Reproduction tops the genetic shopping list

Location: Werrington, QLD (250km west of Townsville; ‘Rainmore’, 70km south of Alpha)

Enterprise: Brahman steers for the Japanese feeder market; heifers for the domestic feeder market

Producer: Russell and Donna Lethbridge

Soil type: ‘Werrington’ - light alluvial to heavy clay, light granite; ‘Rainmore’ - heavy brigalow, scrub red loamy soil, lighter eucalypt country

Pasture type: ‘Werrington’ – natives, stylos, open forest; ‘Rainmore’ – buffel, stylos, natives

1-Clayton-with-herd-bulls-Werrington.jpgWhen Queensland cattle producer Russell Lethbridge talks breeding objectives, he is absolutely clear about what he wants.

With knowledge fashioned from hard experience and an open mind, Russell has embraced genetics to create a highly fertile, early maturing Brahman herd whose progeny appeal to a broad range of markets.

And his approach is surprisingly simple – select for reproduction and the rest will follow.

“I breed to produce a marketable animal, one that is fleshy and early maturing, will put muscle on bones at any time after 12 months and will lay down fat before it’s three years old,” Russell said.

To achieve this he places selection pressure on his females, only buys bulls with BREEDPLAN  breeding values for ‘Days to Calving’ and whose dams are proven reproductive performers.

“The reliability of the mother is very important. If she’s had nine calves in 10 years, it’s her genetics I want,” Russell said.

“When selecting bulls I think too many people are obsessed with growth traits and don’t pay enough attention to fertility indicators such as moderate frame size, days to calving, calving ease and scrotal circumference.

“Our most progressive move was finding a seedstock producer who had the same commercial trait objectives as us - clearly, making the demands on our females was only improving us so far.”

No room for freeloaders

All females are pregnancy tested each year after a four-month, controlled mating period and all empties are sold.

Heifers, on the other hand, face their biggest fertility challenge first up – a 10-week joining. However, most don’t disappoint. This year 92.5% conceived, compared to 40-50% 15 years ago.

“Where it really pays off is with the first calvers,” Russell said.

“This year we had 75% re-join successfully on no rain and in very challenging conditions.”

This approach means the entire herd of about 3,000 breeders is young, with about a third of the annual calf drop out of maiden heifers.

However, recent benchmarking has shown these young heifers hold their own, with the herd operating at 20% above the district average for reproduction efficiency.

Added bonuses

While Russell doesn’t chase growth traits when buying bulls but has found, during the past 20 years, that selection for reproduction capacity has made his cows heavier (220-240kg carcase weight).

He believes improved female reproduction also translates to improved adaption to the environment with their breeder mortality rate at less than 2%.

Bull temperament is also a major consideration with Russell and Donna’s three children, Clayton (pictured), 23, Kate, 22, and Georgia, 20, all involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

However, for the Lethbridge family, genetics is only part of the equation for success, with the rest being good management.

In the paddock

Intensive phosphorus supplementation during the wet, annual vibrio vaccinations for bulls and maintaining adequate pasture protein for growing cattle, all contribute to the herd’s profitability.

The location of the Lethbridge’s two properties also means their enterprise is spoilt for choice for market destinations.

About 65% of the steers (averaging 480kg) are sold to the 100-day Japanese feeder market, while the remainder are grain-fed for slaughter as milk and two-teeth with some grading MSA. Cull heifers head to feedlots for the supermarket trade while cull cows end up as US ground beef.

“We have been using hormone growth promotants (HGPs) as they reduce our turn-off times by 60 days, which allows us to rest pastures and that is really valuable to us,” Russell said.

“But there is a 5¢/kg penalty on HGPs and some markets are closed to us.”

Keen to spread their risk, the Lethbridge family plans to gain Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) accreditation for ‘Rainmore’.

“We’ll take one step at a time,” Russell said.

“We’ve used Rumensin (an antibiotic excluded under PCAS) for years during weaning to prevent coccidiosis so we will progress this slowly to ensure any premiums aren’t outweighed by extra cost or poor animal welfare outcomes.”

More information:

Russell Lethbridge E: russellanddonna@bigpond.com

Read more on BREEDPLAN here

Werrington, QLD (250km west of Townsville; ‘Rainmore’, 70km south of Alpha)
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