Understanding beef production systems

18 November 2020 | Agriculture



Cattle farmers should understand the different production systems, because the system they choose determines the sustainability and profitability of the farm.

According to Olebile Olibile, a mentorship student at the Meatco Okapuka Feedlot, there are a variety of ways in which beef production systems can be classified.

The most practical classification is where the production system is defined by the age and body mass at which the animals are marketed.

Additional beef production systems include carcass classification, feed management and the breed of animals.

Olibile says a common mistake made when talking about beef production systems on farms is that it is often limited to extensive, semi-extensive and intensive production systems, which only describes the management part of the production system.

“There is also a further misconception that a farmer who uses an intensive production system, as opposed to the extensive system, is more likely to have a profitable operation. This is not entirely true as two farmers can be equally profitable even though they are using two different management systems.”

Under the weaner system a cow herd is run on the farm and their calves are sold once they have reached the age of six to eight months.

The number of weaners produced depends on the size of the cow herd, which is determined by the grazing available on the farm to keep the cows in good condition throughout their production cycle.

With regard to the long-yearling system (tollies), Olibile says that once bull calves have been castrated they are let in the veld and stay on the farm until they are 12 to 18 months old before they are marketed. In this system, the herd composition is determined by the age at which the tollies leave the farm. “Meaning that in most cases, the gender ratios will be slightly shifted towards steers rather than cows.”

Under the oxen-off veld system, castrated bull calves stay on the farm longer than yearlings and therefore a farmer's calculations of the grazing available must factor in the oxen and not just cater for the cows.

“With this system, the castrated bull calves are marketed at a much later stage when an age greater than two years is reached.”

With the buying-in system, a farmer would buy animals from an auction, irrespective of their age, keep them for a certain period during which they are fed to gain body condition or mass, and then market them.

“This is one system that is slowly gaining popularity, especially with the past droughts. The biggest challenge with this system is that the farmer must have good timing and understanding of the markets,” says Olibile.

He says although little is said about heifers, they are also often marketed.