Issue 8 - February 2021
Editor: Lindsay Madden
The Love of Cattle
There is no evidence that cattle grow any faster by watching them. However, it is one of the Editor’s odd pleasures.
To lie down on your back in the green grass of a paddock where the timorous beasties are grazing, presents them with an invitation. Mostly, their natural curiosity will draw them close to you and they may even lick you with their rough tongues. Without conversation, the sound of them munching the grass is music to the farmer’s ear – like the clink of coins in a shopkeeper’s till – turning grass into cash.
Cattle farming is a form of religion – just as each one of us may have our own god to which we are devoted, so each farmer normally selects a breed for passionate devotion. Stud breeders are almost like religious zealots and often will hear no criticism of their breed, whereas commercial breeders tend to be more practical and concentrate on cross-breeds, whose hybrid vigour can offer them more meat on the hoof and higher returns. Fortunately, the one needs the other to survive.
Interestingly, the Western Cape is the only province where cattle farming has increased in the past 10 years. Tesselaarsdal, with its small farms, allows people to experiment with various cattle breeds on a small scale. This edition is dedicated to a review of the various types of cattle and people involved in this activity. It also offers a glimpse into the souls of the beast and owner…
The Cattle Bible
There are many books on cattle farming and the Editor has read only a few of them. However, for sheer beauty and breadth, the book Genus Bos: Cattle Breeds of the World takes some beating. Unfortunately, it is out of print but the author and artist Marleen Felius has managed to capture timelessly, the essence of each breed in words and in her deft paintings. (The Editor luckily found a copy in New Zealand via ABE Books).
On the local front, South Africa has been blessed with its own cattle whisperer in the form of the late Dr Jan C. Bonsma, who in the 1960’s developed an international reputation as being able to assess the fertility of cattle, based on visual observations. The Editor’s father was one of his disciples and received from him in 1971 an inscribed copy of his writings entitled Wortham Lectures in Animal Science. Over time, Dr Bonsma developed a composite breed particularly suited to the hot and dry South African conditions and today the Bonsmara breed is the most popular in the country.
Good cattle farming, like cheese making is probably a mixture of art and science. So, just because its written down doesn’t mean it’s true. After all, where did the term bull dust come from? With this in mind, here follows an irreverent review of the local cattle pastors and their followers:
A is for Angus – Aberdeen of course
Aberdeen Angus is a hardy medium-sized Scottish breed that caught the eye of Colin le Roux and his brother, who recently moved to Tesselaarsdal. They come in red and black but his brother, (like Henry Ford) only wanted black cows. However, the calves decided to be otherwise…
Raised on poor pastures in the Highlands, they have a reputation for even surviving on heather. This reputation is certainly being put to the test as there is more Blue Gum than grass on Colin’s property which means that he has to feed them with concentrates and straw bales to get them through the difficult times. Despite this adversity, they have all calved and as the adage goes, the best combination is a thin cow with a fat calf.
Dexter – small and testy
Dave Colly was a deck officer in the Merchant Navy and his wife Jean was a maths teacher before settling here. Their property is split into multiple camps by the river and roads but they are resourceful and run a mixed farming operation which puts every piece to work.
They have chosen the small-framed Dexter which is a dual-purpose Irish breed. The Editor’s first cow was a Jersey/Dexter cross called Sabrina and he has fond memories of her sweet nature. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the Dexter bull which was a miniature model of Irish meanness, wanting to poke holes into any passing person. Dave confirms that the breed is very clever at opening gates and getting through fences but he loves their testy character. He likes their horns, as he can use them as handlebars when putting them through the crush. With a good supply of mother’s milk, they are early maturing and by introducing a Boran/Dexter-cross bull, he has added some hybrid vigour. Proof that small can be beautiful in the eye of the beholder!
Polled means without horns
Johan Nel is a Tesselaarsdaller born and bred, so he probably knows what does well in the area. He went to the local farm school in Solitaire and he has paid his skoolgeld over the years. His wife Riana was farming full-time and he joined her recently when he retired from John Deere in Caledon.
They have chosen to run a commercial herd with a Senepol bull which is a heat-tolerant hybrid beef breed developed in the US Virgin Islands from N’Dama cattle imported from Senegal and Red Poll cows from England – hence the name. This light-red bull they mate with Red Poll cows, as their overriding interest is in having easy-handling polled animals. At times, they also buy in weaners to fatten up on crop residue and market to the feedlots. Fortunately, their mixed farming operation provides a low-cost source of food and crop residues for their livestock.
Tuli – shades of the veldt
On the farm Lekkerdroom adjoining the Editor, are Lucas and Petronella Robertson and their son Luca who seem to have at least two of every species under the sun – camels, zebras, springbuck, llamas, sheep and finally, cattle. He has chosen a stud herd of Tuli (also sometimes called Harvey’s Cattle after the Zimbabwean farmer who bred them in the 1940’s from the best of the Mangwato herds).
Most of the hornless animals are golden brown, but some are pale gray and red brown. Lucas chose this medium-framed breed for their hardiness, fertility and early maturity. They have a good feed conversion ratio and high tick resistance, which is important, as Tesselaarsdal is a Redwater area.
Limousin – the Editor’s choice
This large-framed French beef breed was originally developed in the 17th century as a draft animal – hence the prominent hindquarters. In the 19th century, the breed was selected for beef aspects and today it has excellent meat-fat and meat-bone ratios which make it popular for cross-breeding purposes. It is a long-bodied animal and the calves although large, are born easily.
The Editor is of the quaint view that if you can only have a small herd of cattle, they might as well be big, beautiful to look at and easy to manage. For him, the Limousin breed fits the bill.
In fairness …..
There are several other breeds farmed in the area including Boran – a humped East African breed, Jersey – an island dairy breed which is just a chassis for an udder?, Hereford – ideally a spectacled beef breed, Sussex – a deep red British beef breed with a white-tipped tail switch and Nguni – indigenous and low-maintenance but arguably just skin and bones?
This light-hearted review was just intended to offer a small window into the wide range of breeds farmed in the Tesselaarsdal area and the independence of their owners. For the sake of diversity alone, it’s worth a look by car, bicycle or on foot. There is clearly no right answer to which is the perfect breed. You come and make your choice!
In the meantime, one certainty that remains is that self-catering facilities which are appropriately socially distanced, are the sensible way to go. Heilfontein is open for bookings in the Lodge and Hermitage. Come and visit us and unwind in safety. You could have some fun too….