The people keeping rare beef breed alive

Drakensberger genetics kept alive during drought

Beef
Pomona-based veterinarian Susan Curtain made a sudden decision to purchase some of the Drakensberger cattle that had been in NSW in about August after previously seeing the breed whilst in South Africa. Photo: Supplied

Pomona-based veterinarian Susan Curtain made a sudden decision to purchase some of the Drakensberger cattle that had been in NSW in about August after previously seeing the breed whilst in South Africa. Photo: Supplied

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Retaining the Australian gene pool has never been more important.

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A group of enthusiastic beef breeders have come to the rescue of the slim number of Drakensberger cattle left in Australia to ensure the genetics aren't totally lost.

The medium-frame beef animal with a natural resistance to ticks and associated diseases is mainstream breed in South Africa but recent years of drought in Australia mean very few remain here.

Retaining the Australian gene pool is even more important given embryos can no longer be imported directly from South Africa due to restrictions imposed in 2011.

The Drakensberger cattle of Louis Willemse.

The Drakensberger cattle of Louis Willemse.

Brothers Louis and Hans Willemse grew up with their own Drakens-berger stud in South Africa, which was established by their grandfather, and began importing embryos in 2004 and 2009 to establish their herd in northern NSW.

They calved 53 embryos in 2004 and another 63 five years later broadening the local gene pool to 200 purebred Drakensberger cattle.

While Louis Willemse relocated from Armidale to Bagara in Queensland, his remaining 50 purebred cows are agisted at Bingara.

Louis Willemse with his Drakensberger cattle in 2013.

Louis Willemse with his Drakensberger cattle in 2013.

After keeping them alive through drought and feeding them for 18 months, Mr Willemse said now was the time to seek new bloodlines and exploring export embryos from Canada.

"Outside of South Africa we are the only ones in the world with pure bred Drakensberger cattle," he said.

The cattle being fed during the recent drought.

The cattle being fed during the recent drought.

"I've been just starting to catch up with cattle breeders in Saskatchewan to see if we can find interested partners over there.

"It is a pretty expensive and time consuming experiment to get the embryos out of South Africa to Canada again.

"To source the cattle or good quality genetics in South Africa, then get cattle on the ground in Canada...that will take four years before we can even start bringing in new genetics."

The breed is known for its high meat quality and marbling and Mr Willemse believed it had a key role to play within central and northern Queensland herds to provide a heat resistant, low maintenance animal of the sought after black colour.

He also began crossing Drakensberger with Angus and is focused on developing the poll genetic pool.

The herd of Mr Willemse's brother, Hans, was close to being lost during the recent drought until Pomona-based veterinarian Susan Curtain made a sudden decision to purchase them in about August after previously seeing the breed whilst in South Africa.

"My husband just said if you want to save this breed I would take these cows," she said.

"We weren't in a position to have cattle but it was just save them or they die.

"We were just going to buy five or six Droughtmaster to be lawn mowers and at the moment these cows are the most expensive cows in the country. I bought a truck to get them here, we are clearing land and putting fences up on other neighbours property to use."

They now have 25 cows from Hans' original herd and some that were re-purchased from a Thargomindah producer, a few calves and a bull dating back to a 2004 embryo who has since passed. He was to be semen collected this week.

Ms Curtain spent hours with Hans and searched through databases to obtain the bloodlines of the majority of her herd.

A different bull produced from the 2009 embryos has been traced back to a Hughenden producer and could be added to Ms Curtain's herd when he is next mustered.

Bazza the Drakensberger bull with Les Lee, Leegra Fitting, Murgon.

Bazza the Drakensberger bull with Les Lee, Leegra Fitting, Murgon.

Ms Curtain joked that she was going to start the Drakensberger Preservation Society but in the long term was focused on showcasing their suitability in tropical environments.

"Whilst they definitely still get ticks and they do suffer from flies, they aren't as affected as much," she said.

Pomona-based veterinarian Susan Curtain made a sudden decision to purchase them in about August after previously seeing the breed whilst in South Africa. They are pictured on her property.

Pomona-based veterinarian Susan Curtain made a sudden decision to purchase them in about August after previously seeing the breed whilst in South Africa. They are pictured on her property.

"If you said to anybody that you brought cows from out west (Thargomindah) and they didn't die from lantana or ticks they would say that's impossible. I really have been very impressed with their weight gains here."

Chatham High School agriculture teacher Yan Kleynhans is another player in the fight for Drakensberger survival.

Chatham High agriculture teacher Yan Kleynhans with their Drakensberger steer at last year's Wingham Beef Week competition. The steer was donated by Hans Willemse, Bingara. Photo: Jamie Brown.

Chatham High agriculture teacher Yan Kleynhans with their Drakensberger steer at last year's Wingham Beef Week competition. The steer was donated by Hans Willemse, Bingara. Photo: Jamie Brown.

His students exhibited two of Hans Willemse's steers at the Sydney Royal and Wingham Beef Week steer competitions last year and are intending to purchase some of his purebred females to help preserve the genetics.

Mr Kleynhans has a passion for rare breeds and the school has also showcased British Whites, Nguni and Bonsmara cattle.

"If we don't do something now we might lose them permanently," he said.

"The great thing about the Drakensberger is the fact they marble and they have all the traits of your Bos Taurus animals but they have the tick resistance, the heat tolerance of your Bos Indicus animals but they are Bos Taurus Africana or tropically adapted Bos Taurus.

"Pure Drakensberger steers you will get good meat out of them but I really do think crossing them with your Wagyu or an Angus or a Black Simmental, that's where the money would come from."

The story The people keeping rare beef breed alive first appeared on The Land.

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