Mike Burgess Correspondent
Almost 20 years ago, Chris Webb introduced Borans to his crossbreeding programme on the 1 500ha farm, Tharfield, in the Eastern Cape. Boran-type cows and calves. The calving rate of the female animals in the natural mating programme never decreases below 90 percent. He spoke to Mike Burgess about how the hardy Boran has quietly taken care of profits, while allowing him to pursue his passion for yachting.
“I farm for one day and sail for two,’’ says Chris Webb about the lifestyle his Borans have afforded him. “I wanted to farm something that gave me space [to pursue other ventures].”
Chris farms on the 1 500ha farm, Tharfield, near Kleinemonde in the Eastern Cape. He explains that the value of the Boran not only lies in its innate adaptability to African conditions, which allows for minimal inputs and effort, but also for the value it adds to any crossbreeding programme.
“I’ve stuck with the Borans since 1998, mainly because they offer excellent hybrid vigour,’’ he says. “You can put a Boran onto anything with good results.’’
Cattle have been farmed on Tharfield for centuries. According to Chris, long before the arrival of the Bowker family on the property in the 1820s, Boer farmers from the Alexandria region used to bring their cattle to Tharfield during times of drought.
It was known as Os Kraal back then. Although the Bowker family experimented with maize, wheat and barley, as well as Merinos and ostriches, it was cattle that always proved most compatible with the farming conditions on Tharfield, despite heavy tick loads and war, including the 7th Frontier War of 1846/47, when the family lost hundreds of head of cattle.
By the time Chris’s great-grandfather, Thomas Guard Webb, and his son, Victor, took over the farm in 1925, Tharfield was a proven cattle farm, and the father-son team took special pride in their Shorthorns, despite still focusing on crops.
However, when Chris’s father, Tom, took over operations in the 1950s, he eventually abandoned all cropping ventures to focus solely on commercial beef production. Since then, the Webbs have been involved in robust beef crossbreeding programmes that, by the 1990s, had seen breeds such as the Shorthorn, Angus, Simmentaler, Bonsmara, Tuli and Limousin, pass through Tharfield.
“For us it has always been about crossbreeding,’’ says Chris. “It has been about taking advantage of hybrid vigour.’’ Chris joined his father on Tharfield in the early 1990s, after more than 10 years in Australia where he worked in the agricultural sector and skippered chartered yachts.
With a passion for yachting since his father taught him to sail as a child, Chris has successfully participated in a number of international races, including the 1987 Fremantle to Bali race.
It was thus after he met his wife, Jann, on a yacht, that he returned to Tharfield. By then, Tharfield was home to a beef herd dominated by Limousin genetics. However, this changed after Chris visited his cousin and Boran breeder, Kevin Puffet, in Zambia during the mid-1990s.
“The Borans just looked like cattle that should be in Africa,’’ he recalls.
By 1997, Chris had purchased his first Boran semen, and launched an artificial insemination programme (AI) that eventually produced the first F1 Boran bulls that were used in the Tharfield beef herd.
He has always been particularly impressed by the Boran’s early maturity, fertility, exceptional mothering abilities and longevity, which all contribute to the efficient production of quality weaners from the veld.
A self-sufficient herd
Today, Chris runs a herd of 330 medium-framed Boran-type cows, which, on average, weigh between 400kg and 420kg. During drought, the number of female animals may fall to around 270.
The Boran bulls used in the crossbreeding herd are bred from about 15 purebred Boran females, which are artificially inseminated (AI) with semen from top Boran studs, including Stephen Johnson’s Frontier Boran Stud.
In 2014/15, Chris produced a number of purebred Boran bulls through an embryo flushing programme, in partnership with his neighbour and Boran breeder, Anne White.
Breeding and disease management
Breeding females are run in multiple sire herds at a rate of one bull per 20 cows, and bulls run with cows throughout the year. Heifers are put to the bull when they reach 300kg at about 20 months of age, while the heifer replacement rate is at 10 percent to 15 percent depending on the season.
The calving rate from the natural mating programme never falls below 90 percent, with weaner weights at seven months ranging from 200kg to 220kg straight off the veld.
Besides a handful of commercial Boran and Boran-type bulls and heifers marketed to commercial and emerging farmers, Chris’s central focus is to produce quality weaners from the veld.
All replacement heifers are inoculated against brucellosis, which forms part of a standard inoculation programme for the region, and the herd also demonstrates significant immunity to tick-borne diseases. However, incidences of redwater are also prominent in the region.
As such, cattle are blocked when a redwater outbreak occurs, while injectable parasiticides are used if tick loads increase drastically during the particularly hot, humid summer months.
Cattle are also dipped once every two weeks in summer, and once every eight weeks in winter, depending on tick loads. To prevent tick resistance to dips, Chris never mixes or uses combination dips.
Moreover, a particular dipping product is used for five years before being replaced with another with a different active ingredient.
The higher lying areas of Tharfield consists of sourveld, while the coastal belt consists of sweetveld. Large parts of the farm are also covered in thick, naturally occurring bush.
The fact that a significant portion of the farm was once under cultivated crops has, unfortunately, contributed to the partial destruction of exceptional palatable grasses, such as Themeda triandra.
Nevertheless, the carrying capacity of Tharfield remains at about 1 LSU per 2,5ha to 3ha. Chris explains that Tharfield mostly provides his cattle with adequate nutrition, and he does not supplement with extra feed, licks or even salt. However, during extreme drought, he supplements with licks to support his cattle.
Chris divides his cattle into two large herds, except for two smaller herds that consist of about 10 to 15 in-calf cows (nearing the end of their gestation), and about 30 cows with newborn calves at foot.
These smaller herds are run in camps around the Tharfield homestead. The reason for running the majority of his cattle in large herds is to ensure non-selective grazing, and to protect and stimulate the growth of palatable grasses.
“I’m strict about not having too many little herds grazing all over the place,’’ he says. “The best grass gets wiped out very quickly that way.’’ Over the years, Tom and
Chris have also focused on decreasing camp sizes, and each camp, on average, is currently about 60ha. This increases the positive impacts associated with high-density grazing, such as increased hoof action. The large herds are rotated on a weekly basis, and grazed camps are rested for six to eight weeks. — Farmers’ Weekly.