Caberfeidh: Clarifying the impact of genetics vs feeding vs mana

Caberfeidh: Clarifying the impact of genetics vs feeding vs mana

Caberfeidh covers 6000 hectares in the Hakataramea Valley of South Canterbury and employs 10 staff. Its 5400 effective hectares are mostly flat to rolling, with 1350 hectares oversown hill country. The property has established about 2000 hectares in lucerne and a lucerne/fescue mix over the past five years.

The sheep numbers comprise 16,000 Perendale/Romeny/Texel-cross mixed-age ewes and 4200 replacement hoggets. The cow herd is made up of 360 mixed-age Angus breeding cows and 102 in-calf rising-one-year-old heifers. There are also up to 6000 stock units of trading activity annually. This can involve up to 15,000 lambs, 2000 head of cattle or – as was the case last season – 2 million kilograms of dry matter “cut and carry” pasture sold into the dairy industry.

Beef policy

Five years ago, while the herd was predominantly Angus, it 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 weight was 650 kilograms and the herd was scanning 85%, calving 80-82%.

Caberfeidh manager Andrew Harding (pictured) arrived on the property five years ago and began using Angus bulls from Focus Genetics Rissington in the Hawke’s Bay.

“The cows were great big slabby things and not very efficient. We wanted a medium-framed animal, with higher fertility and higher grow rates. We started keeping the heifers and now add 60 to 85 heifers into herd annually.”

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 manages to retain 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, averaging 600 grams per day liveweight gain.

Andrew says that good mating weights and the introduction of a BVD vaccination programme saw the percentage figures jump quickly and they are now 96% for scanning and 92% for calving.

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 liveweight gain.

Cull heifers and male calves are kept one winter, before being either processed or going to Anzco’s Five Star Beef feedlot – the exact timing and which option are dictated by climatic conditions.

Bull selection

While Caberfeidh does have a “B herd” of about 70 cows, Andrew does not muck around with terminal sires for the sake of a relatively small number of head, instead using all Angus bulls over both mixed-age and yearling females.

For the past three years, Lone Star Farms has been part of Focus Genetics’ embryo transplant programme and selects the exact cow and bull they want to produce their bulls. The selection criteria favours maternal traits and takes into account low birthweight and easy calving, high growth rates – including weaning and 300-day growth rates – and high eye muscle area. Basically, we’re looking for a more moderate frame with a high growth rate. We want to bring the cow weight down to about 550 kilograms. 

“In my opinion, if you have to start feeding beef cows, they’re 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 use these over the heifers, before using them over the main herd in subsequent seasons.

Bearing in mind the bulls have been pre-ordered, Andrew’s selection of individual bulls involves less need to scrutinise the figures “on the day”. He visually assesses them in the yard – looking specifically at soundness, type and testicles – before then reviewing at the animals’ figures and using both sets of information to make his final choices.

The Beef Progeny Test

At Caberfeidh, the B+LNZ Genetics Beef Progeny Test involves artificially inseminating (AI) only the heifers – in the 2014/15 and again in the 2015/16 season – with both internationally- and New Zealand-sourced semen. The bulls were firstly selected, based on being safe options for mating to heifers. They were then selected against Caberfeidh’s goals, which included good growth rates (600 day weight EBVs) 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 Caberfeidh.

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 their carcase traits, while replacement heifers will be tracked for their maternal characteristics.

“It’s exciting. 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.

“All stock are going to come out of heifers that have been bred from near-identical genetics. It will be good to compare the progeny’s growth, yield and temperament.”

Caberfeidh was also involved in a fodder beet trial last season, with animals processed through Silver Fern Farms Beef EQ programme, which objectively assesses carcases against a set criteria of eating quality traits.

The average Beef EQ success rate across the country is 27.7%. The fodder beet trial group’s average was 38.1%. Caberfeidh achieved 62.8%. Andrew is curious to see what the Beef Progeny Test reveals about this success rate “What’s the reason our cattle did so well? Is it genetics?”