Simmentals are hitting a sweet spot for Lochaber North graziers Simon and Rachael Withers, who are selling their young cattle into local and export markets.
The couple's 600-hectare property north west of Naracoorte, on South Australia's Limestone Coast, supports 80-120 Simmental breeders each year - depending on seasonal conditions.
They also run 500 White Suffolk and Ile-De-France stud ewes and a 1000-head commercial Merino and first cross ewe flock for prime lamb and wool production.
Cattle have long been in the blood for the family, with Mr Wither's grandfather being a foundation breeder of Simmentals and Shorthorns in South Australia.
His uncle, Phil Withers, is still running Simmentals - previously operating as the Nalpa Stud - and Shorthorn cattle at the historic family property Nalpa station, near Wellington.
Mr Withers decided to pursue commercial livestock breeding and trading opportunities, rather than continue down the stud path.
He chose Simmentals because they are highly productive for his local environment and seasonal conditions.
"They are very fertile, with a noticeable increase in twinning rates in our herd in recent years, and the females are excellent milkers," he said.
"Because they achieve such good growth rates and milk production, they make fabulous mothers and that means the whole herd is high-performing."
For many years, the Withers have used Simmental genetics from Regan Burow's Yerwal Estate stud at Lucindale. They also source a few Angus sires from Yerwal to mate to maiden heifers for ease of first calving.
Mr Withers said the stud was a good fit for them because of its commercial approach.
"Yerwal incorporates stud and commercial cattle and Regan operates a feedlot, so he can monitor first-hand whether his stud breeding program is producing results," he said.
"We find his cattle are functional and profitable for our conditions."
Mr Withers also works off-farm, so his system is set up for joining cattle in May to calve during the following February - with maidens calving at 20-22-months-old.
Typically, the property's autumn season break occurs around ANZAC Day and all cattle are grass-fed through this period and into the winter months. Some hay and silage is provided as a supplement.
In the past, the Withers have targeted the Naracoorte weaner sales in January-February as their main market for grass-fed progeny.
These calves are weaned into purpose-built weaning pens for two weeks.
They receive hay and silage and are turned off at weights of about 380-450 kilograms, depending on the season, when they are nine to 10-months-old.
In recent years, the Withers have started to sell these direct from grass pastures to feedlots - predominantly Princess Royal, which targets these weights.
They also select lines of weaner heifers to sell via live export into a lucrative Chinese breeding program coordinated through Australian-owned exporting company Austrex.
For several years, they have supplied this market with young female stock at minimum weights of 300kg, which is typically reached at about eight or nine-months-old.
To meet Chinese protocols, the heifers must be purchased on-farm and be from a Bluetongue virus-free zone.
There are often premiums paid for these heifers that the family is not retaining as breeders.
In some years, lighter weight heifers have commanded values equal to what they would have got at heavier weights six months down the track if carried through winter.
Mr Withers said the Chinese particularly liked purebred Simmental females.
"They are seeking the more traditional type of Simmental markings, and they prefer the reds - whether that is cherry red or the more apricot tones," he said.
"Specifications have been quite broad to date, making this a relatively easy target market.
"But we are a little nervous about the current Australia-China political situation, so we are conscious not to be too heavily reliant on this export program for the future.
"It is good to have a diverse range of markets."
For heifers that are not being sent to China, but retained in the breeding herd, the Withers mate these to Angus sires in their first year, then Simmentals for the remainder of their life.
When selecting their Yerwal Estate Simmental bulls they focus on high fertility and Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for early growth, ease of calving, fat content, milk production and poll genes.
Mr Withers said fat and growth traits were key, as heifers are mated at 13-months-old.
"We want to breed top quality females, as these are the engine of the herd," he said.
"If they have the right muscle and fat distribution, they will produce more milk and progeny that will perform well to optimise our whole-farm productivity.
"A lot of our decision-making about bulls comes down to visual inspection of softness across the frame, muscle definition, dark colour and panda-type eye markings.
"And we are firmly seeking poll genes for ease of animal management and optimal stock and employee occupational health and safety."
To ensure returns per hectare are maximised, the Withers have been undertaking pasture improvements to boost the feed base across their property.
They have been spreading clay for the past six years to help ameliorate the constraints associated with sandy soils that are typical of the Limestone Coast region.
They aim to cover 20-40ha annually and then sow these areas to chickory, clover and lucerne to replace any rundown pastures.
"These areas fill an important summer and autumn feed gap, as well as providing excellent finishing pasture for weaners and lambs," Mr Withers said.
As more areas are refurbished with better quality feed, the Withers plan to boost stock numbers and hold steers to sell at heavier weights.
Mr Withers said he was very confident in the future of the cattle and beef sector, especially given strong demand for stock from New South Wales and northern graziers this year as they seek to re-build herds that had been decimated due to prolonged and severe drought.
"And our season has been excellent this year - we are very lucky," he said.