To succeed as a profitable commercial cattle farmer in this era, we need to stop breeding large, unsustainable cows and bulls, and we need to change our approach to grazing management, say leading cattlemen, Chip Hines (US) and Johann Zietsman (southern Africa)
“Churchill once said: ‘You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life’. Which is why I don’t mind being controversial and speaking out against outdated cattle farming practices that are not sustainable, profitable or good for the environment.”
These are the words of American cattleman and sustainable cattle ranching pioneer, Chip Hines. Two of his books, ‘How did we get it so wrong?’ and ‘Time to change’ share the same concerns and call to change as southern African cattleman, Johann Zietsman’s book ‘Man, Cattle and Veld’.
American cattleman: Chip Hines
Colorado-based Chip Hines has been a cattle rancher all his life. Today, he shares his approach with thousands of commercial cattle farmers globally. “My mission is to encourage all cattle farmers to start opening their minds and eyes to what is staring us in the face and crying out for change,” he says.
Hines started working on cattle ranches after high school in the 1950s and started his own commercial herd with his late wife Judy on leased land in southeast Colorado 1968. “Cattle and grass became our lifelong endeavor, along with working out how to look after the natural rangeland or veld as you call it, and to generate decent cash flow from commercial cattle ranching.”
Hines explains that what was and is still being taught about cattle ranching at many of the colleges and universities in the United States is on the wrong track: “Many of the academic and breeding specialists have simply led us from one fad to another – from one extreme of what they called the ideal bull or cow to the other extreme. We soaked this up without taking a good look at how the conformation and size of the so-called ideal animal has radically changed over the decades.
Wrongly fixated on weaning weights
“All this has led us away from profitability and into a corner where most cattle farmers are still fixated on individual animal performance and increased weaning weights because this is what the conventionally-minded academics and registered breeders told us to do.”
He says that what cattle farmers should in fact be fixating on is on understanding the crucial difference between kilograms of production per animal and kilograms of production per acre. “The latter is where you make profit, and it has nothing to do with increased weaning weights.”
He explains that production per acre is all about raising increasing your numbers of healthy weaners, as opposed to producing a smaller number of heavy weaners.
“Commercial cattle farming is all about producing functional, hardy cattle that live off well-managed veld, based on a system that includes high density grazing with adequate rest in the growing season,” he explains. Cattle on this type of grazing require minimum inputs, such as a suitable lick in winter or times of drought. Cows in this system produce a higher number of calves that meet the requirements of the beef industry.
“Instead, what are most cattle farmers still doing? They are continuously grazing their camps – which destroys the cover and the diversity of palatable grass species,” he explains. “As a result they are often forced to provide their animals with expensive feed to keep up their body weights, because their veld is overgrazed and no longer as productive as it should be.”
How did we get it so wrong?
The question that Chip asked himself is ‘How did we get so wrong?’ in order to steer cattle farming towards a more sustainable, profitable, healthier direction.
“I spent a lot of time reading people like Allan Savory and Johann Zietsman and thinking about how the whole system works – the soil, the environment, the livestock and everything in between. I also spent a lot of time observing what has happened to cattle over the years, and I realised that we are very far from how the animal is supposed to work in its environment.”
Crossbreeding Herefords with Barzonas
In 1998 Chip’s journey towards sustainable cattle farming took off in the right direction on his ranch in southeast Colorado and he never looked back. He started crossbreeding Herefords with Barzona cattle – a breed of cattle developed in Arizona to run in tough country, but which also does well in lush grasslands areas:
“It was the equivalent of crossing any large Bos taurus breed with smaller, more adapted, disease-resistant Bos indicus breeds, notably African breeds such as Ngunis, Mashonas, Borans or Tulis,” he explains. “In so doing I removed myself from academics and registered breeders’ obsessed with big weaning weights and started farming with greater numbers of smaller, hardier cows and bulls.
