Don and Jacque McKay

October 2007
Don McKay is a former chairman of the Northern Beef Council and a former monitor and focus farmer in Northland. Don and Jacque have owned the home farm since 1981 and recently they added an adjoining block to make the home farm 455ha effective. In 1994 they purchased a 150ha effective Whakapirau farm, which is further towards the Kaipara harbour from Marohemo, and in 2004 they also purchased an adjacent dairy farm at Marohemo, with opportunities for integration with the sheep and beef farm.

There has been shrinkage of 33% in the numbers of beef breeding cows in Northland over the past decade, and an increase of 37% in the numbers of dairy-beef bulls being farmed. This is partly a trend towards more finishing stock, which causes a reduction in breeding stock, with some incentive from meat company schedules, which have been paying more for bull beef than steer beef, plus a swing back towards more sheep for lamb production in Northland.

There has been concern that the trend away from beef cows has swung too far. These are some of the reasons:

Prime beef market demand in Asia (beef from traditional breeds or beef crosses)

Limited supply of Friesian dairy bull calves and weaners

Too much reliance on US manufacturing beef market

Too many priority livestock classes, which have to be fed to be finished or to be ready for mating

The need for a non-priority stock class which will clean up kikuyu grass dominant pastures in the autumn

Don McKay was approached by Duncan Smeaton, Meat & Wool New Zealand beef focus farm co-ordinator, to participate in a national research programme covering 14 farms nationally, as one of two farms in Northland

The aims of the national programme are:

1. Beef production, to survive as an industry, needs to be profitable and sustainable

2. There is a need to further improve beef cow productivity and profitability

3. There is a need to quantify the pasture quality benefits of breeding cows

4. Beef finishing systems are being pushed onto hill country by competing land use options.

5. Mixed livestock farming on hill country will always need a component of beef animals for parasite and pasture control.

Beef cows are also less profitable than other sheep and beef farming classes, with standard beef cows returning about $500/ha gross margin over the long term, versus approximately $700 for finishing bulls and $680 for ewes and lambs.

On 455ha effective (home farm) and 150ha effective (Whakapirau) there are 1650 ewes, 140 breeding cows, 200 R3 and R2 in-calf heifers, 200 R1 heifers, 335 R1 bulls and 300 R2 bulls (as at May 1).

Ewes and lambs are the priority stock class with the target finishing weight 15-16kg for lambs and 58-60kg mating weight for ewes.

The McKays have a 70ha bull finishing block for young cattle only, where they winter 300 bulls at 800-900 kg/ha LW and intensively graze with one or two-day shifts. The target is 400-450kg/ha CW gain.

The cow herd base was crossbred Hereford-Friesian-Angus with a Maine Anjou (MA) terminal sire used over dairy (Holstein-Friesian) replacements. During the past five years, when bull beef and lamb was more profitable, the cows slipped down in priority feeding. Various sires were used, including Angus, Rissington Stabilizers and Beef Shorthorn. Replacements have been kept from the MA-influenced heifers, which meant bigger framed cows.

The new policy (last two years) has been to bring in crossbred dairy heifers, which are Angus or Red Devon over composite Holstein-Friesian, Jersey and Ayrshire mix.

They are all mated as yearlings, along with heifers from the beef herd, and have one calf as a two-year-old. The herd replacements are then selected on the basis of first-calf performance. Those cows which do not make the herd are sold for slaughter as once-bred heifers.

In recent years, the McKays and their farm manager Julian Allen have reluctantly agreed that cows are less profitable than sheep and most other beef policies.

But they know that cows have a valuable role in pasture control and they need to avoid feeding high quality winter and spring feed to cows so that it is available for others stock. Therefore Don and Julian have acknowledged that a better match of feed supply to demand is needed along with a request to explore ways that cows might be better used and valued. These requests became the motivators for the northern beef cow focus farm group, which contains some of the best cattle performers in the region.

