Northern Farm Stockyards, Bovelder Fire sale April 2010’

By Sean Christie


Farmer’s Weekly 15 April 2010

The Bovelder beef cattle herd and breeding system on Johannesburg Water’s Northern Farm was pioneered in the 1970s by leading animal scientists and in many respects is still ahead of its time. Sadly this legacy became history when the entire herd went under the hammer on April 14 this year. Sean Christie caught up with beef cattle pioneer, animal scientist and long term farm manager Roger Wood just days before the sad event.

The Lion Park is not the only animal attraction at the end of Malibongwe Drive, which I last travelled as Hans Strijdom Rylaan.

Sandwiched between nurseries and a new upmarket school is a reptile park, and then, dodging the trucks that weave crazily along the pitted R114, one is suddenly amongst something entirely less artificial: dozens of Burgundy-coloured bulls, streaming down a hill. A sign Northern Farm, Home of the Bovelder explains the anomaly, and next to it is a sign that indicates my reason for visiting: Bovelder Uitverkoping.

White-bearded Roger Wood, who emerges from a humble face-brick office to meet me, has been managing this famous (at least amongst cattle folk) Bovelder herd for 25 years, ever since respected animal scientist Alistair Paterson left to take charge of Stockowners after the untimely death in a plane accident of Geoff Harwin, another pioneer of the Bovelder system. Roger has been involved with the Bovelder breeding project since its inception in the 70s, though he broke off to go sailing for eight years with his wife Lynnette in a yacht he built himself. His office is strewn with mementos of this double life: five little bell peppers on a ledger, a conch shell, faded portraits of Bovelders past, and a picture of his yacht on a shark-infested ocean, framed by the green walls of a volcano….

“Welcome to the mother-lode,” Roger begins.

Alistair Paterson had previously emailed me to explain the historical presence of cattle on Johannesburg’s Northern and Southern sewerage farms. In the 60s Johannesburg Water had to dispose, by irrigation, of 250M? of sewerage effluent daily. This naturally required vast areas of pasture and 4 000 cattle to act as the mowers. Before long, city engineer Val Bolitho, whom Paterson described as visionary, developed a concept to make more of this arrangement and called in Geoff Harwin, then working at Ondestepoort.

“Dr Harwin,” says Roger, “introduced six breeding systems amongst the 4 000 cattle, which fortunately represented all the breeds in the country. Four systems were well known at the time, but two were in uncharted territory: these were inter-sa breeding systems, or what today is called composites.”

Roger was one of many, including Paterson, who conducted academic research between the farms. His Masters degree aimed to identify productive heifers, an inexact science at the time.

“In those days a cattle judge who would look at cattle and say, that’s a good breeding animal and that’s not,” Roger recalls. “I brought in academics who were considered good judges of breeding cattle. They went through three generations of heifers, noting everything that was known from a phenotypic point of view that might suggest productivity. I used all the statistical stuff you could measure: weight, growth rate, body measurements, the lot. At the end of the day we found not a single trait you could see with the eye that would aid you to predict an animal’s productivity. In other words, we turned our backs on the animal and said these are the criteria you have to meet. By meeting them, you become the progenitor of the next generation, male or female. That’s essentially where a lot of the Bovelder philosophy comes from. It is not the breed that’s important, it’s the selection parameters in the background.”

By 1983 the breeding system was ready to go to market with its cattle and needed a name.

“We settled on Bovelder in honour of Val Bolitho and because we’re on the Highveld here and because the cattle are mainly grass fed.”

Roger leans across with a pack of Stuyvesant Blue, which I wave away, having given up a month before. “Suffer now,” he says, “and I’ll suffer later.” He fetches a stack of green photograph albums from atop a filing cabinet, in which page after page of side profile photographs of Bovelder bulls are stored.

“Every single bull bred since 1983 has its full analysis recorded, with details of its performance test, its progeny test, phenotypic analysis, birth weight, number of progeny…everything. You won’t find records like this anywhere else I can tell you.”

He’s proud of his bulls, and especially of the fact that, despite producing thousands over the years, the Bovelder has never been promoted as a breed.

“As soon as you register something you’re going to start making aesthetic judgments about the animal, and to me aesthetics has very little to do with the way an animal produces. I don’t trust the human eye to see what makes an animal a good producer. I trust the system we developed.”

Most of Northern Farm’s bulls go to commercial cattlemen who have run into genetic trouble. “They would start with a Hereford, Brahman or whatever,” says Roger, “and then introduce something else because the progeny is too small, or too temperamental, and that leaves them with an F1 cross. Then they realise there’s a bit of milk lacking, so they bring in a Simmentaler or whatever, and suddenly they’ve got a cross-bred herd without a plan. Our bulls are the answer because, even if it’s just a particular colour that you want to introduce in your herd, you can come and choose not one but ten specification bulls that fall into that bracket.”

