LRF Stockman School 2023

The 15th annual LRF Stockman School took place from the 11th-13th of October 2023, at Aldam. The theme of this year’s Stockman School was “Profit Drivers in Bull Selection”, which opened doors for a variety of different lecture topics from an array of esteemed speakers.

The Wednesday morning session was kicked off by Prof. Theo Venter, a Professor in Practice at the College of Business and Economics at University of Johannesburg. Prof. Venter presented a lecture that examined the South African Political Scene Pre- and Post 2024. While most have set subjective opinions on the matter Prof. Venter delivered objective insights into South Africa’s political environment in conjunction to those of the rest of the world. He used the word “Ambiguity” as the primary descriptor for the country’s current state of affairs and stated that “we can reframe out perspective to accept ambiguity as a norm and learn to lean into the adventure.” An optimistic takeaway to incorporate into daily life.

The second lecture was delivered by Mr. Mooketsa Ramasodi, the Director-general of DALRRD. Mr. Ramasodi presented on the South African government’s investment in the future of the South African Livestock Industry with a specific focus on traceability and animal health. The driver of his presentation was the recent FMD outbreaks, and he presented us with a roadmap to FMD recovery, developed by the DALRRD. Key points in the roadmap included the development of a strong marketing strategy to increase awareness about FMD, defining relevant physical boundaries to prevent spreading of the disease, developing a sustainable animal identification and traceability system to incite some control over transborder movement of animals and stock theft, and lastly to revise and improve the control and veterinary procedural notice. It was encouraging to learn of the dedication and determination with which the government is investing in the health and future of the South African Livestock Industry.

The morning’s third lecture was given by Prof. Phillip Strydom, a Professor in Meat Science at Stellenbosch University. Prof. Strydom tackled the topic of the improving the value of red meat through the implementation of a grading system. It is no secret that red meat producers have been calling for a grading system to be implemented in South Africa for quite some time as it would be of greater value to breeders, producers and consumers than the current classification system. One of the key points delivered by Prof. Strydom was that there are no points in the production cycle that are more important than others. The genetics selected for and inherited at conception, to management and feed consumption during the animal’s life, all the way through to the “muscle to meat” conversion process all play a role in the final product purchased and consumed by the consumer and a grading system takes all these factors into account better than a classification system does. Prof. Strydom left the audience with lots of food for thought as well as a better understanding of the science behind the need for a grading system.

The morning session was ended off with a presentation on purchasing a reproductively healthy bull, delivered by Prof. Dietmar Holm, the Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria. The buzz phrase of Prof. Holm’s lecture was “reproductive soundness”. He emphasized that the concept is encapsulated by 3 factors namely, health and biosecurity; genetic merit and freedom from known heritable diseases; and the ability to impregnate 30+ females in a limited breeding season. Prof. Holm stressed the importance of considering all 3 factors when looking to purchase a new bull for one’s herd as focusing in on only one could prove detrimental to reproductive efficiency and overall profitability. The take home message: Reproductive soundness, reproductive soundness, REPRODUCTIVE SOUNDNESS!

Before breaking for lunch, attendees were split into groups for practical sessions where they had the opportunity to observe a live RTU scanning demonstration by Ms. Nandi Wessels, the LRF’s RTU scanning technician, and a physical appraisal of carcass traits demonstrated by Mr. Jan de Jong, an interbeed judge. Following these two demonstrations, attendees were given an opportunity to take part in a competition where they could predict and judge the carcasses of live animals.

The afternoon session of Day 1 was started by Ms. Anri Strauss, a ruminant scientific adviser at Chemuniqué. Ms. Strauss delivered a lecture on the lifetime management of bulls, highlighting that it starts in utero. Ms. Strauss mentioned that progesterone, the hormone that is secreted during pregnancy to maintain it, is a precursor to cortisol, a stress hormone. Thus, the progesterone levels of cows/heifers newly pregnant with bulls, can drop if the dam’s cortisol levels spike due to progesterone being used in cortisol formation, increasing her chances of aborting the pregnancy. Ms. Strauss further mentioned the following key points: zinc, copper and manganese are integral for reproduction and deficiencies in these minerals can lead to decreased placental development and up to 30% lower implantation rate of the fertilized egg to the uterine wall. Further, Ms. Strauss explained that nutrient restrictions or deficiencies in the dam during gestation can have adverse effects on the lifetime growth of her calf. Therefore, supplementing minerals during the 3rd trimester can positively influence lifetime growth and fertility of the foetus. The take-away message was that one can have all the genetic potential possible in a bull, however, it will mean nothing if that bull does not have the best potential for lifetime growth, lifetime immunity and lifetime reproduction. Sufficient nutrient and mineral stores are essential to these potentials.

