Learning from the neighbour

28 Jul, 2004 10:00 PM
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KEVIN Johnson of Kevlyn Downs Shorthorns, Willalooka South Australia, was invited to WA by the Angus society to be involved in the Beef Cattle Assessment School run at the Harvey Agricultural College.

Mr Johnson played a fundamental role in providing the breeders, feeders and agribusiness participants a good base for being able to select breeding females and bulls, and generally sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience to all who attended.

"What we wanted to stress to the participants was that structural soundness is something that cannot be equalled in importance when it comes to females," he said.

"We are also very particular when it comes to leg angularity and hoof shape and we need to make sure that we apply all these focal points into our females so we can gain some sound overall conformation and get increased do-ability and muscle."

In terms of his own operation, Mr Johnson is not someone who goes for frame in his cattle.

He believes that moderate and middle maturity cows are a very safe way to go, and with that the option is offered of going both ways towards the lighter or heavier end of the scale.

"Over here the markets tend to be different to those in South Australia so understandably what the people here are looking for in the market is very different to what we are aiming at," he said.

"With what we are trying to achieve with this school, I need to be mindful of that difference and adjust my adjudication of the animals accordingly."

In WA, the market for beef is very much aimed at the supermarket consumer, however Mr Johnson's operation is geared towards the Japanese long term B3 market where they run off 150kg start steers at 16 months.

They market into feedlots where they are fed from 180 to 200 days.

With such a specific market, Mr Thompson has a big job making sure that they hit the nail on the head when it comes to meeting the requirements.

A focus on structural soundness is not something that he takes lightly.

"We have to be ruthless when it comes to structure because at the end of the day the animals have to stand up in a feedlot for a long time on some heavy feed," he said.

The Johnsons have a family run business at Willalooka, with their key focus being on cattle production.

They run a 300 cow herd, have 90 registered cows and run 100 Shorthorn performance commercial cows.

They also run a mob of recipient cows, as a large part of the set up is an embryo transfer program.

A recent enterprise has been the introduction of a composite breeding program using Shorthorn and Red Angus.

"We have found that the maturity pattern of the Shorthorn and Red Angus cross has been complementary for the European market," he said.

"The qualities of the Red Angus added to the scale of the Shorthorn meant that we could increase our butt shape and add to the overall visual assessment of the animals, which has given us another market option."

Keeping an open mind has meant that Mr Johnson has now built up a strong clientele which has enabled him to contract breed first cross females.

"I think the building up of a composite breed is the way which the industry has to go. For too long we have been purist," he said.

In 1999, Mr Johnson was invited to judge at the national Shorthorn feature show in Edmington, Canada.

Once a prominent figure within the South Australian show rings, he now does not participate at all with the view that the amount of feed needed to bring an animal to competition level is detrimental to its health and overall well being.

Instead, he turned to focusing on achieving results in the carcase competition, which has provided the family with huge rewards.

The changes in the way the property operates have also extended to other things.

Mr Johnson has totally reshaped his operation in that it was once a very traditional seed stock production unit.

But in 1997 he went and attended a Grazing for a Profit seminar which changed the whole direction and structure of his enterprise - and his attitude towards sustainability.

"We now don't hand feed at all or feed any grain, and we don't attend multi vendor sales or shows," he said.

"We are totally committed to cell grazing principles, and after being a totally seed stock production unit it was a huge challenge for us."

Another huge change for the Johnsons was the change from autumn calving to a late winter/early spring calving.

This meant that the Johnsons were six months behind their competitors when it came to the age of their animals.

However, from a sustainability point of view the cost of their production per kilogram of beef has been halved over the last seven years - a significant figure.

Obviously there have been some drawbacks in adjusting to this change, and birth weights have been something Mr Johnson has had to contend with.

"Genetically and historically like genetics calved in the spring will be 5kg heavier than the same genetics calved in the autumn," he said.

"When you're pushing performance and carcase traits fairly heavily and you're starting to get some fairly muscular type animals, it can become a bit of an issue."

However, to alleviate this, the Johnsons have gone back to the old days of pelvic measuring their heifers for selection after they have gone through a structural and breed plan selection.

"We then select all our bulls according to whether they have a negative gestation period, and we only use bulls that are no more than 1.5kg above breed average for birth weight," he said.

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