Dries and Minnie de Klerk produce fine, hardy Beefmasters at an altitude of between 1 883m and 1 950m in the Stormberg, with a severe winter climate and a four-month growing season. Heather Dugmore visited them.
“It’s been a huge challenge but unbelievably rewarding. If I look back on the 24 years of breeding and selection to get my cattle where they are today, the only thing that saddens me is that I’m not 24 years younger,” says Dries. He established his Ivukile Beefmaster stud in 1988.
He wipes his brow as he brands the last of a group of heifers on an icy early September day on their farm Leliekloof between Burgersdorp and Jamestown in the Eastern Cape.
Winter temperatures here often plummet below -15° C. It is spring and the warmer season has not yet found its way to this remote mountain hideaway where humans and cattle must be hardy to survive.
“I remember one particularly cold night in July a few years back when we recorded -19° C in the sheltered environment of the farm house,” Dries recalls. “That night a group of heifers slept in a vlei where the temperature would have been even lower. Their tails and ears froze and a month later started dropping off. You can still see some of them in our herd today with no ears and a quarter of their tails!”
Dries’ family has been farming in the Stormberg since his namesake grandfather Andries Cornelis de Klerk’s time. Andries Cornelis was an orphan adopted by the de Bruin family in the Burgersdorp district. A plucky, entrepreneurial soul, at the age of 14 he borrowed money from his adopted father to buy a span of oxen and a wagon.
He then established a business transporting produce for the Stormberg farmers between Burgersdorp, Molteno and Jamestown. After four years he was able to buy his own land, the farm Wonderpoort, and started farming with Merinos, Friesland cattle and potatoes.
Today, Dries and Minnie farm on approximately 5 000ha in the Stormberg and Aliwal North districts, a combination of owned and leased land that includes 200ha rainfed lucerne and 9ha purple-top turnips and oats.
The farms are subdivided into camps averaging 18ha in size, except for the mountain winter camps, which average at 80ha. While many farmers shy away from the higher-lying areas in the winter, Dries and Minnie use them well. “The kloofs offer shelter, and the most important factor out here in winter is shelter,” Dries explains.
It is two days before the annual Ivukile bull sale and we cross a field of purple-top turnips, eaten flat by the 34 bulls to be auctioned.
This year’s crop includes 28 Beefmaster bulls and 6 Boran bulls. Most are three-year-olds, some are two-year-olds, and there is a combination of registered and commercial animals. Looking at the group they leave you lost for choice. Minnie and Dries are confident of selling them all, which they did. The average price at the auction for three-year-old Beefmaster bulls was R30 850.
Before the auction the bulls are reprieved from the harsh winter veld. Leliekloof has a mix of sweet and sour grasses but at this time of year they offer negligible nutritional value. “We take them off the veld and round them off on turnip and oats lands for three months before the auction to achieve weights of about 900kg,” Dries explains. They gain 150kg during this period, and while they lose some of this excess weight when put back in the veld, they hold their condition well because of the rigorous selection process.
Bulls are selected for breeding potential at 205 days when they weigh between 275kg and 315kg. After two winters and two summers on the veld, supplemented with only a Dundee maintenance lick, the pick of the crop are selected for the auction.
“Nature in this high berg veld selects only animals with the genetic potential to utilise the low nutritional value of the grass in winter and the short, four-month growing season,” Dries says. “The genetic makeup of our cattle enables them to handle these conditions. Working with nature reveals the best type of animal over time.”
As the American founder of the Beefmaster breed Tom Lasater says in his book The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Raising: form follows function. He based his selection on six essentials: Weight, Conformation, Milking Ability, Fertility, Hardiness and Disposition.
“He did not worry about whether a cow had a bit of colour in her hide from her Hereford genetics, or about her height. What he looked for was a highly efficient, hardy animal,” says Dries.
“My cows today, for example, weigh on average 450kg, around 100kg less than my pre-Beefmaster herd. The cows that I now have are those that perform best under the selection pressure of this high altitude, mountainous terrain. The bigger the body the more energy it needs.”
Dries is very concerned that too many stud breeders in South Africa do not apply the necessary selection pressure on all their animals. “They bandy about calving rates of 95% plus, but their cows are fed winter and summer. How can a stud breeder identify his weaker and less fertile animals under such conditions?”
