitely outstanding and current DNA technology says his genetics appear outstanding, but the proof will be in his daughters."

If he makes it into an even smaller daughter proven team – a longshot says Mr MacBeth given how competitive and advanced breeding has become – then Pharoah could expect to earn them $20,000 in royalties a year for maybe three or four years until a bull is retired to avoid the risk of inbreeding in what is quite a narrow jersey gene pool.

In the meantime, they are getting about $8000 from sales of his semen, which Mr MacBeth jokes barely covers what he spends every year on embryo transfer. At $300 to create a pregnancy, compared to about $40 for artificial insemination, "it's an expensive hobby".

But one that is set to pay off if he sells any of the female progeny from Pharoah's grandmother and mother. "If we could bear to sell those daughters, you could make an ET programme really profitable. I know some people who make it their core business."

For now he is content to keep improving his herd and enjoy one of his better milking seasons.

"This farm really excels when the payout is good and the weather has been reasonable because of our low–cost structure."

While his milk production is lower than average because of the lack of irrigation which requires him to winter over his stock on leased blocks nearby to allow his pastures to recover, he is happy where he is.

Despite getting precious little time off to fish or hunt, he enjoys the lifestyle and says it has been a good place to bring up their four children, the oldest who is about to manage a dairy farm near Murchison.

"I love it out here. We are out of the rat race. If you have no feed you might as well have a nice sunny day.

"The breeding companies probably like tough farms like this because they tend to get better results from bulls where there are a few challenges. If we shifted the herd to irrigated Canterbury, then you would really see them express their potential."

That said, he is adamant anybody can do what he has done by doing the basics well, using the best stock and science and treating animals individually.