Live Export

Two very different tropical cows: a dilemma for the breeder trade

Dr Ross AInsworth, 25/10/2016

Australia has sold thousands of tropically adapted breeding cows to Asian countries over many decades with the majority going to Indonesia.

During that time our cattle have gained a reputation for poor fertility which has even led to claims from some of our customers that we have either sold them females that are naturally infertile or made infertile through manipulation.

I must confess that while I have tried to explain the situation to a wide range of customers from farmers to commercial importers and government officials, I would have to say that I (and everyone else) have been largely unsuccessful to date with the same complaint being consistently repeated year after year.

This article is another attempt to explain the reality of the situation which might hopefully assist our customers to understand why our cattle are in fact a little different to theirs and therefore need additional inputs to ensure good fertility.

The positive trade-off is that in return for these additional inputs, the output of beef production and financial returns from Australian breeders are significantly greater than from local cattle.

Body Condition Score (BCS) refers to a simple scale describing very skinny cattle as body score 1 through to extremely fat cattle as score 5.

The differences between our breeders are a simple matter of long periods of genetic selection.

The domestic Indonesian breeding cow

This cow (usually either one or two) is housed behind the home and intensively managed by the farmer and his family.

The cows are usually tethered out during the day to graze if there is some grass nearby while the farmer spends an hour or two per day (one hour per cow) cutting grass to bring home to feed the cow in its pen where it spends the night.

There are also frequent opportunities for the cows to be fed crop wastes or other local agricultural bi-products to further supplement their nutrition.


This is enough grass for a supplementary evening feed for two cows which have had some grazing during the day. This load takes about 2 hours to collect and deliver.


The selection pressure in this case includes the following factors :-

  • In order to perform its duties as a farm asset, this cow must produce a calf on a fairly regular basis.
  • If the cow does not get pregnant then the farmer is spending a lot of personal time and resources feeding and caring for it for negligible returns
  • If the cow continues to be fed and is not pregnant it will usually get fat
  • A fat and empty cow will be a very attractive sale proposition to the local butcher
  • Weaning is not practiced so cows must be able to get pregnant even when they are suckling a calf
  • Cattle are mainly sold on a per head basis so the body condition and live weight are not critical selling points. Smaller cattle are well accepted as they eat less and therefore require less physical effort cutting grass.
  • If the cow with a weaner at foot gets too low in body condition, the farmer is always there to ensure she gets a little additional feed to make sure she and her calf survive.

With this sort of pressure on the selection process for 100 years or more, the local breeding cows are exceptionally fertile even when they are nursing a calf or weaner. The trade off that has allowed this exceptional fertility to develop is that the calf and adult size has reduced and growth rates are very low.


Local Indonesian cows at a regional show in Sumatera. These skinny cows can get pregnant in a heartbeat.


The selection pressure on the northern Australian pastoral cow couldn’t be more different :-

  • If a cow gets pregnant while in poor body condition during the long dry season with declining nutrition, its chances of dying are high. Her owner is far away and is not in a position to provide any assistance to individual animals.
  • If a cow gives birth to a calf during the dry season while in poor body condition then the chances of both cow and calf dying are high.
  • Cows that get pregnant while in good body condition (body score 3 or better) usually survive.

After 50+ years of this relentless natural selection against females in poor body condition getting pregnant, the northern pastoral herd is now largely populated by females which have an inbuilt mechanism for switching off their reproductive capacities when they are in poor body condition (less than score 3). The trade-off in this case is that cattle are much larger and their growth rates are very high when provided with adequate nutrition.

It is easy to imagine then, that when the Indonesian farmer receives an Australian breeder, he sees no reason to wean the calf or provide additional feed to ensure it reaches a BCS of 3. He knows that he doesn’t have to wean his local cattle because they can easily get pregnant while they are suckling their calf and in low body condition (score 1 and 2). The local Department of Agriculture staff have the same experience as the farmer so they also have difficulty understanding why Australian breeders are unable to get pregnant after they have calved and are suckling a big weaner.


