What do you get when you cross a Hereford with a Brahman? You are getting a Braford: a prolific animal with amazing mothering ability that lasts a long life and produces a carcase comparable to the best in South Africa. Susan Marais traveled to Bethala in Mpumalanga to learn more about this exceptional breed from Gert van der Merwe and Johan de Jager, owners of Bonheur Brafords.
In the past, Brafords was called the best kept secret in the beef world. But it’s no secret that these medium-sized animals are among the most productive cattle on the planet.
“Its medium frame means the animal recovers from a harsh winter more quickly than a large-framed animal. It is therefore the ideal animal for the Mpumalanga Highveld,” says Gert van der Merwe, founder of Bonheur Brafords. “A stressed animal cannot ovulate, making conception impossible.”
We are sitting on his farm outside Bethal in Mpumalanga. Van der Merwe, a qualified veterinary technician, has been farming this land since the early 1980s. Before that, he was an agricultural advisor for the former OTK (now Afghanistan).
Initially, it started as a dairy producer, but over the years the farm has diversified into various cash crops (corn and soybeans) and cover crops (silage and irrigated legumes). This has become a remarkable undertaking in itself.
Van der Merwe, in partnership with Barenbrug SA, covers and exports crop seeds to various countries around the world.
In 2002, he realized that the dairy’s finances no longer made business sense. According to his calculations at the time, milk could only be profitable from the coastal pastures, a long way from the dry high grass land where he toiled.
This forced him to rethink his business plan and he focused on meat production, especially sheep and cattle production.
Horses have also always been a strong part of the farm. This passion was inherited by his only daughter, Elri de Jager. Not only did he break all previous records with his performance at the Western Equestrian Games in Parys, Free State last year, he is also the polocrosse champion. She met Johan de Jager, her husband and Van der Merwe’s farming partner, at a local polocrosse club.
De Jager didn’t grow up on a farm, he was born with a farmer’s heart. After playing rugby for a few years at the University of Pretoria, the youngster from Middelburg, Mpumalanga, went to the United States to work on a farming farm.
“During the less busy winter period, I would help the neighboring black Angus farmer during the farm’s calving season,” says De Jager. “Cows calved in the snow, and the calves were brought to the barn on a trailer. Mothers would follow and therefore the chance of hypothermia would decrease.”
After working in the US, De Jager returned to South Africa and became a fertilizer salesman, where he also met Elri.
Today, De Jager is mainly involved in animal husbandry, while Van der Merwe oversees the arable side of the business. The enterprise covers an area of 1500 hectares. Part of it is owned by the family and the other part is rented.
The land is located at an altitude of 1660 m above sea level and the soil types vary from grassland to sandy. Water is drawn from wells, and the farm on the dam supplies water for irrigation.
“I’m constantly handing over the reins, but I never plan to fully retire. I will probably stay on the farm and still be part of the business as a consultant,” says Van der Merwe.
Van der Merwe says the decision to start the Braford stud was easy because of the breed’s heterosis. It is the result of crossing the Brahman (Bos indicus) with the Hereford (B. taurus).
The cross between these breeds resulted in an animal that was greater than the sum of its parts.
From Brahman genetics, Braford inherited longevity, smooth skin and good gait. From Hereford, he inherited calving ease, high productivity and an excellent frame for meat production. Bonheur stud was registered with BreedPlan in 2013 and currently consists of 566 registered animals.
“We only have one calving season,” says De Jager. It extends from May to September, which may seem long, but it is due to the fact that they buy animals from different breeders.
“To fix this problem over time, we’re trying to shorten the breeding season by two weeks a year.”
They bought the best genetics from different breeders to expand the breeding gene pool as wide as possible.
Top sperm were also imported from Australia to further increase the gene pool.
The industry seems to agree with the Bonheur breeding plan as one of the breeding bulls sold for a record price of R200 000 at the previous production auction in 2021. Their next production auction will be held on June 22nd at the Polocrosse Club. In Bethal.
One of the main distinguishing qualities of this breed is that Braford heifers are generally ready for pregnancy at an earlier age than heifers of other breeds and usually give birth to their first foal at about 28 months.
“Once the animal reaches 340 kg, it will be artificially inseminated,” says van der Merwe.
This means that the heifer will calve when she reaches 80% of her adult weight of 480-500 kg.
However, after the first calving is completed, the new mother is given an additional month to recover before breeding again. Van der Merwe says this is done because reconception, rather than initial conception, is the most difficult part of successful breeding.
Van der Merwe and De Jager try to produce one calf per year from each cow in terms of the inter-calving period.
Calves are weaned between six and seven months. By then, they have grown to 45% to 50% of their mother’s body weight. “This translates to an average weaning of 225kg for heifers and 235kg for bulls,” says van der Merwe.
De Jager says one of Braford’s best genetic traits is its feed conversion rate.
The US National Center for Biotechnology Information has calculated that at optimal levels, an 18- to 20-month-old Braford bull should have an average daily weight gain of 2.45 kg, with a feed conversion ratio of 5.3:1. In other words, for every kilogram of beef produced, the bull consumes 5.3 kg of feed.
De Jager says this makes it a highly sought-after breed in feedlots. To ensure Bonheur remains competitive, they participate in a 126-day Phase C trial at Sernick each year.
In May 2022, Bonheur’s Braford bull GM 20 043 won gold in the Vleissentraal/SA Stud Book’s Elite Bull Growth Test at the Bloem Show.
De Jager says Brafords not only do well in feedlots, but also perform well on pasture.
“This breed also has excellent marbling and produces high quality meat.”
BIOS SECURITY AND DISEASE PREVENTION
No farmer can farm successfully without a proper biosecurity plan. Although trained as a veterinary technician, Van der Merwe still consulted a veterinarian to develop a biosecurity plan for the farm. Veterinarians are also very important in the screening process to find out which cows are in calf and determine if there are any abnormalities.
“Veterinarians simply offer a more comprehensive service and you know quickly if something is wrong,” explains De Jager.
In addition, Bonheur breeders take tracking very seriously. No animal is transported to or from the farm without the necessary checks.
They also invested in radio frequency identification equipment this year to facilitate tracking from pasture to plate.
“Once you’re armed with the right information, it’s easier to know which animals to get rid of,” says De Jager, while Van der Merwe proudly adds, “Johan is a very careful farmer. He makes decisions with his head, not his heart!”
Email Johan de Jager [email protected].