Caberfeidh Station is a mixed breeding and finishing farm located in the Hakataramea Valley and managed by Matt Smith, who is the Southern Regional Manager for Lone Star Farms. It is one of six properties located in New Zealand’s South Island which make up Lone Star Farms.
Caberfeidh Station aims to produce a premium product, with a minimum of 70% of cattle, sheep and wool produced eligible for a premium branded program. This has been a business goal since 2020, with the beef going into Alliance’s Handpicked program, which provides a marbling premium on a cents per kilogram carcase weight basis for marble score three and above.
The Caberfeidh beef operation comprises of 1,500 head of trade cattle to finish and a self-replacing Angus cow breeding herd. The trade cattle and breeding herd have distinct roles within the business to match the pasture growth curve and complement the sheep breeding and finishing operation.
Trade cattle make up a significant component of Caberfeidh farming system, with 1,500 head finished annually being comprised of trade steers, heifers, and bull beef. Bull Beef finishing is common in New Zealand (NZ) as a result of excess male offspring produced from the National dairy herd, usually made up of Friesians or Friesian cross bulls. Bull beef is utilised in NZ farming systems due to the high growth rates of entire males, which also enables flexibility to offload a stock class when feed availability is low.
Sixty percent of the trade cattle purchased are Angus, with the balance being European breed influenced.
“The different breeds of trade cattle being purchased have different roles within the property,” explains Matt.
With the Angus trade cattle, Matt tries to source cattle from commercial producers who are focused on eating quality and intra-muscular fat (IMF) and source their bulls from studs which are invested in the Angus Pure Program, so they know the beef eating quality potential is there.
“All cattle that are bought in have an origin put against them so we can follow them through until they are killed and then can go back to that farmer to offer a direct purchase in future,” says Matt.
“Currently we are not getting all our cattle up to the specifications for the Handpicked program. It will be a combination of feeding and genetics to help us hit these targets,” he explains.
Caberfeidh aim to finish and turn off cattle at 18 months. “Everything else gets taken through to a two-year-old animal to meet market specifications. Ideally, 60-70% are killed before Christmas to avoid carrying cattle through a second winter,” said Matt.
Pasture management and nutrition is a key focus, with 80% of the property suitable for cultivation. This, coupled with intensive grazing management, enables sheep and beef breeding operations to run alongside the finishing enterprises.
“All finishing of cattle is done on 400ha of irrigated ground which is under centre pivots,” says Matt.
“In the break crops we are using swedes, kale, or fodder beet. We have 300ha of chicory and red clover mix and another 500ha of lucerne and dryland grass mixes. There is also 40ha of fodder beet which we can kill 400 – 500 head of cattle off,” he says.
Focus on the Cow Herd
Caberfeidh Station strives to, ‘have a high performing beef herd that focuses on producing high-quality beef, without losing focus on fertility and type’. They run a five hundred Angus cow herd and calve down 80 – 100 yearling heifers.
“In terms of genetics, more IMF and growth are important, but we do not want to grow too quickly to get a mature cow herd that is too big. It is about finding that balance with the growth to maintain a smaller mature cow weight. If you chase growth, potentially the animals will mature later, and we find we may lose eating quality due to animals not being finished or having enough IMF when we need to turn them off,” Matt says. “If you chase growth and don’t monitor other important traits like eating quality, you could end up out of balance.”
Previous experience with other breeds illustrated the importance of being able to exhibit control over genetics and the opportunity genetics poses to improve performance and hit market specifications. This was a driving factor behind the decision to get their commercial Angus cow herd genomically tested.
“The genomic testing was done to get a better understanding of the genetics in their cow herd and, in doing so, has increased the rate of genetic gain and provides valuable information on the traits you cannot see,” explains Matt.
“We can control the genetics and we know what the genetics are. All the rest is up to us, we know we need to feed them, but we also know we will get an 80 – 90% hit rate for the Alliance Handpicked premium program for our homebred animals,” he says.
The cow herd is the driving force behind reaching premium markets. The herd is managed under intense selection pressures and is carefully managed in their environment to ensure offspring meet market premium specifications. Females are subject to monitoring and recording of body condition score and strict criteria are placed on replacement females.
The cow herd has been split into two, an ‘A’ and ‘B’ herd, differentiated on Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs), type and body condition score. Currently, there is no difference in target market between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ herd, however the replacement heifers are selected from herd ‘A.’
