A breeding system means that a farmer or rancher keeps a herd of breeding cows on the farm and sells off surplus stock at various ages.

The four categories are:

  •     Selling stock for slaughter at ages from 2 to 4½ years old;
  •     Selling stock at 2½ years old either for slaughter or as feeders that are bought and finished off on another farm or feedlot;
  •     Selling 1 ½ year old cattle as yearlings or long weaners for growing and finishing on another farm or feedlot and;
  •     Selling weaners at 6 – 9 months old.

The system followed by a particular farmer will depend on the following:

  •     The rainfall in the area of the farm or ranch;
  •     The veld type on the farm. This together with the rainfall will determine the carrying capacity of the farm;
  •     The size of the farm or ranch and the carrying capacity of the veld;
  •     The breed or cross of cattle kept on the farm and.
  •     The calving percentage of the breeding herd. A high calving percentage means good feeding and management while a low calving percentage of 50% – 60% means poor management and winter feeding.


The ideal size for a breeding herd is 30 to 50 cows running with one bull – the single sire herd. However, herds of this size mean small paddocks and good fencing which can be justified only with quality stock. A satisfactory herd-size would be 100 – 150 cows running with 4 – 5 bulls. The number of cows that can be run efficiently during the calving and bulling seasons is 200 – 300, and a general recommendation is that herds should be no larger than can be collected, handled and returned to their paddocks within 2.1/2- hours.

During the season, herds are broken down into smaller numbers and built back up into larger numbers depending on the time of the year. The herd may be divided up for supplementary feeding with in-calf heifers, in-calf cows and cull cows being run in separate herds and fed at different levels of nutrition. In the case of young stock, herds of up to 500 are suitable provided that the handling facilities are large enough.


Most breeding herds are carried on the natural veld and the breeding season of commercial herds is fitted to the growth of the veld grass. The ideal time for a cow to calve is about a month before the first flush of spring grass. In this way, the cow will reach her peak milk yield at 5 – 6 weeks after calving, and she will do this eating grass only; the spring flush of grass will boost her milk yield.

This pattern of milk production fits in with the requirements of the calf, as the calf’s peak requirement for milk is at 5 – 6 weeks after birth. Furthermore, the good quality of the early season grass will provide sufficient nutrients for milk production and keep the cow in good body condition. Because of this, the cow has a much better chance of conceiving again during a three-month bulling season.

As a guide, the following is recommended:

HighveldNov 15 – Feb 13Sept – Oct – Nov
LowveldDec 15 – March 16Oct –  Nov – Dec

Heifers should be bulled 4 – 6 weeks earlier than the rest of the breeding herd.

The breeding season, the time that the bulls are running with the herd, should be as short as possible without reducing the calving percentage. Bulls should be run with the cows for three months (12 – 14 weeks) and with the heifers for nine weeks. Any animal that has not conceived within this time is unlikely to conceive at all. If left with the bull and she does conceive, she will produce a very late calf.

Although some farmers and ranchers run bulls with their herds all the year round, a controlled breeding season is desirable for the following reasons:

  •     A calving season that is matched to the growth of the grass will produce good weaners at low cost because supplementary feeding is not required. Furthermore, the lactating cows are kept in good condition, and have a better chance of reconceiving;
  •     Even batches of weaners can be produced for sale or for feeding up on the farm;
  •     Management during the calving period is made easier as the herd can be watched carefully during the three months of calving;
  •     The routine calf operations such as weaning, castrating, dosing and dehorning can be planned and carried out more easily with a batch or batches of calves;
  •     Irregular calvers and barren cows can be detected more easily and culled from the herd and;
  •     Supplementary feeding can be matched to the requirements of the different classes and ages of stock.


Number of bulls in a breeding herd:

  •     Single Sire Herd 1 bull for 30 – 50 cows
  •     Multiple Sire Herd 4 bulls for every 100 cows
  •     Using young bulls 5 bulls for every 100 cows

It is important to check bulls for fertility before the start of the breeding season. This is done by a Veterinary Surgeon, who will collect a sample of sperm from each bull, and check this using a microscope.

Young bulls can be used to service a few cows when they are 18 to 24 months old, and putting a few young bulls in with older bulls can stimulate the older bulls to more activity in serving the cows; however, the herd should be watched to make sure there is not too much fighting among the bulls. Mature bulls do not normally need any supplementary feeding during the breeding season, but young bulls that have been used to concentrate feeding, may require 2 – 4kg a day of an energy supplement such as maize meal.

The feeding and management of heifers in a herd is most important, because these animals are growing themselves at the same time as they produce and feed a calf. Although heifers are easy to get in calf for the first time, if their management is poor, their re-conception will be poor; as low as 20% in some cases. In order to achieve the best results with heifers, the following points should be noted:

Size rather than age is the important factor for bulling heifers. They can be put to the bull when they have reached 2/3rds of their mature mass, and under good management and feeding, this should be when they are about two years old.

At the end of the summer, the mass of the pregnant heifers should be 85% of their mature mass.

After calving down, the heifers should weigh 85% of their mature mass, showing that they are in good condition. This condition should be maintained with supplementary feeding during the early part of their lactation. If the animals lose too much condition during their pregnancy and lactation, they will not conceive when they are put to the bull for their second calf.

The diagram below shows the ideal situation for a heifer of a medium sized breed.

Figure 1: Heifer calving weight

Heifers are bulled earlier than the main breeding herd so that:

  •     There is a longer interval before they are put to the bull again. This allows time for the heifers to improve their condition and increases their chances of conceiving;
  •     The heifers produce a more uniform calf crop and;
  •     Supervision can be concentrated on the heifers during their calving period.