Dries’ relationship with the Beefmaster breed goes back to 1981 when he took over a Hereford crossbred herd from his father, who had put Santa Gertrudis bulls onto the Hereford cows to add smoothness of skin and darker pigmentation. “When the Beefmaster breed was established in South Africa in the mid-80s, I liked the look of the animal and I identified with the common sense of the Lasater Philosophy,” he explains.
Interestingly Professor Jan Bonsma, who developed the Bonsmara breed is said to have described the Lasater Beefmaster herd as “near perfection in functional efficiency”.
“I decided to start farming with Beefmasters after visiting Beefmaster breeder Trevor Stretton of Sterkstroom and bought my first Beefmaster bull in 1987,” Dries recalls. “It was serendipitous that the composition of my cow herd at the time was essentially Beefmaster.”
He registered his Beefmaster stud a year later, and today he and Minnie breed an outstanding combination of registered and commercial bulls, all of which are subject to exactly the same rigorous performance tests.
They also have a Droughtmaster line, started in 2001 when they bought a bull from Graham Hart of Komga, whom Dries describes as “a good friend and exceptional cattleman”. The bull – GH 99 0045 – a son of the Droughtmaster bull Wingfield Rocket from Australia, was mated to one of Dries’ top Beefmaster cows. Her son, FCK 04 0072 became an outstanding stud sire in Dries and Minnie’s herd, establishing their Valley Droughtmaster line.
“Droughtmasters are the Australian counterparts of Beefmasters, which originate from the United States,” Dries explains.
His 400 breeding cows are subject to the same rigorous selection criteria as his bulls. Following Lasater’s Cow Power philosophy, Dries explains that the cow is genetically and economically the basis of cattle farming, and he places significant emphasis on the quality and performance of his cows.
In winter the cows are run in herds of 70-90 cows, in summer in single sire breeding herds of 30.
The mating season is limited to 90 days in a drought-stricken year, and 70-80 days in good rainfall years. Heifers are put to the bull on the 20th November, two weeks earlier than the cows. These first calvers get no special treatment, not even a production lick after calving, says Dries.
“What they do get is good grazing and they run in their own group with a phosphate lick (two bags salt to one bag P12) in summer when the grass is green, as do the cows. This way we can apply selection pressure on the first calvers and identify any weakness early on.”
In winter all the cows get a Dundee maintenance lick – the Dundee lick and salt, without any maize – at 400g – 600gs per cow daily. Ahead of the calving season in August and September, energy in the form of molasses (16% of the lick) is supplied.
The heifers start calving from 20 August and the cows from mid-September.
One month before calving the cows and heifers receive a Vitamin A injection and in early December, just before the start of the mating season, a Multimin injection.
“Every cow must calve and wean a quality calf every year, without assistance, in season, on natural veld,” says Dries. He annually selects 120 heifers out of about 200 as breeding stock. All bull or heifer weaners not selected, as well as culled cows, are sent for slaughter.
“As stud breeders we maintain the strictest standards because these are the genetics we are selling to our buyers. A commercial cattleman does not need to be quite so strict and could provide a production lick with higher levels of protein and maize to enable pregnant animals to achieve maximum economic production under harsh conditions
“A commercial cattleman can also use a longer mating season, on condition that the bulls he buys in have been strictly selected and have appropriate genetic qualities.”
We drive onto a mountain plateau to see the cows. They are certainly not pampered, grazing on sweet- and sourveld grasses still white with winter and an extended Eastern Cape drought.
“Even in the toughest of times we expect our cows to perform,” explains Dries. “We strive to maintain a calf-to-dam weaning weight ratio of at least 50%. Many cows in this herd wean calves at 60% and above of their own body weight.”
Amongst the cows is an 11-year-old Elite Gold in admirable condition.
The Elite Gold standard is awarded by SA Studbook to cows that perform exceptionally throughout their lifetime eg if they calve every year and if their calves are of outstanding quality and kept in the herd as breeding stock or sold as stud bulls.
“Cows are retained for as long as possible in our herd as they carry the genetics of longevity and have survived everything that nature has thrown at them,” explains Dries.
Hopefully this will be a good year on Leliekloof, which receives an annual rainfall of 550mms. Over the past six years the farm has not had spring rain, the first rain only falling much later in the season – in late November and into December. Perhaps this year will be different; by the time you read this feature the rains will hopefully have come and Dries and Minnie’s herd will be making the most of the short growing season, getting fat and shiny on the green grass of the Stormberg.