It is all quite simple
“It is all quite simple,” he elaborates. “To be profitable, the commercial farmer needs to keep costs down and run smaller-size cattle in smaller camps. The farmer then practices high density, fast-rotation grazing, using all the wonderful, lower cost inputs we have available to us these days, such as electric fencing. Using this system and with sufficent rest between grazes (from 45 to 90+ days) improves the condition of the veld, and increases the number of good grasses. Based on this approach, most cattle farmers can double their profit per hectare.
“In contrast, it is entirely the wrong move to select large bulls and large cows. The large bull, large cow approach is about egos; it is not about practical, profitable commercial cattle farming.”
Rethink the traits to select when buying a bull
Chip believes that commercial cattle farmers globally have to rethink the traits they are selecting when buying a bull: “Too many farmers still think a big, fattened bull is the best buy but it is not; you need to by a smaller-framed, shiny, healthy, stocky bull. In selecting a bull you need to look at his mother – and she should be a good, small, structurally sound (good feet, legs, teeth, muzzle, eyes, coat), easy-fleshing cow in the 1000 pound (454kg) range, with the ability to wean a calf that is a approximately 55% of her own body weight. Bulls not larger than 1800 pounds (800kgs) bulls will be the most efficient.”
An “easy-fleshing” cow is a low-maintenance animal with the ability to maintain good body condition, even on limited feed resources.
Reduce your bull and cow size
A growing number of farmers in the US now understand that it makes sense to reduce their cow size as big cows require more grazing and more energy to maintain their body weight and milk production.”
One such outfit that practices this approach very successfully is the Pharo Cattle Company in the high plains of eastern Colorado. This is short-grass country with very limited and unpredictable rainfall. Our annual precipitation on the ranch will average only 12 inches.
The Pharo Cattle Company has been successfully operating for over 30 years, based on its philosophy of smaller, efficient cows and smaller, efficient bulls that live off the veld. Their seedstock programme includes Red Angus, Black Angus, Hereford, Tarentaise, Mashona, as well as composites of these breeds.
Rasing cattle the way you ought to
Their slogan is: ‘Buy your bulls from someone who raises cattle the way you ought to’. Kit Pharo of the Pharo Cattle Company explains why they do things differently: “The beef industry was built on cheap land, cheap feed, cheap equipment, cheap labour and cheap fuel. As the cost of land, feed and other inputs continues to increase, you have to produce cows with much lower maintenance requirements.” He adds that this is a prerequisite in countries that battle with drought.
The Pharo Cattle Company now has four sales a year – two in Colorado, one in Missouri, and one in Ohio – where they sell a total number of about 800 bulls annually. They do not feed their bulls any maize or corn to fatten them, therefore the bulls on the sales are not fat; they are veld-fit and healthy.
Going against the status quo
“Of course many of the registered cattle breeders who go for high growth like to discredit people like Kit and myself because we are going against the status quo,” Chip explains. “But I am pleased to say that worldwide increasing numbers of farmers are coming around now and learning about the benefits of smaller cattle and well managed grazing.”
Sustainable, low input farming
‘Sustainable’, on the other hand is the exact opposite. It relies on management that works with the natural environment and which requires little in the way of purchased inputs. This reliance will allow an operation to survive in uncertain times, including droughts and high fuel prices.
“Low input farmers base their operations on the proven natural mode that prevailed for thousands of years without our help. We are currently in a very contentious world-wide situation and conditions could flip flop overnight. In times like this it is important to ensure your livestock inputs are at the lowest point possible. Breeding and managing cattle for the absolute lowest input needs will put you well in front of your neighbours who might ridicule what you are doing but who are still cocooned in their artificial modes and fads.”
Southern African cattleman: Johann Zietsman
Southern African cattleman Johann Zietsman’s book Man, Cattle and Veld is a powerful, practical, controversial work that inspires cattlemen to buck the status quo, challenge outdated approaches and increase their production by more than 50%.
“Many cattleman are producing at less than 50% of their potential because their cattle are not bred and managed optimally, production costs are increasing, veld is degrading and carrying capacity declining. The good news is that it need not be this way,” says Johann, who studied at the University of Pretoria under Professor Jan Bonsma and graduated with a BSc Agric (Cum laude) in Animal Science in the early 1970s.
