Up to 300 head of cattle can be handled in a day by just three workers in this feedlot – a carefully planned wagon wheel set-up.
Many years before hormone-free and growth stimulant-free meat became fashionable among the health conscious, André Ferreira of Bethlehem in the South African province of the Free State was producing such meat in his self-designed feedlot.
André, a previous chairman of the Free State Red Meat Producers Organisation (RPO), got the idea for his cattle processing kraal and feedlot when, as a school boy in the 1970s, he attended a Hereford stud auction at Sydney-on-Vaal outside Kimberley with his father Jasper.
The auction pens used there were the inspiration behind the plan he drew up when he was sixteen. It took him 10 years to collect the materials before he built his wagon wheel kraal during the drought of 1990 on their family farm Uplands.
His father Jasper had been operating a feedlot for years with a row of six pens under an avenue of bluegum trees behind their homestead. André built his facility alongside his father’s, in the form of a wagon wheel with 12 adjoining pens.
In addition to feeding troughs and water troughs, it is also equipped with a crush, a sorting pen in the middle, a head clamp, a scale and a spraying and dipping section. (see DIAGRAM)
With the assistance of just three workers he can handle 250 to 300 head of cattle a day in his facility. Sheep can also be easily dipped and sprayed if the height of the crush is lowered with shade cloth to about 500-600mm above the ground.
The facility, which can facilitate feeding up to 300 weaners at a time, is made of pipes and lengths of railway track.
ROUTINE WORK MADE EASIER
Routine work such as dipping, spraying and branding is made easier and, at the same time, allows André to effortlessly weigh each calf in the feedlot and thus monitor their individual growth performance and the growth performance of the various groups.
André studied engineering, but has a passion for livestock nutrition. His feed ration contains 21% fibre because, as he learnt from his mentor, the now retired local vet Dr. Alan Fair, it’s best to always keep a ruminant chewing the cud.
He grows most of the raw materials for the feed rations. His own maize and white teff form the major part of the ration. Teff is his crop of choice, thanks to the high return per hectare that it delivers. All his maize chaff ends up in the ration. He uses the leaf collars as well, along with high protein concentrate.
The feed ration that remains at the end of the day, primarily roughage, is put out on the lands for the heifers.
Although he doesn’t wish to make the recipe public, he does disclose that he started working and testing a feed ration in 1986 when he returned from university to farm with his father. He finally started using it as feed in 1989, only to discover it was identical to the ration that his father had already been using since 1957.
The feed ration is adjusted annually in line with the current market prices and each year’s calculations look different. André emphasises that if you really want to master the art of a feedlot then you have to finish the livestock almost every year. In 2013, it was the first time in his 50 years that he didn’t finish the animals on the farm, because it would not have been worth it at those market prices.
He sells about 400 finished calves a year on average, directly to butcheries. He says that although he has his own truck, these days many butchers are prepared to come to your farm to fetch the animals.
His breeding goal is to have as heavy a calf as possible on the lands. His cows calve on the lands in two calving seasons – August to October, and again in April.
Each calf gets an ear tag so that their individual progress can be evaluated. They are weaned in the kraal at 250kg. In this fashion, he “gains” the 20kg per calf that feedlot owners are inclined to penalise farmers for when they supply calves heavier than 230kg.
André only finishes his own calves because he believes that 90% of a calf’s feedlot development is determined by the milk it got from its mother. “It’s like maize: if it doesn’t get fertiliser in the first two days then it doesn’t grow.”
If by the end of the season he sees that he will have feed over after he has finished all his weaners, then he will consider buying in a few old cows to finish.
With regard to feed utilisation planning, he uses the general rule that you need one ton of feed rations per head of cattle to finish the animal. He weighs his feedlot animals at least every 14 days and strives to achieve an average growth rate of 1,8kg per day (with 21% fibre in the ration). He believes that you should be concerned and start looking for problems if growth drops below 1,6kg per day.
The water troughs are emptied every week, scrubbed, and refilled with clean water to prevent the water becoming stagnant.
For the sake of good health, he doesn’t use any hormones or antibiotics to stimulate growth. The most important factor is to ensure that the animals are healthy when they enter the feedlot. All of them are first dosed for black leg and botulism, cleaned of internal and external parasites, and inoculated against pneumonia.
He firmly believes that you should be in your feedlot daily and observe the animals’ behaviour to deal with issues immediately. As soon as you see a sick cow, it must be removed and kept apart. If you cannot determine what the problem is yourself, then a vet should be summoned immediately. “A calf with pneumonia can easily lose 20kg within 24 hours,” he says.
After the calves have been weaned in the kraal, they initially get silage, which is also produced on the farm. This is then gradually replaced with feed ration.
In his experience, if the calves don’t grow, then the first place to look for problems is with the feed ration. And if there is just one animal that doesn’t grow well, then perhaps that calf’s mother should also go to the feedlot.
He further believes that cattle should be well fed to achieve optimal genetic performance. “Food is like vitamins for cattle.”
Three main feedlot auctions are held annually in his region. André’s inherent success with feedlots is borne out by the fact that every year, for the past 30 years, he has produced the champion ox at the Bethlehem feedlot auction.