MJ Ernst’s Bona Bona Angus stud is relatively small. Yet the outstanding fertility of his cow herd has resulted in the stud matching, and often surpassing, the local Angus breed’s estimated breeding values (EBV).

The stud achieved a 100% calving rate and a 95% weaning rate during the 2016/2017 breeding season. The average age at first calving is 29 months, compared with the breed average of 31 months.

Similarly, the average inter-calving period (ICP) for the Bona Bona herd is 378 days, which is markedly lower than the average of 409 days for SA Angus cows.

MJ decided on the Red Angus breed rather than the more traditional Black Angus due to commercial farmers’ preference for red cattle. His 35-strong Bona Bona stud consists of 21 breeding animals, including replacement heifers.

Feed efficiency and breeding values
The herd’s genetic improvement in terms of feed efficiency has increased substantially since its inception, with the feed conversion ratio improving from 110 in 2012 to 118 in 2014.

In 2016, a Bona Bona bull, MJ 14 0020, competed in the ARC Special Performance Test Class, and received a Platinum Award in the same year.

MJ stresses that his selection criteria are based on what commercial breeders demand.

“They need top fertility and feed efficiency to produce heavy weaners with feedlotting in mind. Optimal meat production calls for a blocky beef conformation.

“These attributes are crucially important for my commercial clients and that’s what I aim for,” he explains.

From the outset, MJ has kept detailed records of the stud’s performance, as he believes this is the only accurate method to assess individual animals’ true potential. Factors such as effective feeding can hide a multitude of genetic flaws, he says.

Breeding values are a proven selection tool, says MJ. A breeding value index of 100 indicates that the herd is at the genetic average for the breed, for a specific trait.

In this regard, he achieved genetic improvement in the herd’s birthweight, with this breeding value increasing from 87 to 91 between 2014 and 2017.

Another important trait for a commercial farmer is milk production, which ensures heavier calves at weaning. MJ has achieved genetic improvement in maternal weaning weight, which indicates milk production, increasing this breeding value from 99 to 105.

According to Frans Jordaan of the ARC’s National Beef Improvement Scheme, MJ applies the fundamentals of performance testing to enable genetic improvement in his herd.

He stresses that it is crucial for stud breeders to have well-defined breeding objectives to ensure genetic improvement of traits that have economic value for the commercial farmer. Commercial farmers buy genetics from stud farmers to increase fertility and production for more profitable and sustainable beef production.

“The impact that MJ has already made on the industry as a role model, at a relatively young age, made him the ideal candidate for the ARC’s 2017 National Young Breeder of the Year,” Frans says.

Building the herd
The Bona Bona stud was founded on the best possible Angus genetics, obtained mainly from established studs such as Angus Alliance, Mequatling and Woodview Angus. MJ did extensive research before deciding on the breed he wanted to farm.

He was then introduced to the Angus breed by Dr Enslin Coetzee, a breeder from Bothaville in the Free State, and that sealed the deal.

According to MJ, assistance from the Angus Society of South Africa and other breeders was also invaluable in helping him make an informed decision.

“I eventually decided on Angus because of the breed’s even temperament, exceptional meat quality, good mothering abilities and the fact that the Angus is the [most widely farmed] beef cattle breed in the world,” he recalls.

MJ is convinced of the value of a varied genetic base and believes that the local Angus breed is among the best in the world. In 2013, he bought the bull, Bertus JMS 10 541, at the Angus Alliance sale and used it to improve his stud herd.

This bull, described as well-balanced and masculine by MJ, was the 2013 Grand Champion Bull at the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg.

Currently, about 10% of the female animals in the herd are artificially inseminated (AI), but MJ is keen to increase this percentage, and plans to attend an AI course in the future to learn the technique for himself, thereby cutting down on veterinary costs.

South Africa’s low average weaning rate of about 65% is one of the reasons the stud breeding industry has a responsibility to supply proven and varied genetics to commercial producers, he insists.

“Among other things, we need to breed strong cows that can drop and raise a calve every year. I think the Angus is one of the best options to address the problem of low weaning rates because of its global genetic base and excellent beef qualities,” he says.

The environment
MJ is the third generation of his family to farm on this land. The stud is kept on 230ha of mainly sweetveld red grass (Themeda trianda), with some sourveld growing in the marshy area of the farm.

The woody component includes velvet raisin bush (Grewia flava), karee (Searsia lancea) and buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata). The farm is divided into six camps, each with a watering point.

The annual rainfall averages 450mm, and temperatures vary from below freezing in winter to the high 30s in summer. MJ stocks his farm at its official carrying capacity of 6ha/ MLU.

The Bona Bona herd is kept on the veld throughout the year, and heifers and cows are moved between the camps every four months. Chicken litter, as well as a lick, are supplied during winter, while a production lick is supplied in summer.

Two breeding seasons are maintained and a single bull is put to the heifers during November and December. In January, a follow-up bull is put to the heifers to ensure they all conceive.

MJ is in the process of establishing a breeding season for the cows, but currently a single bull is left with the cows until all have conceived. This is to accommodate cows that have been bought recently, and to maintain the ICP.

MJ and two of his co-breeders, Piet Delport and Janke Vosloo, have formed the Ultimate Angus group, and the first production sale took place at the Bona Bona auction complex on 19 October.

A passion for the breed
MJ’s Red Angus stud is but one division of the Bona Bona group of companies. The rest of the farm is dedicated to game farming, and the group includes a four-star game lodge; an aviation business for animal capturing and darting, as well as chartering; a safari business; and a civil engineering firm.

“I chose cattle farming because I wanted to interact with animals daily and have the opportunity to see genetics in motion,” says MJ. “Although I’m involved in the family’s game farming and engineering company, the Angus is my first love.”

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