He combines more than 40 years of extensive on farm research in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia and he currently helps cattle farmers in southern Africa, the United States, Mexico, Hawaii, Paraguay, Bolivia and Colombia to optimize their grassland management and cattle production to achieve maximum sustainable profit per hectare. He does this without elaborate grazing plans and complex mathematical calculations, which tend to discourage most farmers.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing my knowledge if I hadn’t done it myself,” he says.
Conventional methods that haven’t changed since the 1950s
He encourages cattle farmers to be innovative and is critical of many of the higher education institutions in South Africa that he sees as continuing to teach ‘conventional’ methods of cattle and veld management, unchanged since the 1950s.
“Institutions and research centres should be transformed into innovative model ranches for the 21st century, focusing on developing and testing sustainable methods of cattle production and veld restoration. Animal scientists should start their careers as herdsmen and advance to model farmer status before becoming professors.”
Johann’s own mindshift came on 12 January 1995. “It is a day I will remember clearly for the rest of my life,” he recalls. It was the day he started practising ultra-high density, quick rotation grazing on Pumula, his 800ha sourveld farm in the Karoi district of Zimbabwe.
“We would get 1 000mm of rain in four months,” he continues. “The grass grew incredibly quickly and there was a lot of it. But 86% was the very fibrous Sporobolus pyramidalis, while the more palatable grasses, such as Setaria, Digitaria, Urochloa and Panicum species, were in the minority. We also had severe soil capping in the dry season,
I had to find a non-selective grazing method
“I had to find a non-selective grazing method to graze down the grass sward, soften it and break the capping of the soil. But at the same time I had to make sure that I maintained good condition and production in the cattle.”
He used a single-strand portable electric fence – the most cost effective system – to divide 800ha into 2 000 camps. He initially put 90 cattle on strips of around 0,3ha each, grazing the grass right down and then moving them every two to three hours. Eventually, herds of up to 700 were managed this way.
I needed a hardy 300kg – 400kg cow
“Putting cattle under pressure like this I realised I needed a hardy 300kg – 400kg cow with good inherent body condition and a high grass intake relative to her size,” Johann continues. I realised that my Beefmaster herd needed indigenous genetics to achieve this smaller body size, hardiness and natural resistance to parasites and disease.
“I used semen from a Mashona bull on my cows in order to create the Veldmaster breed. The Mashona is similar to the Nguni, without doubt the hardiest and most parasite and disease resistant breed in South Africa. I subsequently introduced Angoni and Boran. There are so many fascinating breeds of African cattle. The hybrid vigour obtained from crossbreeding African breeds with British or European breeds typically produces strong, resistant cattle that gain weight well.
“If you are a stud breeder, you are obviously going to keep your breed pure. But the same criteria for selection apply, namely early sexual maturity, inherent body condition, high 12-month maturity and high meat to bone ratio.”
He adds that a supplementary lick containing urea to feed the rumen bacteria is crucial for cattle on veld with a high percentage of moribund or lignified grasses or shrubs.
Dramatic improvement in grassland quality
The combination of grazing, hoof action, dunging and urinating resulted in the quality of the grass and species diversity improving dramatically. Johann monitored the grass species composition of the veld over several years. He explains that in 1995 he had 86% unpalatable species, 9,5% semi-palatable and 4,5% palatable species. One year later he had 46% unpalatable, 28% semi-palatable and 26% palatable species. Two years later he trebled his original stocking rate.
“African grasses have evolved under severe grazing from migratory herds of game,” he explains. “They are resistant to severe grazing but they require time to recover. If grazed before it has had time to recover, the plant becomes weaker. This is what happens with continuous grazing, or poorly managed rotational grazing. The length of time grasses need to rest depends on the environment. A drier environment requires a longer recovery period and larger drought reserve. Sourveld requires much shorter recovery periods.”
He emphasises that each cattleman must establish what works best in his specific environmental conditions within the high density to ultra-high density continuum of camps of several hectares to the very small camps of his own extreme version.