This photo is a common site for Australian breeders in Indonesia. Farmers are advised to wean but see no immediate reason to do so. They are so delighted with the spectacular growth of their weaner, they are unwilling to accept there is a link between the feeding of the weaner and the failure of the cow to conceive.


I have been involved in numerous seminars and training sessions for years all around South East Asia but especially in Indonesia and I have to confess to close to a 100% failure rate when it comes to convincing our customers that our cows require different management in order to ensure satisfactory fertility.

Suspicions about our breeders become even murkier when our customers learn that we sometimes spay (desex) our surplus heifers in order to prevent them from getting pregnant.

It is also not surprising that a group of farmers and their Departmental staff discussing these issues might not fully grasp the logic for the practice of spaying and its place in northern Australian breeder management.

Many have learned from bitter experience that our heifers can’t get pregnant when they are lactating and skinny.

They have also heard that we “modify” (spay) some heifers to make them infertile.

They know very well from many years of personal experience that cows (their own local cattle) can easily conceive when they are lactating and skinny. Cows are cows all over the world, aren’t they?



The only thing the farmer can see here is a magnificent weaner with an exceptional growth rate. Why on earth would he want to wean and interrupt this brilliant performance?


The fact that these important differences were explained in a number of seminars the previous year is of little help.

While these presentations were attended by a few members of their village cooperative, their participation has not resulted in the reasonably complex messages about the differences of Australian cows being well understood by the individual farmer way out in the bush.

Unfortunately, he is the one who really needs to know.

Not everyone gets to go to educational seminars and even if they do, many won’t be able to grasp the complicated reasoning which explains why Aussie breeders are different through the 15 slides in a power point presentation translated from English into Bahasa Indonesia at 3 in the afternoon when the eyelids are getting heavy.

Our Asian customers need and deserve a better understanding of the important differences between our cattle and theirs – Aussie cows must be weaned in order to get pregnant again!

Once the farmer grasps the differences, it will be a much easier task for him to adjust his management to ensure good fertility.

The only answer is to improve the efficiency of before and after sales support for the breeder trade and, more importantly, delivery this vital information by a means that ensures that the essential messages are delivered all the way to the farmer in his remote village.

This process is complex, expensive and an unattractive additional cost to everyone involved on both sides of the water. Unfortunately it is essential if the trade is to have any chance of a long-term, mutually beneficial future.


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  1. ZIETSMAN JOHANN, 27/10/2016

    All cattle breeders and advisers need to wake up to the fact that fertility is HIGHLY heritable because the components (inherent body condition and hormonal balance) are highly heritable. This works both ways: If you select against inherent body condition (absolute growth; FCE; RFI; NFE) you select against practical fertility. If you select for inherent body condition (maturity rate; natural selection) you select for practical fertility you automatically select for practical fertility.

    ALL conventional selection criteria are negatively correlated to practical fertility. We need to employ natural selection and accelerate the process. The breeder has no other appropriate role.

  2. J Chris Hughes, 27/10/2016

    In answer to Malcolm Kings observation, all breeding cattle exports to Indonesia are selected by Indonesian selectors who exercise the right of rejection if the animal does not meet the selectors criteria.
    Chris Hughes

  3. Geoffrey Beere, 27/10/2016

    if we knew what we know now. 35 years ago, we may have imported Bali Females and Bulls to North Australia and bred them. I am not including the feral herd that is still in Northern Arnhem Land. we may have also included a Zuppy Ongal Herd. Both breeds met the Indonesian market requirements. G Beere.

  4. Malcolm King, 26/10/2016

    This is an interesting article.
    In my opinion they leave the selection of the cattle to people who assure them they will select the cattle they need. Then they get this situation occurring.
    It would be more beneficial for them to more involved with the selection of the cattle they require, or be more specific on the specs that the cattle they want should possess.
    They would be wise to select superior tropically adapted cattle and interbreed these with their native cattle with a constant improvement end result driving their progress.

