TECHNICAL ARTICLES Dairy

From Jockey To Jerseys

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Former star jockey Michael “Muis” Roberts has been farming with Jersey cattle for nine years, building up his herd with proven top genetics from all over the world. With his young partner Arno Theron, Michael aims for uniformity in his herds, so that breeding is not left to chance. This strategy has paid off; he netted 11 first places at the Royal Show.

After a dazzling racing career, retired champion international jockey Michael “Muis” Roberts has hung up his racing tack to train racehorses. But Michael’s great passion is his Buckstone International Jersey stud farm. Michael has always loved Jerseys, and now, in partnership with 22-year-old Arno Theron, is a realizing his lifelong dream of breeding a prime herd.

The Buckstone International Jersey Stud is to be found on Michael’s Barrington Farm, Karkloof, near Howick, a major dairy-producing area of Kwazulu-Natal. While he’s had the farm for 15 years or so, Michael only began his stud in 1995.

“I’ve known Jerseys since I was very young”, says Michael. “My grandfather farmed with the breed, and gave me my first Jersey cow when I was seven.

“When I was an international jockey, the big idea of one day running a Jersey stud was often in my mind. While on the island of Jersey I had the opportunity to buy some cows, keeping them with a view to taking their genetics to my SA farm,’ he says. “That’s why the word “International” is in the name of my stud.”

When his racing career was ended by a bad fall from a horse, Michael returned to SA to give his full attention to managing Buckstone Stud. He intended to import Jersey embryos and heifers from Jersey, but the outbreak of mad-cow disease prevented that. Instead, in 1995 Michael began to select his foundation stock from dispersal sales in SA. Although it is now a closed herd, Michael never lets the opportunity slip if a good cow family comes on the market.

Big, productive cows

“I look for strong families with good production and type,” says Michael. I want bigger cows with a bigger feed intake. Jerseys are good feed-to-milk converters, both on pastures and TMR (total mixed ration). I believe modern Jerseys can hold their own against any dairy breed.”

Michael also uses the best Plus Proven bulls on his cows. He is not prepared to gamble with unproven bulls, leaving the quality of the offspring to chance. The first specimens of good quality Jersey semen to be artificially inseminated (AI) into his Jersey cows came from top American sires, Lester, Berretta and Centurion. The bulls were the top producers in 1995 and 1996 and have been used heavily in the Buckstone herd. The resulting bigger and stronger-framed daughters are what Michaels was after.

To improve the herd further, Michael investigated Canadian genetics. He discovered Renaissance, a proven, very high type bull producing progeny that sold for record prices in the US, and imported the bull’s semen. Using a tested bull was part of Michael’s stud-management philosophy of leaving nothing to chance.

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Using proven top bulls

“A good cow family can carry poor bulls, to a point,” says Michael. “But to improve an average cow family, one must use top bulls. I don’t want to breed simply hoping for a uniform herd; I want to be certain that the majority of calves will be of a sure standard in terms of type and production values. If you don’t have uniformity in your herd, you are leaving your breeding to chance.” In the 2002/3 season, the Buckstone herd received semen from American bulls Paramount, Centurion, Hallmark and Avery. The 2003/4 season saw American bulls Reuben, Bomber, Legion and Parade and Canadian bull Fusion used in the stud.

Arno Theron has joined Michael’s Buckstone stud as a partner, bringing 100 Jerseys of different ages and a wealth of new knowledge with him. This has brought the herd to a full 500 head of cattle: 300 milk-producers and 20 heifers. Arno has acquired a number of Danish-bred animals, including an imported cow with the highest S-index – a total economic formula which includes the most important traits of a cow – of all Danish animals imported into SA. She produced a bull Soete-drome, Jack’s Enrique, which is now with AI company Taurus.

AI and clean-up bulls

With Michael’s racehorse-training commitments, Arno is responsible for much of the hands-on work in the herd. Arno tries out a maximum of two AIs on any one cow; should these not take, one of the six bulls that are kept from their herd every year are used for cleaning up. At an average cost of R120 per straw of imported semen, the costs can be prohibitive. Michael once paid R1 500 for semen from Renaissance.