The group recommended:

Better post-calving feeding (aimed at condition score 5-6 at mating).

Targeting 1-plus kg/day on calves to weaning.

Better breeding bull management, using rotation and soundness tests.

Move to lighter, milkier cows, which is underway.

Mating of extra heifers followed by a cull on performance (once-bred heifers).

Later calving, which has already been introduced.

The quality and quantity of pasture offered to the cows and the stock classes integrated with them has been monitored since the start of the focus farm programme at the beginning of November 2004. The average of their feed has been measured at 8.8 MJME/kg versus 10.3 for other stock. For the period from December through to July the quality of the feed for cows is 9 MJME or less. The average grazing residuals behind the cows (and calves) is 1300kg/ha DM and behind other stock 1770kg. Cows also get 78% green leaf in the diet, versus 91% for other classes. They also eat 26% green stem, versus 10%.

If two-year bulls were run on the quality of feed that the cows receive on the McKay farm, they would spend seven months of the year (mid-winter and summer-autumn) on negative financial returns because of weight loss.

Moreover in summer and autumn the weight loss would coincide with a falling meat company price schedule.

It has been calculated that the full year financial return on those R2yr bulls would be only $128, versus the cow return of $408 for a weaner, less allowance for losses, giving a net of $363/year.

Cows also spend nine months of the year clearing up behind other stock classes, they get pushed hardest when feed is tight and may provide other tangible benefits, such as parasite control and long term weed control.

Kikuyu grass now covers more than half of the hill country grazing land in Northland. It can be valuable feed in summer, when it may be too hot and dry for ryegrass and clover pastures to flourish. However kikuyu has a strong stoloniferous mat and a very vigorous growing pattern, which produces a lot of inedible material and smothers other grasses during the autumn. While kikuyu is green and growing it has a reasonable level of metabolisable energy, but the stolons have a low feed value. In autumn they might account for half or more of the kikuyu dry matter. Then when the first winter frosts come, the green kikuyu turns yellow, the plant goes into dormancy and the mat suppresses the growth of good winter feed, as well as making soils very wet and prone to pugging.

In order to get a productive winter pasture, because in Northland grass and clover will still grow in winter, the kikuyu mat must be cleared up in autumn.

On flat land this can be done with mulching, mowing, spraying, burning or resowing with temperate grasses. On hills mulching is impractical and expensive and kikuyu control is best done with cattle.

The McKays confine their beef cows to paddocks and part-paddocks on the farm which have significant kikuyu dominance. They eat down into the stolons and clean up the kikuyu mat. During this time they are in-calf for a late September calving.

Though they are eating low-energy material, they do not lose too much body condition. Any loss of condition can be replaced in the spring flush.

This is what is called a non-priority livestock class. Because feed is tight during winter, Don and Julian spread nitrogen fertiliser and control access to fresh pasture through power fencing and paddock or cell rotation for the ewes, finishing lambs, bulls and heifers. These classes have priority over the cows. But if there where no cows to perform this essential work of cleaning up kikuyu, then which livestock class would do it? So if you had to buy in stock to do the same job (controlling low quality feed) then you would be going backwards on a falling schedule, focus farm consultant Chris Boom has said. On a cow-less farm some other stock class would have to come back to the same low-quality feed.

Weighing of cows established that they averaged 446kg LW on average on August 30, 2005 and condition score 4.2. After calving the cows were measured at 495kg and CS 5.5 on December 17 (with 99kg calves), at 507kg and CS 5.6 on February 10 (calves 146kg) and at 498kg and CS 5.0 at calf weaning in late April, 2006. Those weights showed that the cows performed very well during summer and a very dry autumn, after existing most of the winter on old kikuyu grass.

The McKays cows make up 15% of stock units and growing, a proportion which Boom has challenged Northland farmers to ponder. What would control the kikuyu pastures if the cows werent there, he questioned? Mulching and chemical topping come with costs attached, and regular pasture renovation keeps the proportion of kikuyu on the home farm down.