Two very different tropical cows : a dilemma for the breeder trade.

Australia has sold thousands of tropically adapted breeding cows to Asian countries over many decades with the majority going to Indonesia.   During that time our cattle have gained a reputation for poor fertility which has even led to claims from some of our customers that we have either sold them females that are naturally infertile or made infertile through manipulation.

I must confess that while I have tried to explain the situation to a wide range of customers from farmers to commercial importers and government officials, I would have to say that I (and everyone else) have been largely unsuccessful to date with the same complaint being consistently repeated year after year.

This article is another attempt to explain the reality of the situation which might hopefully assist our customers to understand why our cattle are in fact a little different to theirs and therefore need additional inputs to ensure good fertility.  The positive trade-off is that in return for these additional inputs, the output of beef production and financial returns from Australian breeders are significantly greater than from local cattle.

Body Condition Score (BCS) refers to a simple scale describing very skinny cattle as body score 1 through to extremely fat cattle as score 5.

The differences between our breeders are a simple matter of long periods of genetic selection.

 

The domestic Indonesian breeding cow.

This cow (usually either one or two) are housed behind the home and intensively managed by the farmer and his family.  The cows are usually tethered out during the day to graze if there is some grass nearby while the farmer spends an hour or two per day (one hour per cow) cutting grass to bring home to feed the cow in its pen where it spends the night.  There are also frequent opportunities for the cows to be fed crop wastes or other local agricultural bi-products to further supplement their nutrition.

This is enough grass for a supplementary evening feed for two cows which have had some grazing during the day. This load takes about 2 hours to collect and deliver.

This is enough grass for a supplementary evening feed for two cows which have had some grazing during the day. This load takes about 2 hours to collect and deliver.

 

The selection pressure in this case includes the following factors :-

  • In order to perform its duties as a farm asset, this cow must produce a calf on a fairly regular basis.
  • If the cow does not get pregnant then the farmer is spending a lot of personal time and resources feeding and caring for it for negligible returns
  • If the cow continues to be fed and is not pregnant it will usually get fat
  • A fat and empty cow will be a very attractive sale proposition to the local butcher
  • Weaning is not practiced so cows must be able to get pregnant even when they are suckling a calf
  • Cattle are mainly sold on a per head basis so the body condition and live weight are not critical selling points. Smaller cattle are well accepted as they eat less and therefore require less physical effort cutting grass.
  • If the cow with a weaner at foot gets too low in body condition, the farmer is always there to ensure she gets a little additional feed to make sure she and her calf survive.

With this sort of pressure on the selection process for 100 years or more, the local breeding cows are exceptionally fertile even when they are nursing a calf or weaner.  The trade off that has allowed this exceptional fertility to develop is that the calf and adult size has reduced and growth rates are very low.

Local Indonesian cows at a regional show in Sumatera. These skinny cows can get pregnant in a heartbeat.

Local Indonesian cows at a regional show in Sumatera. These skinny cows can get pregnant in a heartbeat.

 

The selection pressure on the northern Australian pastoral cow couldn’t be more different :-

  • If a cow gets pregnant while in poor body condition during the long dry season with declining nutrition, its chances of dying are high. Her owner is far away and is not in a position to provide any assistance to individual animals.
  • If a cow gives birth to a calf during the dry season while in poor body condition then the chances of both cow and calf dying are high.
  • Cows that get pregnant while in good body condition (body score 3 or better) usually survive.

After 50+ years of this relentless natural selection against females in poor body condition getting pregnant, the northern pastoral herd is now largely populated by females which have an inbuilt mechanism for switching off their reproductive capacities when they are in poor body condition (less than score 3).  The trade-off in this case is that cattle are much larger and their growth rates are very high when provided with adequate nutrition.

It is easy to imagine then, that when the Indonesian farmer receives an Australian breeder, he sees no reason to wean the calf or provide additional feed to ensure it reaches a BCS of 3.  He knows that he doesn’t have to wean his local cattle because they can easily get pregnant while they are suckling their calf and in low body condition (score 1 and 2).  The local Department of Agriculture staff have the same experience as the farmer so they also have difficulty understanding why Australian breeders are unable to get pregnant after they have calved and are suckling a big weaner.

This photo is a common site for Australian breeders in Indonesia. Farmers are advised to wean but see no immediate reason to do so. They are so delighted with the spectacular growth of their weaner, they are unwilling to accept there is a link between the feeding of the weaner and the failure of the cow to conceive.

This photo is a common site for Australian breeders in Indonesia. Farmers are advised to wean but see no immediate reason to do so. They are so delighted with the spectacular growth of their weaner, they are unwilling to accept there is a link between the feeding of the weaner and the failure of the cow to conceive.

 

I have been involved in numerous seminars and training sessions for years all around South East Asia but especially in Indonesia and I have to confess to close to a 100% failure rate when it comes to convincing our customers that our cows require different management in order to ensure satisfactory fertility.

Suspicions about our breeders become even murkier when our customers learn that we sometimes spay (desex) our surplus heifers in order to prevent them from getting pregnant.

It is also not surprising that a group of farmers and their Departmental staff discussing these issues might not fully grasp the logic for the practice of spaying and its place in Northern Australian breeder management.  Many have learned from bitter experience that our heifers can’t get pregnant when they are lactating and skinny.  They have also heard that we “modify” (spay) some heifers to make them infertile.  They know very well from many years of personal experience that cows (their own local cattle) can easily conceive when they are lactating and skinny.  Cows are cows all over the world, aren’t they?

The only thing the farmer can see here is a magnificent weaner with an exceptional growth rate. Why on earth would he want to wean and interrupt this brilliant performance?

The only thing the farmer can see here is a magnificent weaner with an exceptional growth rate. Why on earth would he want to wean and interrupt this brilliant performance?

 

The fact that these important differences were explained in a number of seminars the previous year is of little help.  While these presentations were attended by a few members of their village cooperative, their participation has not resulted in the reasonably complex messages about the differences of Australian cows being well understood by the individual farmer way out in the bush.  Unfortunately, he is the one who really needs to know.  Not everyone gets to go to educational seminars and even if they do, many won’t be able to grasp the complicated reasoning which explains why Aussie breeders are different through the 15 slides in a power point presentation translated from English into Bahasa Indonesia at 3 in the afternoon when the eyelids are getting heavy.

Our Asian customers need and deserve a better understanding of the important differences between our cattle and theirs – Aussie cows must be weaned in order to get pregnant again!  Once the farmer grasps the differences, it will be a much easier task for him to adjust his management to ensure good fertility.  The only answer is to improve the efficiency of before and after sales support for the breeder trade and, more importantly, delivery this vital information by a means that ensures that the essential messages are delivered all the way to the farmer in his remote village.  This process is complex, expensive and an unattractive additional cost to everyone involved on both sides of the water.  Unfortunately it is essential if the trade is to have any chance of a long-term, mutually beneficial future.

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