The 2nd afternoon lecture was presented by Mr. Jan van Zyl, an experienced Brahman stud breeder. Mr. van Zyl delivered a motivating talk driven by the topic of bull management. One of the important points he made was that the last 3 bulls one adds to one’s herd will have the greatest impact on your herd; leaving an influence that lasts up to 25 years. To build on this point Mr. van Zyl emphasized that when searching for a new bull to add to one’s herd, one must consider that a bull should look like a bull (strong, muscular, and well-formed testes) and act like one too (protect his herd and show interest when cows pass by). Mr. van Zyl drove home his presentation with two remarks that have been his personal motivators since starting his stud, “If you can dream it, you can do it” and “Identify the weak points of the breed and make them the strength of your herd”.

The third lecture of the afternoon was from Prof. Leon Prozesky, veterinarian and owner of Path Diagnostics South Africa. Prof. Prozesky spoke to the attendees about the protocol for dealing with diseases and outbreaks as well as suspicious deaths in one’s herd. He stressed the importance of alerting a veterinary professional immediately if any known transboundary diseases (East Coast fever, Contagious bovine pleuro pneumonia, Rinderpest) or endemic disease (FMD) breakout or are suspected of breaking out on one’s farm. Any delay in reporting a possible outbreak event or suspicious death, even if it is based on speculation, can prove detrimental to not only one’s own herd but the wellbeing of all the animals in a province, in extreme cases – as we have witnessed with the recent FMD outbreaks caused by illegal movement of animals out of FMD controlled zones in Limpopo and KZN.

The final presentation of Day 1 was delivered by Prof. Kennedy Dzama, vice-dean of the Agrisciences faculty at Stellenbosch University, and Dr. Cornelius Nel, a scientist at the Directorate of Animal Science for the Western Cape Department of Agriculture. Prof. Dzama and Dr. Nel gave a lecture on the state of genomics and the subsequent impact of bull selection in South Africa. The lecture unpacked various components of genetic selection such as phenotyping, genotyping, EBVs and genetic gain/progress, as well as various factors related to genomics. Genomics was simply described as “studying the structure and variation of populations at the DNA level” and selection based on genomics can be of greater accuracy and yield improved rate of genetic gain. The esteemed lecturers noted that genomic selection is particularly useful for hard to measure traits (feed efficiency at grazing), traits with low heritability (fertility) and sex-limited traits (milk production). Furthermore, the challenges of genomic selection were explained to be found in compiling large and diverse enough reference populations, across breed predictions and strong enough relationships between reference (~benchmark) and candidate (~subject) populations. Prof. Dzama and Dr. Nel closed up their presentation by painting a regional picture for the attendees as to where South Africa falls in terms of development and progress of genomic selection platforms. They explained that whilst our resources are limited, we have developed a small but important foundation for genomic selection. To keep improving and developing it, collaboration within country will be of utmost importance and it would also be valuable for us to focus on Sanga breeds and local synthetics, where we have a competitive advantage in terms of performance and population sizes. The optimistic take-home message is that we are players on the field in the “game” of genomic improvement. However, it should not be enough to simply be on the field – we should tap into our regional strengths and strive to meaningfully contribute to the game plan of progress.

The first lecture of Day 2 was a little different from all the others as attendees were welcomed by the pre-recorded voice of Dr. Steve Miller, the Director of the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit of Australia. Dr. Miller could not physically attend the Stockman School, so he put together and pre-recorded his lecture all the way in Australia. Dr. Miller’s lecture was an informative continuation from Prof. Dzama and Dr. Nel’s lecture on genomic selection from the previous afternoon, as he discussed BREEDPLAN’s single-step genomic evaluation and provided a lot of background information on the process of developing accurate single-step breeding values (AKA genomic EBVs). One of the memorable points made by Dr. Miller, and possibly the take-home message of his lecture, was that the universal truth of livestock selection is “data = accuracy = progress”. In other words, the more data collected (phenotypic measurements), the more traits can be analysed (EBVs), the more accuracy there will be for those EBVs, which will lead to more progress. This reemphasizes the point that one cannot know what they do not measure.