Roger pauses, and I get the sense we’ve arrived at the sadder part of the story.
“I don’t want to nail Johannesburg Water,” he says. “It has a business to run and this core business is not farming. It has made massive strides in the purification of effluent, so the need to irrigate with effluent has fallen away. So, sadly, has the importance of the herd, at least as far as Johannesburg Water is concerned. Also, we cost Johannesburg Water money. Not a lot, perhaps R10 million against earnings of R5million a year, but we do cost. Even though Johannesburg Water ignores the amount of money we save it by taking the sludge, which costs R1million a day to dispose of, when the rainy season puts it under pressure.”

Reading between the lines, it seems it is not the fact that Northern Farm is being disbanded but rather the way in which it is being done that Roger disagrees with. He was told in February he would have to shut up shop by June.

“I’ve been madly trying to prevent a fire sale,” he grimaces. “In other words to make sure 40 years of cutting-edge breeding science doesn’t go off to the butchers.”

The strap-line of the annual Bovelder sale – Bovelder, What’s your beef? – is loaded with additional meaning on this the eve of the final sale. Although he claims he is no greenie, Roger’s crusading energies are being channelled in the direction of that 2 500ha portion of the farm, a declared reserve since 1983, which has become a haven for birders, cyclists, equestrian enthusiasts, and scouts, as well as generations of Xhosa abakwetha, passing into manhood. It is obvious he has taken on some of Val Bolitho’s civic-minded fire.

“Yes its prime real estate,” acknowledges Roger, concerned that it will go the way of the Bovelder in spite of high-level assurances to the contrary. “But then tell me what about Central Park, what about Hyde Park? History shows that developer pressure can be resisted. Even in Johannesburg you have the precedent of Delta Park in Emmarentia, which used to be a small sewerage works. The council at the time wanted to sell the area off to developers to balance its books, but Bolitho said over my dead body. Now the place is a genuine green lung, and that’s exactly what Northern Farm is, and how it should remain.”

For now only the 1 000ha portion south of the R114 has been allocated to a developer, but Roger has seen a slew of proposals targeting the reserve itself.

“You turn your back for a second and they’re there trying to get a portion of land, big name golf course developers, housing developers, you name it. I retire in a year. Tell me, who is going to fight them off then?”

If Roger is philosophic about the fate of his herd (he’s still mad about the fact that decades of accumulated technical know-how, lodged in his workers, is being put out to pasture too), his wife and co-worker Lynette, whom Roger says is ‘mother to three strapping lads and 800 bloody good-looking calves’, is still hoping an imminent labour strike might delay the sale of the cows she has come to love.

She nevertheless lays a few sticks of droëwors on the desk.

“Piece of history?” asks Roger, offering around. “You’re welcome.”

How the Bovelder Breeding System Works

“The Bovelder is a breeding system, not a breed,” Roger Wood explains. “Early maturity and productivity were the primary considerations when it came to selection criteria, but the Bovelder can and has been combined with other breeds at a certain percentage so that certain outside strengths – the milk of the Simmentaler or the growth of the Charolais, for example – carry through. The aim has never been to develop the fastest growth rate, but rather to develop the best possible animal in a holistic sense, from sperm to steak.”

It is classic population genetics, with no second chances. Any cow that did not conceive at the outset was history.

“At the end of the day we would performance test about 200 bull calves selected on basis of their dams’ efficiency. At a later stage, after crunching all the numbers, we would look at individual animals. Coming in with phenotypic criteria we would cut out obvious genetic flaws, which might be informed by market issues like the fact that many breeders think rooier is mooier. I don’t care if the cattle are pink, but if that’s how the breeders want them then that’s what we breed.”

“The system produced about a 100 performance tested bulls for sale each year, but the farm selected only 20 bulls for its own bull station, where animals undergo further rigorous testing and are bred to 100 females each via AI, with sire allocations being made according to a programme developed on the farm.

“Our 100% AI system enables us to predict the in-breeding co-efficient of every mating,” says Roger. “We know the genetic background of every animal going back six generations, so we can steer well clear of the inbreeding problem.”

After the 2 year old bulls have each been bred to 100 cows, a lag time of three years is allowed for the progeny to come through from the female side to calving age, and from the male side back into the bull stream.

“It therefore takes five years to progeny test the bull,” says Roger. “So to recap, we performance test, we test mate, and then we progeny test, and from there we have maybe five bulls to be used in our herd. All of this happens under the umbrella of the Bovelder selection system.”