Llewellyn Maclean is a numbers man. When he goes into a beef venture, he makes sure that the price per kilogram, kilogram per hectare and profit make sense.

Farming extensively in the Queenstown/Sterkstroom district with registered and commercial Beefmasters on 3100ha (he owns two-thirds and hires one-third), he has applied an exacting table of data over ten years to compare his oxen ranching system to his weaner production system.

“Early on in my farming career, which started in 1989, I realised the benefits of farming with a dual system of oxen and weaners in my area,” says Llewellyn who has a degree in Grassland Science from what is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

“I had a problem on certain hired farms where some of my neighbours’ bulls would break fences and get to my cows, which was problematic for me,” he explains.

The solution was to put oxen on those farms.

An oxen system has several advantages, Llewellyn explains. These include: their lower lick requirement, less labour and management time; they offer the equivalent of 100% calving each year; there is no issue with lower conceptions during drier years, there is no disease risk from neighbouring bulls; there is no need to market thin old cows and oxen provide a more stable income.

“To work out if it was financially worthwhile, I developed my own programme to be able to see exactly what I am producing,” says Llewellyn who today farms with over 800 head of cattle: 400 cows and 220 heifers and young bulls and 180 oxen.

He also sells up to 30 registered and ranch Daybreaker Beefmaster bulls each year at the ‘Bulls on Grass’ sale in Queenstown every August. For the sale he partners with two other Beefmaster breeders – Benchmark Beefmasters and Corbett Beefmasters. The three partners collectively sell 70 bulls annually.

His oxen component is divided into three age groups – one to three-year-olds, 60 per age group.

“I have found that having an oxen component is definitely worthwhile,
Llewellyn explains, sharing the 2013 results he achieved on comparable farms of 544 hectares:

Using a comparison of 60 three-year-old oxen slaughtered at an average of 535kgs and 66 weaners that were sold to the feedlots at 228kgs, he produced 34kgs live weight per hectare on the oxen system, and 35kgs live weight per hectare on the cow/calf weaner system.

The oxen sold for an average of R27.31 per kilogram, while the weaners sold for an average of R15.16 per kilogram. His margin for the oxen system was R439.00 per hectare and for the weaner system was R469.00 per hectare.

“On average, as you can see, in 2013 I earned R30 less per hectare for the oxen, but without any of the costs and management issues associated with weaners. The R30 gain for weaners can also disappear, given the fact that the weaner price can drop by 30-40% in a season,” he says.

Such is his belief in oxen that Llewellyn and a neighbor who also farm with Beefmasters, Dr Pieter Prinsloo and his son Koot Prinsloo, have recently gone into a grass fed oxen partnership.

The Prinsloos also run a dual system of weaners and oxen on their 3000ha farm in the Queenstown district.

This year, Llewellyn and the Prinsloos established their ‘Daybreaker Beef Off Grass’ brand to explore new marketing opportunities in the selling of three-year-old oxen as grass fed beef.

Together they will more than double the number of oxen produced to 130 or more over the next year.

“The consumer will be assured – and we will include this on our label – that the beef originates directly from our farms and that the animals received no growth hormones or antibiotics. The beef is also rich in several essential food nutrients, including the desired, healthy ratio of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids that you get from beef straight off the veld,” Pieter explains.

“A growing number of consumers, particularly in the higher LSM groups (LSM 5 – 10), want to know what they are eating, and they are welcome to visit our farms,” he adds. “It’s all about the consumer being able to trace the product back to the farm, which is a major trend in the United States and elsewhere, and which we believe will become more prominent in South Africa.”

They have registered their Daybreaker Beef Off Grass brand with the Grass Fed Association of South Africa and have started marketing their product through a well-known restaurateur and butcher in Queenstown, Andrew Nel.

“Once we have established how consumers respond to our meat, we can grow from here and include additional beef farmers who produce oxen or female cattle according to the Grass Fed protocol. This includes being inspected by SAMIC,” says Pieter who is also the RPO Chairperson for the Eastern Cape, and who attended the workshop on November 7 where the current grading system of beef was discussed.

He says the price that farmers get paid for AB-grade (20 – 28 months) or B-grade (28 – 36 months) beef was not discussed, which was a serious omission. It is still several rand less per kilogram than A-grade weaners or pre-two tooths, which is why many farmers don’t raise ABs or Bs, as they say the profitability of keeping animals on the veld for the extra period is not worth their while.

“On the positive side, Professor Linda Frylinck and Dr Phillip Strydom (both from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Animal Production Institute), produced research that showed there are far more factors that determine tenderness or toughness than the age in beef on which the current grading system is based,” he says.

“In some cases the AB and B grades proved more tender than the A grades. They also discussed how the use of growth hormones like Zilmax, which are widely used in feedlots, could have a toughening effect on meat.

Further research they discussed is that flavor is definitely enhanced with age, hence the beef with the most flavor is AB, B and C grade beef (from 36 months).”

Pieter is outspoken about the fact that not enough education is done to explain the difference between grass fed/veld-raised beef and grain fed beef to the South African consumer.

“The marketing and education of South African beef should not be done through the SA Feedlot Association, as it currently is. It creates a perception of bias or prejudice, and there certainly isn’t sufficient-awareness raising to retailers or consumers about how the meat grading system is structured or the benefits of grass fed beef,” he says.

“At the moment the grading system only speaks to the age and fat covering of the product, which is not sufficient. Farmers also face a situation where there is discrimination against the more creamy-coloured or yellow fat of grass fed beef, and retailers pay less for these animals. They say white fat is more desirable but what they don’t know is that creamier/yellower fat is scientifically proven as being healthier, with the right balance of Omega 6, and that all grass-fed, veld-raised or naturally fed animals, across all age groups, have creamier/yellower fat.”

Instead of adding to the endless talk about the need for greater marketing of grass fed beef, Llewellyn and Pieter have decided to see what they can achieve with their brand, and they hope that many other farmers will do the same.

“Our system involves keeping our own male weaners and raising them as oxen until they are ready to market at three years old, when they weigh an average of 535kgs or more depending on the seasonal rainfall,” says Llewellyn.

“It is important to select steer weaners for quality and type to achieve good results, and it is also advisable to run three age groups. My reasoning is that this system allows for some flexibility if you have a dry year. The oxen can compensate in good seasons and recover to be sold.

“Contrary to how many farmers farm with oxen, I believe that oxen need good veld to produce well and it is not a good idea to run them on the worst, marginal veld and expect good production. The better the veld, the more weight gains you’ll get and the better your oxen will perform.”