Thursday, July 7, 2022

Meating the market

Success is about creating a point of difference and meeting the demands of the market for a Canterbury farming couple. That is the reasoning behind the genetic path Jason and Tracey McDonald have chosen to go down with their beef herd. They focus on feed efficiency and the meat qualities of marbling and tenderness. The couple farm Cheddar Valley, a 2300ha hill country property near Waiau in North Canterbury.

Originally from Southland, they took over the farm in 2004 when it was 3300ha running 10,000 ewes and 500 breeding cows.

They have since downsized by 1000ha and consolidated with a focus on reducing costs and increasing production off a smaller area.

They now run 5000 ewes, 1500 hoggets and 240 breeding cows. Lambs are finished on heavyweight contracts on a brother’s farm at Onslow in Central Otago while calves are sold directly to Silver Fern Farms, though Jason and Tracey grow them out and are paid on a weight gain basis.

When the couple took over Cheddar Valley they inherited a traditional Hereford and Hereford-Angus breeding cow herd.

Jason says those cows just didn’t perform with an unacceptably high number of dry cows every year as well as a high incidence of cancer eye.

A change was needed so when the chance to buy 150 Rissington cows plus sire bulls from a local farmer arose, they took it.

All cattle on Cheddar Valley need to have an excellent temperament.

They do, however, hold onto these calves and grow them out for weight-gain based payments.

The calves are pen-weaned, held in the pens for a few days until they are completely settled. They are then put onto semi-covered feed pads for the winter.

This wintering system has been extremely successful – though Jason jokes that it is about as low-tech as it gets.

The couple just use unused hay barns with a hot-wire keeping the calves in a loosely confined area.

A new bale of straw is laid in the shed for bedding every week and self- feed baleage feeders are topped up with baleage every couple of days.

Jason says the calves seem incredibly content wintering on baleage with a roof over their heads whenever it rains.

This is reflected in weight gains and last year their heifer calves gained 45-50kg over the three and a half months while the steer calves which were wintered on feed crops at Jason’s brother’s farm in Central Otago gained very little weight over winter.

This year Jason and Tracey will hold onto the steer calves and winter them in another unused hay shed.

Jason allocates one and a half bales of baleage an animal for the three and a half months so says cost-wise, this feed-pad wintering system is a fraction of the cost of a winter feed crop with none of the pugging or soil damage.

He does admit that doesn’t take into account the role feed crops play in a pasture renovation programme.

Well positioned to reap rewards

Not finishing the calves means the McDonalds aren’t seeing the results of their breeding programme on their killing sheets nor are they being paid a premium for the calves.

Both Tracey and Jason are philosophical about that as they know they are responding to market signals and will be well positioned to reap the rewards should they be paid for marbling and tenderness.

The couple does receive images of the carcases from Silver Fern Farms which helps affirm that they are on the right track.

While Jason and Tracey have been prepared to invest in the subjective measuring of traits using DNA technology, they have been more reluctant to risk big money on bulls which are not guaranteed to perform or last the distance.

“I can’t see the sense in spending $10,000 on a run bull that will only leave around 30 calves.”

They have been buying bulls from Earnscleugh, which match their breeding objectives and have been leaving some progeny from their crossbreeding programme entire – using them themselves and selling a small number.

Jason and Tracey believe there is a gap in the market for reasonably-priced yearling run bulls which commercial farmers can use for a season before finishing them off and having them killed.

While they have a couple of potential clients already, they have not marketed these bulls, which they have branded Rangers, but are ensuring they are proven performers in their own operation.

“We are not trying to compete with anybody – we are just doing our own thing.”

The Ranger bulls are selected from the calf crop and as the McDonalds are using a Te Pari adult castrating system they can afford to leave the calves a bit longer before marking them.

They select bulls on conformation, structure and most importantly, temperament, and DNA test them to ensure they have the genetic make-up to produce efficient animals with the desired meat characteristics.

Jason says what they have done with their beef cattle is pretty simple.

“We have just recorded our commercial herd.

“We record weaning weights and growth rates and the rest of the figures come from DNA samples – it’s not too onerous – we’re not getting into parentage or anything like that.”

Around 40 heifers are retained as replacements every year. Again their selection criteria are based on structure, conformation and temperament but they also keep only the red calves to ensure consistency in the breeding herd.

These heifers are mated as yearlings to a Ranger bull and calved behind a wire. Last year they pulled just one calf. 

Genetics testing ground

Topography is a limiting factor on Cheddar valley.

With only 60ha of flats both sheep and cattle need to perform on steep hill country.

The McDonald family have Kelso and Snowliner and Ranger studs which are run between properties in Southland, Central Otago and Cheddar Valley.

Of the 5000 ewes run on Cheddar Valley, 300 are stud Kelso ewes and 1300 are Snowliner stud ewes.

The property is a good testing ground for their genetics and Jason says while they lamb an average of 137% (to ewes mated) most of his clients have a higher lambing percentage than they do.

Only around 25% of the hill country is able to be developed, the rest is tussock country which is too steep to run a tractor over.

In an effort to improve the quality of feed produced on the hill country, Jason has recently sown lucerne on some pretty steep looking hill blocks.

If successful this feed will be used to grow out young stock, especially ewe lambs.

After weaning, all lambs (except replacement ewe lambs) are sent off to Jason’s brother’s farm in Central Otago where they are finished on specialist forage crops to heavy weights.

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