Caberfeidh uses fixed time Artificial Insemination (AI) and natural joining. They have been AI’ing the heifers and herd ‘A’ from which replacement heifers are selected. In 2022 they also inseminated the rising 3-year-old heifers, achieving a 70% in calf rate to AI.
Each year the heifers are joined with a new set of bulls, mitigating the risk of inbreeding, and speeding up the rate of genetic gain.
“Natural joining used to go for 42 days (2 cycles); however, we have extended that to three cycles just for the opportunity of selling a cow in calf versus a dry cow. We are getting 3% or 4% in calf in the third cycle which are sold as pregnancy tested in calf (PTIC) cows for a better return,” says Matt.
The Caberfeidh ideal mature cow weight is around 500kg at a target body condition score (BCS) of 7- 7.5 (NZ BCS scoring is from 1 – 10) over the year. Matt believes this type of breeding female allows the cows to fluctuate their condition scores over winter down to a 6 when required as a “haystack” depending on the season.
Matt finds a moderate cow is more suited to the hill country.
“A smaller cow is agile, has less breakdowns and less cost of maintenance than a large cow. We have a medium framed cow because we live in a dryland environment with 400-450mm annual rainfall, so they can get pushed pretty hard,” he says.
“Cows that cannot maintain a condition score six or better will be transferred into breeding herd ‘B.’ Mature cows are culled on EBV’s, type and every cow has to rear a calf,” Matt said. Most cows remain in the system for 10 – 12 years and then start culling for age, as the incidences of breakdowns increase after that age. This makes room for the replacement heifers to come through with superior genetics.
Replacement females are selected on EBV’s, condition score and type. The first cull is on EBV’s which usually takes approximately 10% out of contention, and then a target mating weight of 320kg must be met.
Leading up to mating as 15-month-old animals, Matt and the team will look at their growth over winter, body condition score and type and conduct another cull on this performance.
“When looking at type, I am looking for quite a compact animal, basically a barrel on legs, good spring of rib, nice head, good doing animal – all that traditional sort of stuff. You still need to like the look of the animals that you farm,” he says.
Any heifer that does not calve down will go to the trade mob to be finished as a prime animal into a premium market. With pregnancy-testing results yielding an in-calf rate of 85% in the yearling heifers, approximately 25% of homebred heifers born will end up being retained and come through into the breeding herd.
When selecting bulls, the first consideration is EBVs, and if they match the Caberfeidh breeding objective. The EBV selection criteria was developed in 2018 and Caberfeidh have selected on these criteria ever since;
- Gestation Length
- Mature cow weight
- 400 Day Growth
- Carcase traits (Cwt, EMA, Rib, Rump, IMF)
Any bulls that do not fit their EBV criteria will be crossed off the list before sale. On auction day, Matt’s sole focus is looking at non genetic factors such as type and structure.
“I am looking for nice compact bulls that are sound, with good feet, pasterns, good depth, lots of meat and I like to make sure there is some round shape in the back end, that he doesn’t fall away.”
The bulls they purchase have semen collected so they can be used naturally and in a fixed time AI program within herd.
The trade cattle and bull beef play an important part in the wider farming system, giving the operation flexibility when there is low feed availability. These classes of cattle can be offloaded, and priority can be given to feeding their mobs for the market premium programs.
Although the trade cattle have traditionally held an important place in the Caberfeidh farm business it is clear the self-replacing cow herd is taking focus due to the ability to consistently achieve strong compliance to the Alliance Handpicked program. The increasing market premiums for marbling have resulted in Carberfeidh including IMF in their breeding objective is to ensure they have continuous improvement as a supplier in the Alliance supply chain.
Although Caberfeidh have enjoyed much success within this program they remain committed to farming in a dryland environment. That requires the cowherd to have a balance of traits to ensure they maintain herd fertility, reach critical mating weights, and maintain body condition scores to ensure they remain productive and efficient within their farming system.
Matt explains, “Part of improving the resilience of the business is extracting as much value out of the product that we produce, moving away from a commodity price schedule to a premium price which will give certainty through the season, but also connecting with the end consumer, telling the story, building relationships and trust in the brand.”
Careful management of nutrition and genetics has enabled Caberfeidh Station to increase the amount of products produced going into premium markets.