A Glimpse Into South African Beef Production

Raising cattle in South Africa has the potential to feed a growing continental population.
Raising cattle in South Africa has the potential to feed a growing continental population.

Traveling outside the USA creates an opportunity for individuals to compare and evaluate agricultural production practices. Recently, I had the opportunity to see and learn about the beef industry in South Africa.

South Africa’s cattle population is near 14 million head, which includes 33 beef breeds. The majority of the operations (farms) own less than 100 head. Annual harvest is about 2.5 million head. The majority of the harvested animals come from feedlots that produce an average carcass weight of 240 kg (528 lb) with less than 13% fat. In comparison, hot carcass weights in the US average 860.5 lb and a low choice carcass would be have 28% fat. South Africans demand leaner beef than in the US.

Cattle & Agriculture Operation

This article will highlight a couple of the beef operations visited. The first farm was a diversified operation with Pinzgauer and Tuli cattle (980 cows: 2,000 head), Letelle Merinos (3,500 head), soybean (1,235 acres) and corn (2,471 acres). Management included three generations (father, son and grandson), and they had 30 employees. The majority of the cows were Pinzgauer. Heifers were mated to Tuli for management of dystocia. The breeding procedure was to artificially inseminate cows for a 60 day period, calve in October to December (spring in South Africa), and wean calves in May. Calves were wintered on silage and hay and moved to the feedlot when they reached approximately 300 kg (661 lb). Finished animals were harvested around 18 to 20 months of age. Pinzgauer animals weighed 500 to 550 kg (1102 - 1213 lb) and Tuli animals weighed 450 to 500 kg (992 – 1102 lb). Feedlot diet was composed of corn, ground soybean cake (made on-farm) and hay. Their production system managed feedlot animals to a higher weight than average in South Africa.

Pinzgauer cross steer and Pinzgauer steerclose to reaching harvesting weight

During the August visit (winter), replacement heifers were grazing corn stalks, while cows grazed dry dormant eragrostis grass (lovegrass) supplemented with a protein lick. The main pasture grass was eragrostis since it had the best response in production when fertilized with nitrogen. Additionally, open/cull cows were pen fed a high concentrate diet with corn, soybean cake and free choice hay to add weight.

A couple of other observations: 1) we did not see any bulls (could have been elsewhere), 2) workers walked the corn field and collected dropped corn ears to be fed to the feedlot animals, and 3) their operation was gated for livestock protection. They were trying to purchase more land. Land prices were 21,000 to 43,000 Rand (~$1,756 to $3,579 US per hectare or $711 to $1,449 per acre).

Cattle & Poultry Operation

The second operation was a diversified operation with Bonsmara beef cattle (120 cows) and poultry (550,000 fertilized eggs produced per week). The Bonsmara breed composition is 5/8 Afrikaner, 3/16 Hereford and 3/16 Shorthorn; having the majority of Bos indicus genes means the breed is better able to cope with heat stress and thrive better than cattle with a high proportion of Bos taurus genes. Additionally, 53% of animals in feedlots were Bonsmara.

This producer managed two breeding seasons (summer and winter). The summer breeding season was 75 days and he indicated having a 99% pregnancy rate. The winter breeding season was only 63 days with an 85 to 90% pregnancy rate. The replacement heifers (actually 20 months old; 460 kg (1014 lb) were synchronized and mated via natural service a month ahead of the cows.

Group of 20 month old Bonsmara heifers in breeding pasture in South Africa

During this visit we were able to visit with a representative from the Bonsmara Association. He indicated the key features of the Bonsmara breed were high fertility, calving ease, low birth weight, good udders, sufficient milk and excellent feed conversion ratio. He indicated the breed database has approximately 1 million performance-tested animals, which was is impressive.

The one item that stood out about this operation was their biosecurity measures. The bottom portion of the bus was disinfected as well as everybody had to unload and step into a footbath with disinfection solution prior to entering the property. This could have been for either the poultry or the beef portion of the business; however, this would be one of the few times I ever had to disinfect my feet prior to entering a producer’s operation.

 Mature Bonsmara cows


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