For the Brahman breeders of South Africa, the challenge of breeding genetically correct animals is one they do not take lightly. They regard it as their responsibility as the benefits will not only extend to commercial beef producers, but also the entire value chain.

Their aim is to produce Brahman meat that is healthy, tender, tasty and affordable. Breeders have made it their mission to achieve this and a number of projects have been launched to bolster these efforts. This includes the ongoing Beef Genomics Project, which aims to benefit the breed and the industry at large.

Growing in popularity

Sydney Hunt, president of the Brahman Cattle Breeders’ Society of South Africa and owner of the Hunt Brahman stud near Warrenton in the Northern Cape, farms 236 breeding cows. He says the Brahman breed is in a very good space worldwide and is even expanding to Europe and Canada.

In the Unites States (US) the breed has lost some popularity as the US market requires large carcasses. This is not the case in South Africa – in fact, the breeders’ society opened separate herd books for the different Bos indicus types, so that breeders can produce animals that meet different market requirements. Despite the gruelling drought in recent years, the number of Brahman breeders increased by 5,6% and the number of stud cattle increased by almost 4 000.

Over the past 90 years, since the Brahman was introduced to the US, the breed has revolutionised beef production and cattle farming in large areas of the tropics, sub-tropics and drier parts of the world.

Good maternal traits, fertility, longevity, hardiness and hybrid vigour make the Brahman the breed of choice in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 70% of cattle in Namibia has Brahman blood or are Brahman types; in Zimbabwe it is 80% and in South Africa 55%.

Good maternal traits, fertility, longevity, hardiness and hybrid vigour make the Brahman the breed of choice in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Brahman is an excellent fit for South Africa and the African continent. The vision of Brahman breeders is to produce an animal that, under South African climate conditions, yields exceptional results due to its adaptability, efficient utilisation of natural grazing, as well as total breeding improvement.

Optimally adapted to perform

Jan van Zyl of the Kroonvee Brahman stud near Vryburg in the North West is an established breeder who farms more than 600 breeding cows. He pays tribute to the pioneers who established and developed the breed in Southern Africa.

The world’s need for protein is growing at an exponential rate and this necessitates the increased production of red meat. By utilising the unique characteristics of the Brahman, it is possible to produce beef extensively at minimal cost, he says.

South African Brahman breeders have managed to breed cattle that are adapted to Africa’s tough conditions. They have also established an integrated database that extends across international borders to the US, Australia and Namibia.

In the past few years, breeders have strictly selected against undesirable traits, the progress of which Jan can proudly see in his own herd where he has strictly selected for docility, fertility and economic beef production.

He believes the younger generation of breeders can take the breed forward, provided that they build on the principle that breeding is a balance between innate knowledge and science. In addition, they have access to ever-improving technology.

Key traits for success

Fertility is the key to profitability and together with the Brahman’s other economically important traits, it makes the breed the undisputable leader in crossbreeding. Over the years several other cattle breeds have been developed out of the Brahman and a study conducted by the University of the Free State, showed that 55% of all cattle herds in the country have Brahman blood in their veins.

Commercial breeders prefer Brahmans because they are excellent mothers, have a high tolerance for heat and drought, transfer excellent hybrid vigour, can withstand parasites quite well, and have a long productive life. These traits mean that the breed requires little input, which saves on costs, and beef can therefore be produced profitably in a country known for its tough farming conditions.

Fertility is the key to profitability and together with the Brahman’s other economically important traits, it makes the breed the undisputable leader in crossbreeding.

Emerging farmers in South Africa operate mainly on communal land, where they mostly keep crossbred cattle. The good crossbreeding potential of the Brahman, combined with its good walking ability and hardiness, makes the breed ideal for emerging farmers.

In his opinion, says Jan, Brahman breeders are the backbone of beef production in the country and established breeders therefore have a duty to transfer their knowledge, expertise and skills to younger breeders.

A hardy, versatile breed

Christiaan and Mieke Botha farm on Weltevreden River Ranch near Maasstroom in Limpopo. They started their Brahman stud in 2015 with only 30 cows and a bull. Today they have 176 breeding cows.

The Brahman’s instinct and adaptability makes it ideal for their arid area. Leopards and heartwater are a big problem. A leopard has on two occasions attempted to catch a calf, says Christiaan, but the herd chased it away, showing once again just how good the Brahman’s mothering instincts are.   

Christiaan believes the younger Brahman breeders who have learned from established breeders and have bought cattle from them are well equipped to take the industry forward. Younger breeders are using the latest technology to their advantage and are making their mark at shows, auctions and Phase D tests. As long as these farmers are passionate and hardworking, they will succeed.

The Botha’s regard meat, milk and docility as key traits. They follow strict selection, slaughter animals that do not meet their requirements and have their animals inspected every year by the breeders’ society’s selectors. They aim to provide the best line-bred Manso Brahmans that will fit into any herd.

Embryo transfer project

They also plan to increase their superior breeding material by making use of an embryo transfer project. Cows that produce an excellent calf every year and whose daughters are better than the mother in terms of femininity, milk production and maternal traits, as well as sons that far exceed the breed average in terms of masculinity, meat traits and muscling will be used.

Embryo transfers are expensive, and one cannot afford to make a mistake when it comes to mating as this means that a year’s progress will likely be lost. They aim for quality rather than quantity. Performance testing is also crucial, and their management system is focused on keeping meticulous measurement records.

With an ever-increasing population that must be fed and almost eleven million cattle in South Africa, the Brahman’s hardiness and functional efficiency make the animals essential to the industry, says Christiaan.

An ongoing learning process

Willie Jacobs of Jacobs Brahmans farms 50 registered Brahman cows near Rustenburg in the North West. In 2012, he bought a commercial cow herd consisting mainly of Brahman type animals. Cattle farming has many challenges, but he believes there is a bright future ahead for young farmers, since there will always be a high demand for affordable red meat.

The drought of the 2015/16 season convinced him to start farming pure Brahmans as the Brahman cows had no trouble reconceiving, despite the difficult conditions.

His aim is to obtain maximum yield from a relatively small piece of land. Before starting the stud, he visited numerous breeders and attended several courses to expand his knowledge. He also received a lot of valuable input from the breeders’ society, especially from the breed director, Sietze Smit.

Expanding your knowledge is vital and Willie says workshops, farmers’ days, auctions and shows are good places to do so. He also uses these events to determine market trends and advertise his stud animals. While attending these events, he says, it is important to use observation to strike a balance between phenotypic and genotypic traits in animals.

A rosy future

The future of the Brahman is bright and in safe hands if you look at the younger breeders who are now joining the industry, says Willie. There is a great demand for breeding animals, and for decades the Brahman has shown itself to be an animal that can perform under difficult conditions, especially in South Africa.

In his experience feedlots favour crossbred Brahman-type animals because of their adaptability, excellent growth and beneficial feed conversion, which in turn increases profitability. The Brahman is also sought after by emerging farmers, which creates an additional market opportunity.

Despite many challenges, such as foot-and-mouth disease and uncertainty relating to land reform, there is still an opportunity for innovative young farmers to produce affordable red meat.

Willie says he likes to share his knowledge with emerging farmers. He also offers several 18- to 24-month-old performance tested bulls at lower prices to these farmers each year.

For more information, phone the Brahman Cattle Breeders’ Society of South Africa on 051 446 4619 or visit – Andries Gouws, Stockfarm