“The clean-up bulls are replaced every year,” Michael says. “Every bull we keep is from our best cow families; we believe that if a home-bred bull is going to be offered to other breeders, it should have been first used on our herd and then put on the market.”

To spread the qualities of their top and expensive cows in the herd, Michael and Arno use the embryo flushing, with a 70% success rate. Even at a cost of R6 000 per cow, the benefits of embryo harvest, transfer and implant outweigh the expense.

A winning strategy

Michael and Arno’s management has improved the herd enormously. In 2003, the herd average was 7 410 kg of milk per cow over 305 days, with a butter-fat content of 4,6% and a milk protein of 3,7%.

“We do not use any growth hormones on the herd. Despite this, we have the highest production herd of Jerseys in Kwazulu-Natal, and all our milk goes to Clover,” Michael says proudly. “Our aim is to have the best Jersey herd in South Africa!”

Michael and Arnos’ first showing of their animals, at the 2003 Royal Agricultural Show, netted them 11 first places in various categories, among them Grand Champion Jersey Cow, Reserve Champion Heifer and Reserve Supreme Dairy Animal on Show. Their show cows do not get additional special treatment before a show. “All our Jerseys are specially treated all the time,” says Arno.

While the herd is still growing, the Buckstone has sold a small number of animals; one of them, Buckstone Paramount Jinty, realized R18 000 in 2003 at the Golden International Show in Johannesburg. For a man who one would have thought knows more about racehorses than cows, and for a young man barely out of his teens, Michael and Arno respectively can be justifiably proud of their quality Jersey cows.

Contact Buckstone International Jersey Stud on (033) 330 2261, or e-mail buckston@mweb.co.za

Muis the man

Michael “Muis” Roberts had an illustrious international career as a jockey from 1969 to 2001, ended by a devastating fall.

In South Africa, Europe, the US, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, Muis rode to 3 964 wins in his career. He rode for and became a friend of Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother, as well as being awarded with the silver South African Sports Merit Award in 1993 by then president FW de Klerk.

“My greatest moment in racing was the sight of 200 000 people cheering when I turned to canter back after winning the Japan Cup in 1999. At that time it was the richest race in the world,” says Michael.” Winning the Rothman’s July which had eluded me for 15 years, also has a special place in my heart.” Not bad for a farm boy from South Africa!

Read Michael Roberts – A Champion’s Story by Michael Roberts and Michael Tanner (Headline Book Publishing)

The Buckstone grazing and feeding regime

  • A semi-seasonal calving period is planned, with mid-March to June the preferred calving time. The cooler, less humid winter months help get the best production from the cows.
  • Immediately after a cow calves, she goes straight to mixed rations (TMR) for 60 days. To guarantee a 55% production-over-feed profit, to stay on TMR a first-lactation cow must produce at least 24 litres a day after the first 60 days. For mature cows with more than two calves, the figure is at least 28 litres a day.
  • In winter, non-qualifying cows go onto rye-grass and clover pastures. This will be supplemented every day with 400g concentrate per liter milk she produces, and 2 kg of eragrostis hay combined with 1 kg of molasses syrup as roughage. In summer, the cows alternate their pasture feeding with kikuyu at night, and perennial ryegrass during the day.
  • The non-qualifying herd still averages 24 litres per day during the winter months.
  • Dry cows get a 60-day rest period – in winter, hay or silage; in summer, kikuyu grazing supplemented with phosphate lick. Steaming up starts 21 days before a cow is due to calve.
  • Calves are taken from their mothers in 12 hours and given colustrum and kept on milk for 60 days ( 4 litres a day) with 18% calf pellets.
  • From their second to sixth month, the calves stay in concrete pens and are fed Meadow’s Calf Complete 18% meal with eragrostis hay on demand.
  • From six months they go to pasture with kikuyu in summer and wrapped grass silage in winter. These are both supplemented with 2 kg a day each of Meadow’s Maxi-heifer 17.
  • Heifers are bred from 12 to 15 months old and with a minimum weight of 220 kg. The pasture grazing is supplemented with Rumen Candy.

Date published: 2004-03-01

Author:
Lloyd Phillips

Publication:
Farmer’s Weekly