  5. J Chris Hughes, 26/10/2016

    It is ironic that Dr Ross’s thesis as a veterinarian with over 30 years of live export experience; is not accepted by some people as a solution which is ultimately sound and probably the only practical practical way to go.
    Indonesian politics currently dictates self sufficiency in meat production and this translates into the import of large numbers of breeding cattle..
    This will mean the export of many hundreds if not thousands of breeders per shipment.
    The only practical reservoir of cattle available to Indonesia is Northern Australia with around 12 Million head {Indonesia may have around 12 million total).
    The supply of many thousands of young tropical PTIC heifers at a given weight at a given time at workable prices is a difficult sometimes impossible practical exercise.
    You will note that Dr Ross does not mention any breed but previous exports of breeders have included mainly Brahman crosses,some pure Brahman ,and many other developed tropical breeds such as those developed by AACo and exported by David Heath (comment above) when he was GM of North Australian Cattle Company. also included is the above mentioned Belmont Red (developed by Dr George Seifert)
    It is not economically possible for Northern Australia to supply large numbers of breeding cattle to this market other than the supply of FAQ selected heifers. We have a product that suits our extensive grazing regime and it would be nigh impossible in the short term to stimulate much more genetic improvement than is already happening.
    It is therefore obvious that Australia (or anywhere else) cannot economically supply the ideal animal in large numbers for an inflexible smallholder system but what we can do is supply FAQ breeding heifers that will do well if the husbandry practices are adjusted to suit. There are numerous examples of this all over Indonesia.
    It is therefore essential as Dr Ross suggests that our livestock export industry provide more before and after sales service and technical advice on the ground to small holder farmers.
    Chris Hughes

  6. Paul Hamilton, 26/10/2016

    If these local cows are so damn good, why is the calving interval about 17 to 24 months? Its not all because there is no bull or the AI technician is useless.
    This very long calving interval (fact) does not match the story that they return to oestrus and get in calf at the drop of a hat …
    I wager a bet that they too have to be in fair Body Condition also to get pregnant as does any female in the animal world …
    To answer the comments about using the composite breeds… it is very hard to import “exotic breeds” to Indo. Indo Govn policy is nuts on these matters … to put it simply..
    I’d like to see a few facts and solid data to fully support this story .. and perhaps it does warrant a solid research project..

  7. Steve Taylor, 26/10/2016

    Maybe an important message for this side of the water !!

  8. Alex McDonald, 26/10/2016

    A very insightful article from Ross Ainsworth except that he assumes all Australian Brahmans are genetically the same with respect to fertility. The extensive Beef CRC project led by Dr David Johnston demonstrated the very wide range in fertility of Australian Brahman cows when run under the same conditions and that the trait is quite heritable. The more recent Brahman BIN project has more recently confirmed a similar wide range in age of conception of the daughters of Brahman sires. There are Brahman cows which run under tough conditions such as the Spyglass research station which calve every year without ever getting above a condition score of 2.5. From Dr Johnston’s work a genomic test has been developed which with a moderate level of accuracy can predict the genetic differences in Brahman cattle for female fertility. Maybe in future this genomic test could be used to screen the next consignment of Brahmans to be sent to Indonesia to increase the chances that they will be fertile under Indonesian conditions.

  9. ZIETSMAN JOHANN, 25/10/2016

    Ross Ainsworth and other breeders need to understand that all conventional breeders select for absolute growth rate and high individual production (weaning weight) and very little, if at all, for fertility (inherent body condition; hormonal balance). The result is lean and “efficient” cattle that require greater inputs (selective grazing; feed) in order to be “productive). This is the case in Australia and all other countries following the American Model.

    All cattlemen need to understand that EVERYTHING in cattle breeding and management revolves around body condition. We have a choice: BREED for body condition or FEED for body condition. It is as simple as that.

    As Australia has done with cattle breeds from Africa I suggest that they import superior genetic material from Indonesia rather than exporting inferior genetics.

    Johann Zietsamn

  10. Jeanne Seifert (Seifert Belmont Reds), 25/10/2016

    Ross’s article is excellent however worryingly it highlights specific feedback from Indonesia / SE Asia that the cows we are sending them are sub fertile- in particular with respect to lactation anoestrus and failing to fall pregnant at lower BCS. In light of this, the industry has the opportunity and a responsibility to respond positively (including education) to the negative feedback which risks its sustainability. Australian breeding standards aside, to address the specific concerns expressed by the importers, exporters can choose, or sadly choose not to, select genetically (heritable) more fertile, tropically adapted moderately framed profitable females, which regardless of enterprise scale small or large (non heritable), regardless of management (non heritable), and regardless of environment/country (non heritable), can be a part of a mutually profitable long term solution.