Lecture number 2 on Day 2 was delivered by the Society’s own Ms. Jody Young. Ms. Young unpacked the ever-important meat quality characteristics. This subject seems to be an “iceberg/Titanic” type situation as many believe to understand that meat quality is important because it influences profitability and consumer satisfaction, but they do not fully understand why or how. Ms. Young explained that meat quality is encapsulated by attributes such as Appearance, Eating/Sensory, Reliance and Nutritional value/Health. Furthermore, she explained that it is influenced by a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Ms. Young highlighted that looking forward, advances in biotechnology would allow for more high-density genotyping, explanation of variation observed and practical methods of measuring meat quality, could potentially lead to improved outputs.

The 15th annual LRF Stockman School was especially honoured to have Mr. Paul Williams, a technical extension services officer at the Agricultural Business Research Institute of Australia, fly over all the way from Australia to present a couple of lectures this year. The first of Mr. Williams’ lectures was centred around bull selection and the key point he made was that it is the driver of genetic progress. Whilst both the dam and sire contribute 50% of their genetics to their offspring, Mr. Williams stated that “87.5% of the genetic makeup of the calf crop is determined by the sires used over the last 3 generations” … Mr. Jan van Zyl made a similar point in his lecture. Therefore, when buying a bull, one is essentially purchasing a package of genes. Ensure that what you buy will help you meet your breeding objectives and allow for genetic progress.

The second last morning lecture of Day 2’s morning session was delivered by Ms. Lisa Rumsfeld, the Vice-President of International Commercial Operations at Vytelle. Ms. Rumsfeld provided some background on the work that Vytelle (formerly known as GrowSafe) is doing to increase genetic gain for feed efficiency through feeding trials with specially designed measuring technologies. She also made some key statements based on observations from Vytelle’s research, the first being that it is possible to select for feed efficiency independently of other traits and without inciting undesirable correlated responses. The second being that a 95% correlation has been reported between heifer and cow efficiency. Ms. Rumsfeld further presented a photo that demonstrated the difference between an efficient bull and an inefficient bull in terms of feed intake and growth. This photo can be seen in the technical article: Advances in Feed Efficiency through Genomic Technologies.

The final morning lecture was presented by Ms. Megan Hilton, a masters student in Animal Science at the University of Pretoria. Ms. Hilton spoke about precision livestock farming and the usefulness thereof for feedlot cattle in South Africa. The main points addressed in her presentation were those of the rising demand for red meat, the subsequent increase in assistance required by farmers to keep up with the demand, how precision livestock farming can grant some of that assistance without necessarily replacing on-farm labour personnel and that it creates opportunity for the generation of large volumes of data with little input. Ms. Hilton also mentioned that the presumed cost involved in implementing precision livestock farming can be a deterrent to many farmers, but that it should not be as there are many various types of precision livestock farming tools that are commercially available and ultimately the implementation thereof becomes cost effective in the long run.

After lunch on day 2, attendees were divided into groups and rotated between 3 out of 6 sessions. The various sessions covered and were presented by the following:

  1. Semen evaluation of bulls and how to manage bull fertility – Dr. Collin Albertyn, Veterinarian – Absolute Genetics
  2. Better bull buying – Dr Mario Beffa: Animal Scientist, LRF CEO
  3. Available reproductive technologies to accelerate genetic improvement – Dr Collin Albertyn, Veterinarian – Absolute Genetics
  4. Setting up breeding objectives for your herd – Mr. Johan Styger, Beef cattle stud breeder
  5. Data recording and herd management mad easy – HerdMASTER – Ms. Jeaning Labuschagne, HerdMASTER support at LRF
  6. Sustainable herd health management – Dr. Schabort Froneman, Technical manager, ruminants – Zoetis

Day 2 ended with the lecture hall being transformed into a magnificent fairylight-adorned prize-giving, gala dinner hall where attendees gathered for a delicious 3-course meal and to celebrate the various prize-winners. It was here that the BREEDPLAN stud-breeder of the year was awarded to Heinz and Almut Gruhn of the Otongovi Hereford stud based in Namibia.

