Economic studies of the viability of northern beef producers over the last decade have clearly identified that weaning rate – the percentage of calves weaned to the number of cows mated – is a key indicator for long-term viability and profitability of a northern beef business.
Phil Holmes of Holmes & Co gave a presentation at the MLA Producer Forum at Beef 2015 on the second Northern Beef Situation Analysis, where he reinforced this point – just as fellow investigators Ian McLean, Terry McCosker and David McLean have done at other forums.
Producers can lift weaning rates in the north by improved breeder herd management, improved nutrition, or a combination of both.
However, according to beef genetics consultant Don Nicol from Breedlink, genetics is the key to long-term weaning rate improvement in the north.
“It will be the cheapest means of weaning rate improvement, with long-term pay offs to users,” he said.
“Producers with straightbred herds can use a tropical breed purebred bull with superior fertility genetics, or alternatively use planned crossbreeding to boost hybrid vigour that acts positively on fertility traits. Both are genetic strategies that can deliver higher fertility rates for northern herds.”
Days to Calving interval key trait
With Queensland’s spring bull-selling season now in full-swing, Mr Nicol said the key trait that northern bull buyers should look for is a genetic characteristic (EBV) called Days to Calving.
“It is the premier genetic measure of females’ breeding performance – transmitted by bulls, importantly, but of course also through females. Scrotal Size EBVs are important too,” he said.
According to Mr Nicol there was an emerging trend towards commercial bull buyers chasing Days to Calving information.
“Increasingly it is the major pastoral companies that are supporting the stud herds providing Days to Calving and Scrotal Size EBVs by buying their bulls,” he said.
The recent ALC Brahman sale showed evidence of that, with the Australian Agricultural Co, Heytesbury Cattle Co, AJM Pastoral Co, Paraway Pastoral Co, Consolidated Pastoral Co and the Indigenous Land Corporation all buyers of bulls with above-breed-average for Days to Calving.
These pastoral companies operate extensive Brahman herds in their operations in the north, managing more than 5 percent of the national herd. Increased interest in polled genetics is coming from the same quarter.
Crossbreeding and composite breeding
“In an effort to boost weaning rates and improve meat quality and market flexibility for their turn-off cattle, the large companies have also exploited crossbreeding and composite breeding,” Mr Nicol said.
North Australian Pastoral Co was the leader in developing a structured composite breeding program in the north.
“Twenty-five years on, and NAPCo is selecting its composite herds with genomic-assisted BreedPlan EBVs – possibly the most advanced composite breeding program in the southern hemisphere,” he said.
“AA Co, too, has been breeding tropical composites for more than two decades. AA Co has a strong commitment to genetic improvement, and recently bolstered its R&D capabilities by employing well-known geneticist Dr Gerard Davis and Dr Matt Kelly, ex QAAFI.”
Other larger pastoral companies such as S. Kidman & Co also employed composite programs, while CPC has a long history of crossbreeding for its southern supply chain and heavily committed to recording Days-to-Calving at its Allawah Brahman stud.
“Crossbreeding is an important strategy to improve fertility and meat quality in one pass,” Mr Nicol said. “For the north, the key issue is that the bulls are adapted to the environment on the property where they will work.”
For those who could manage controlled mating in tick-free, better class of country, the crossing bull could be purebred Bos Taurus, but for herds with extensive grazing and uncontrolled mating, where there was an external parasite challenge, bulls had be a tropically-adapted breed such as a Senepol or Belmont or a tropical composite.
Crossing Brahmans with a Brahman-derived breed did not deliver much hybrid vigour or enhanced fertility, he said.
Newer crossing options
A new crossing option utilised recently by larger companies such as Georgina Pastoral Co on its NT breeding property, Lake Nash, is the Ultrablack.
The Hughes family had been innovators in crossbreeding in the north, starting with their Georgina Gold composite, crossing with Wagyu and more recently, the Ultrablack cross. At Lake Nash, 15-month old Ultrablack bulls mated young at 2.5pc to heifers gave a 90pc pregnancy test in their first year of use.
“In the case of the Ultrablack bull, he is polled, he has 20pc Brahman genetics and 80pc Angus. The Brahman percentage sleeks up his coat, and allows the bulls to deal with heat much better than a purebred Bos Taurus,” Mr Nicol said.
A major problem with some ‘taurindicus’ breed bulls is bull wastage through prepuce prolapse, but the Ultrablack bull was clean-sheathed, as well as having a little more leg than the Angus bull to walk-out on the big runs, he said.
“The market likes their progeny as an alternative to Angus cross.”
Recently large cattle companies in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of WA, including Mt Welcome and Twiggy Forest’s Mindaroo have started using Ultrablack bulls bred at Nindooinbah, in southeast Queensland.
The popularity of the Ultrablack bull was slowly but surely growing in northern Australia Mr Nicol said, as evidenced by outstanding results at the recent Palgrove sale, where Ultrablacks for the first time produced a higher sale average than their Charolais cohorts. Twenty four Palgrove Ultrablack bulls averaged $8000, while 112 Charolais bulls averaged $7933.
Queensland pioneer Ultrablack breeders, Nindooinbah, near Beaudesert, will offer 60 Ultrablack bulls at their annual sale on Thursday 15 October.