During the calving period, the herd should be inspected every day for the following:

  •     Cows having difficulty giving birth. It is a good plan to bring cows that are close to calving, into a small paddock where they can be watched closely once they start calving;
  •     Cows that retain their afterbirth after calving;
  •     Cows that develop swollen udders either because they have mastitis, or because the calf is not able to drink and;
  •     Calves that are not accepted by their mothers. This is inclined to happen with heifers producing their first calves.

All animals giving problems should be kept in a small paddock for a few days so that they can be treated and observed before returning to the main herd.

When breeding herds are moved, they should be moved from one paddock or camp into the one immediately next door. This is so the calves that get left behind in the move can join up with their dams by slipping through the fence. If the cow has been moved a large distance, there is very little chance of an abandoned calf rejoining its dam. Herds should not be moved on dipping days, and when a breeding herd is moved or returned to a paddock after dipping or handling, the cows should be held just inside the paddock, until the cows and calves have identified each other, and the calves have had a drink. Particular care should be taken when the cows and calves are being dipped, so that the small calves do not drown in the dip or be crushed by the cows. A calf bypass and pen at the dip is ideal for preventing injury or losses to calves.

The tasks carried out with calves such as dehorning and castrating are covered in lecture 8.


Supplementary feeding must not be used to mask bad management. If your calving is around 50%–55%, there are several aspects of management, calving season, bulling ratio, stocking rate, veld management that must be looked at before considering supplementary feeding. If you are achieving 65% calving, you can feel sure that judicious supplementation can push this up to 80% or more, but increased sales must justify the expenses.


Most of the soils in Southern Africa are low in phosphate and additional phosphorus should be fed to cattle that are grazing on the veld during the summer. Supplements that can be used are:-

  •     1 part salt mixed with 2 parts bonemeal,
  •     or    1 part salt mixed with 1 part monocalcium phosphate,
  •     or    1 part salt mixed with 1 part dioalcium phosphate,
  •     or    1 part salt mixed with 1 part monosodium phosphate.
Ad lib: as much and as often as desired.  

These mixtures are put out in the veld in shallow troughs so that the cattle have access to them on an ad lib basis.


The normal winter supplement fed in Southern Africa is a urea based lick which provides a cheap form of protein. In a good year, veld that has been well managed and not overstocked will supply energy to the cattle during the winter, but there will be a deficiency of protein and minerals.

The urea lick supplies these needs on an ad lib basis i.e. the cattle have access to the licks at all times and can help themselves. Licks are put out on the veld twice a week and this makes for an easy feeding system.

There are several proprietary brands of urea licks on the market, and in general it is just as cheap to buy a ready-made lick rather than make them on the farm. Various mixtures used in licks are shown below:

 1%2%3%4%5 (block)%
Maize Meal2827332538
Cottonseed Meal81610
Limestone Flour878
Ammonium sulphate2225
Crude Protein4542408030.3

The amount of a lick that is eaten by cattle is controlled by the salt content.

Mixtures 1, 2, 3600g500g
Mixture 4300gNil Not for weaners

Supplementary feed licks vary in quality according to the amount of urea, natural protein and energy that they provide. If you look at the composition of the licks 1 – 4 you can see that:

Lick No 1Energy is supplied by the maize and molasses and the protein comes mainly from the urea plus a little from the maize.
Lick No’s 2, 3 & 5These supply energy from the molasses, maize and cottonseed, and the protein is supplied by the urea, maize and the cottonseed.
Lick No 4Is a low quality supplement suitable for feeding early in the season and during good winters with plenty of grass and stover grazing. It can be fed to low priority animals throughout the winter.
Licks 1, 2, 3 & 5Are good quality supplements which can be fed to all stock throughout the winter.

Other concentrates are available that can be mixed with maize to provide a high quality feed. Sorghum, oats, barley or wheat can be used to replace some or all of the maize in the mixture. One of the best high quality feeds is cottonseed or cottonseed cake which has an analysis of 75% T.D.N. and 30% D.C.P.

1kg of cottonseed will supply 0.3kg of D.C.P. and 0.75kg of T.D.N. (Energy).

Cottonseed is the residue left after the lint has been removed and the air extracted, and it is a relatively cheap feed.


If an average healthy cow conceives for two years running and then misses the third year, this usually means that they have lost weight due to poor feeding. The gradual loss of weight and condition over the two years that they are carrying and feeding a calf reduces them to the point where they need a rest before conceiving.

In any feeding programme, pregnancy diagnosis is essential to identify any empty cows, so that they can be fed separately and at a lower level than in-calf cows.

This gives us a lead on how to base our feeding priorities. The cow which has conceived twice running, needs feed more than the cow which was empty last year.

However, there is another animal which must top the list and this is the in-calf heifer; she has to provide for her own body growth as well as for the foetus. Normal veld production shows that only about 30% of the first time calvers re-conceive. With supplementary feeding over the first pregnancy, this figure can be increased to 70%. Other general principles in establishing the sequence, are that the younger animals show a better response to feeding than the older ones, and should thus rate at a higher priority.

1.In-calf Heifers0.5kg
2.In-calf Cows, calves at foot0.5kg
3.Cows in-calf with consecutive calves0.5kg
4.Cows in-calf but dry last season0.3kg
5.Yearling heifers, to bull next season0.3kg


Figure 1: The beef cattle production calendar


Each cow in the breeding herd is examined by a veterinary surgeon to confirm whether or not she is in calf. This is done 6 – 9 weeks after the bulls have been taken out of the herd. Empty cows should be removed from the breeding herd and either put into a separate paddock or sold for slaughter; this will save winter feed.