The final day of lectures was kicked off with Mr. Paul Williams’ second presentation that covered the topic of bull selection to improve carcass traits. Mr. Williams, who is also a highly experienced scanning technician, provided a brief overview of each of the carcass trait EBVs produced by BREEDPLAN before explaining the ins and outs of collecting ultrasound scanning data for carcass traits. One very important point that Mr. Williams made was that one should leave the scanning till as late as possible, because fat deposition and coverage, as well as muscle area, is more prominent and easily detected through ultrasound scanning from 600 days of age in beef cattle. Additionally, Mr. Williams noted that scanning heifers can be just as valuable to the BREEDPLAN analysis of carcass traits. He elaborated that heifers mature earlier than bulls, thus they carry more fat at the same age and have a greater variation in rib and rump fat depth. ½-sib heifers and bulls will also connect and integrate ultrasound data, allowing for more accurate information on the bulls. Whilst ultrasound scanning has raised many questions amongst South African stud breeders, Mr. Williams maintained that when conducted correctly (by an accredited, experienced scanning technician), at an appropriate age (not too early) and on large groups of animals (both heifers and bulls), ultrasound scanning data makes valuable contributions to carcass trait EBVs.

Lecture 2 of Day 3 was delivered by another of the Society’s own, Mr. Kobus Bester. Mr. Bester gave an insightful presentation on interpreting sale catalogue data. He compared breeding stock to farm equipment, highlighting that purchasing breeding stock should be viewed similarly to investing in new farm equipment – one studies the fact sheet (catalogue) and purchases based on needs/expectations to reach goals, return on investment and resale value (rest value). Mr. Bester went on to break down the various informational components within a sale catalogue lot; General animal information (D.O.B, herdbook status, horn status, registration status), Pedigree information (indicates predictability), Genotype data – MIP/SNP (parent verification, genetic condition indicator), Reproduction information (calving record and AFC, DLC), Management indicators (AFC, ICP), EBV data (EBV, EBV accuracy, breed average) and lastly, Traits observed (performance measurements the animal has on record). It is important to know what one is looking at in a sale catalogue in order to interpret the information correctly and make informed, wise breeding stock investment decisions that will allow one to achieve one’s breeding objectives.

Prof. Frikkie Neser, the HOD for Animal Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the University of the Free State, presented the second last lecture of the day and he spoke about the true value of using performance tested stud bulls in one’s herd. Prof. Neser began by outlining the general structure of the livestock industry, explaining that seed stock farmers (stud breeders) produce the genetics used by commercial and potential commercial farmers, who in turn produce either for emerging and/or subsistence farmers or the consumer. Prof. Neser also explained that stud breeding entails careful selection of animals to obtain genetic progress/improvement based on industry needs. The estimated breeding values attached to stud bulls are likely to be better, more accurate, indicators of the genetics those bulls could contribute to a herd. Therefore, stud bulls create opportunity for commercial farmers to make faster genetic progress within their herds, based on accurate scientific data. Prof. Neser further highlighted that not selecting the right bull or a bull without proven data, for genetic progress in one’s herd, could lead to rapid loss of years of genetic progress already made. Therefore, one should consider investing in proven bulls with more reliable genetic data in order to adapt to changing consumer demands.

The final lecture of the 15th LRF Stockman School was delivered by Dr. Louis du Pisani, a specialist Agri consultant. Dr. du Pisani presented a captivating lecture on increasing profitability through improved rangeland and soils. This topic was of particular value to attendees as soil is arguably the most precious resource on farm, yet it is often spoken about the least. Dr. du Pisani highlighted the complex and vital interdependent relationship between plants and the organisms that live within and between their roots (soil microbiome). He explained that what happens above ground influences what happens underground and vice versa; water, photosynthesis and aboveground biodiversity are the primary activators of the microbiome, whilst the microbiome feeds back into supporting the plants available for livestock grazing. Dr. du Pisani concluded that livestock farmers/breeders must learn how to activate the microbiome and cease activities that inactivate it. He summed it up this way; “Healthy plants lead to healthy soil. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants. Healthy soil and plants lead to healthy animals (and people who eat their products). Healthy animals lead to healthy profits.”

The 15th LRF Stockman School was a stellar learning experience that provided attendees with a variety of resources and knowledge to equip them for profitable bull selection. Thank you to the LRF for creating this opportunity where farmers can learn and grow to invest the knowledge back into their farming operations.