“It was all about crossing barriers – especially those of herd size and grazing density,” Johann continues. “I then clearly understood what South Africa’s veld doyen and non-selective grazing pioneer John Acocks meant when he said in the early 1950s: ‘South Africa is overgrazed and understocked’. This is one of the most profound statements ever in the field of natural resource management.”
Profit per hectare, not profit per animal
Johann explains that a low stocking rate can produce some good-looking animals, but this is not good for the veld or the pocket. “Profit from cattle is about inherent body condition and improving the veld through well-managed, high density, quick-rotation grazing. It is based on good and sustainable profit per hectare, not on maximum individual animal performance.”
Of conventional cattle management, he says: “Conventional cattle practice, where cattle are put in a camp for a period of time, cannot be described as management. Management, in terms of grazing, means controlling each hoof and mouth relative to animal impact, selectivity of grazing, and time on and off an area of land. This type of control requires making decisions on an hourly to daily basis, the essence of management.”
He goes further to say that conventional management and breed society standards, presented as ‘best practice’, are in reality merely contrived perceptions about what a group of people think the ‘ideal’ bull, ‘ideal’ cow, ‘ideal’ calving weight, ‘ideal’ weaning weight, ‘ideal’ carcass weight and others to be.
From overfed dwarf to lanky freak
“Amongst cattle breeders in the 1950s the ‘ideal type’ of beef animal was an overfed dwarf. In an overreaction to this, the ‘ideal type’ of the 1980s was a lanky, slab-sided freak (‘draadkar’), the progeny of which had difficulty fattening in the feedlot, let alone on the veld. Now they seem to prefer a ‘middle-of-the-road type’, whatever that means.”
Leading from this, he is dismissive about cattle show judging, competitions and herd inspections. These, he says, have nothing to do with cattle. “They have everything to do with fashion, man’s disconnection from nature and man’s ego. However, the consequences are negative and far-reaching.”
Visual appraisal does have a place, he admits, but practical fertility (inherent body condition in addition to hormonal balance) is crucial.
We are culling the most veld-productive cattle
“What logic is there in culling a good, fertile bull or and cow simply because they do not conform to the ‘ideal type’?” he asks. “Or discriminating against a certain colour, colour marking (or lack thereof) or twist of the scrotum when investigation has proved no relationship with fertility? Worse still, culling the most veld-productive cattle on basis of man-made growth criteria (weaning weight, weight for age, average daily gain…”
He cites the discrimination against the short, masculine, early sexually maturing bulls with high testosterone levels. “Because such a bull reaches sexual maturity early, his frame stops growing but he continues to gain weight. He will not grow into a large bull, the type that has come to be regarded by far too many breeders as the ideal, but he will be an efficient grass converter on veld,” Johann explains.
Slaughtering some of the best bulls
“I would argue that some of the best bulls have been slaughtered and some of the best genetic material has been lost because of breeders regarding them as ‘not big enough’,” Johann charges. “This ‘bigger is better’ trend is purely based on perception and fashion rather than on productivity.”
He points to the big difference between veld cattle and stud cattle, the latter, he says, are too often reared to look good in artificial conditions. Veld cattle have to produce in a natural environment under the natural law of ‘survival of the fittest’.
He is a proponent of United States Beefmaster pioneer Tom Lasater’s emphasis on fertility (calving annually from the age of two years). This is the common denominator upon which all other traits are built, resulting in balanced cattle that are adapted to a particular environment.
“Fertility requires early sexually maturing heifers that are also physiologically early maturing and can maintain body condition. This enables calving at two years on the veld and a high re-conception rate with minimal human assistance. This type of fertility has a positive influence on the bottom line.”
In synopsis, Johann says “successful cattle farming is all about observation, keeping your eyes open, observing your cattle, your veld and your wallet to see what works for you. There are so many perceptions dressed up as facts that mislead farmers and block common sense from prevailing. The problem with common sense is that it is not so common.”
To contact or find out more about Chip Hines or to order his books:
Tel: 001 970 630 6982
To contact Johann Zietsman:
Tel: Zimbabwe: 00 263 778 073 349
Tel: Zambia: 00 260 967 017 121
To order ‘Man, Cattle and Veld’:
Colour – https://www.createspace.com/4902394