  11. Carlos S. Carmona, 25/10/2016

    Only one way to buy beef breeders from northern territories. Get them 100 percent certified pregnant. Anything not pregnant at arrival should be rejected and not accepted by the buyer. No discounted price for empties. That is the best way for any buyer not to get screwed specially by cowboy type operators.

  12. Peter Vincent, 25/10/2016

    It’s somewhat perplexing that that indonesian buyers are obliged to change their management if they want Australian”tropical” genetics but Australian vendors aren’t obliged to do a thing about the abysmal reproduction cycle of their product. Antiquated management, very little research and even less implementation, too many “can’t do’s” and too few “can do’s” have led to this situation. Further (recently released) analyses of CRC research projects points the finger directly at not only the abysmal fertility existing in many northern herds but also the willingness to forgive both the cow and one’s own failure to implement corrective management strategies. As Jeanne Seifert points out, composite breeding is the most effective solution to fertility problems if environmental factors remain constant, which appears to be a “given” if Ross Ainsworth is accurate in portraying the customer’s attitude.

  13. Greg Popplewell, Popplewell Composites, 25/10/2016

    I agree with the author that export programs for developing countries should offer support in terms of husbandry extension. I think the poor fertility of Australian tropical cattle exported is however a result of unbalanced breeding objectives, many of which are show ring and fancy focused which are also costing Australian producers big money. This is not exclusive to Brahmans. Both extra fertility and better growth pattern from better balanced selection and composite breeding for hybrid vigour and not blind breed loyalty.

  14. David W Heath, 25/10/2016

    The farmer sees no difference between human breeding and infant upbringing of young to their cattle. It is an aim to suckle an ofspring for two years. So that weaning argument stands for mine regardless of the ‘breed’. Further, getting this important message direct to a recipient farmer, who is possibly 6 down the buy cycle chain is difficult. It’s a waste of time and resources convincing the Politicians, financiers and umpteen amount of agricultural ‘exspurts’ in between the process of purchase to farm tethering. History proves this time and again. The RP Landbank saga in the early 90’s springd to mind here.

  15. J Chris Hughes, 25/10/2016

    Ross’s article is excellent and gives a clear insight into one of the fertility problems associated with the export of breeding cattle to small holder programs in SE Asia especially Indonesia. It is a sad fact that many new exporters automatically promote Australian breeding standards of fertility and reproduction when marketing cattle to this region; which as Ross strongly points out are not relevant and cannot be compared with small holder Indonesian cattle breeding practices. Misunderstanding regarding the differences in cattle management leads to suspicion, mistrust and inevitably a bad reputation for Australian cattle. A most valuable article.
    Chris Hughes

  16. Jeanne Seifert (Seifert Belmont Reds), 25/10/2016

    As you have noted educating the importing Indonesian population to change their management will be slow, if at all, and to date is unsuccessful. Selecting and exporting more fertile genetics would be a quicker solution and assist protecting this valuable market from persistent failure and possible demise. Not ‘All Aussie cows must be weaned”…there is more than one choice in tropically adapted cattle – the significantly more fertile Belmont Red. With 50% lactation anoestrus Brahman females are naturally disadvantaged with respect to fertility. With only 24% lactation anoestrus in the moderate framed tropically adapted Bos Taurus Belmont Red, every 1000 cows will generate an extra 260 calves, when run under the same conditions, and with no change in management. The CASHCOW project recorded our first calf lactating Belmont Red heifers PTIC (12 wk restricted joining period) at 80% which was 45.5% better than the overall mean (78 000 females NT, QLD,WA). NIRS testing recorded our SEQ spear grass forest country to be deficient in energy and protein for 9 months of the year. This means primarily genetics, not the environment or management, is doing its job. Our MCW (mature cow wt) average is an economical 475 kg which is rarely a BCS 3 in our marginal country.

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