South African Breed Thrives in Heat, Drought Conditions
Elkmont’s Dan Rollins is excited about his cattle. He has a "new" breed of cattle most folks have never heard of. But he doesn’t mind. He likes the story that goes with his herd.
Rollins and his son, Eric, own and operate Elk River Farms in Limestone County, a small operation big on quality cattle.
The farm is the first east of the Mississippi River to have and produce the Bonsmara breed of cattle, which originated in South Africa in the 1930s.
Rollins explained South African scientist Jan Bonsma developed the breed at a farm called Mara Station. His goal was to produce a breed that would rival European breeds for quality yet would be able to withstand subtropic climates.
After more than two decades, Bonsma developed a breed that was a composite of 5/8 Afrikaner, 3/16 Hereford and 3/16 Shorthorn.
Rollins said each breed brought something valuable to the process. Afrikaners are a hardy breed that can thrive in harsh conditions with less-than-ideal feed sources. The Herefords and Shorthorns brought high productivity to the match. The result is a hardy animal that produces well and is desirable as a food source.
Even so, how does a cattle breed developed more than 50 years ago in South Africa end up in Limestone County?
To make a long story sort of short, Rollins had a business partner who lived in Oklahoma. They sold agricultural products as a side business to their careers.
Rollins’ partner had a friend who was acquainted with George H. Chapman, who brought the cattle to Texas from South Africa.
Several years ago as fires and drought devastated Texas, Chapman realized that in order to protect his herd he would have to relocate some of the animals to other areas. He moved some of the herd to Oklahoma but wanted some to be further away.
Rollins’ partner suggested the cattle be sold to Rollins in Alabama. It was a perfect match. The group formed the Bonsmara Natural Beef Company to protect the genetics of the herd.
With so few animals in the U.S., Rollins and his partners had to make sure the herd’s bloodlines were guarded.
Rollins’s location made him an ideal choice from the marketing standpoint as well. Once the herd became more established, his location would provide access to the breed for Southeastern producers.
Initially, Rollins purchased 10 cow-calf pairs and one bull. He later returned to Oklahoma and purchased two more registered heifers and another bull.
He has spent about five years growing his herd and experimenting with crossing the Bonsmara with other breeds.
High-Quality Commercial Cattle
Rollins thinks crossing the Bonsmara with Angus cattle is the way to go for beef production. He said the Bonsmara lend an extra measure of tenderness to the Angus but the real advantage comes from what the Angus cattle receive from the cross-breeding.
"The Angus becomes a lot more hardy. They’ll eat a tougher forage," said Rollins. "In hard times, in the summer when the fescue goes dormant, they’re not as selective."
Rollins also noted the Bonsmara-Angus cross animals are more heat-tolerant and insect-resistant than Angus or Red Angus purebreds.
He explained Bonsmara are loose-skinned and can shake insects from themselves where English breeds cannot.
Sure, they’re hardy and produce well. But how do they taste?
"If you ever taste any of this beef, you don’t have to be sold on it," said Rollins. "It is remarkable."
As you would expect with its genetics, Bonsmara beef is leaner than Angus but is every bit as tender, according to Rollins.
He noted he finishes out Bonsmara-Angus cross steers on his farm for the public.
He has several local customers who like knowing where their beef is grown and what it is being fed.
Rollins said, in addition to the high-quality product derived from the cattle, the Bonsmara is a gentle breed.
"They are a wonderful cattle to handle—that’s what I like," said Rollins. "You can get in there with them and push them around. They’re really good cattle."
Small Calves, Big Weaning Weights
Even though the Bonsmara are known for their small calves, the breed has become known for its ability to put on lean weight in a hurry.
Rollins said calves typically weigh 70 to 75 pounds, but in just over 200 days they range in weight from 635 to 660 pounds.
The meat is super lean, yet tender. According to Smith-Bonsmara.com, Bonsmara beef contains 63 percent less saturated fat than average commodity beef.
Calving is easy for the breed, which requires little to no assistance, said Rollins.
What the Future Holds
Rollins said he believes once the benefits of the breed are widely known, there will be a large demand for Bonsmara in commercial herds.
"I think they’re really going to work in the Southeast once people become familiar with them," said Rollins. "They’re ideal for our weather and climate."
Rollins, 56, grew up farming and would love to get back in the lifestyle.
He works for Aviagen, a breeding firm for poultry near his home.
"I’ve traveled all over the world for the work I do—Europe, UK, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean—and I don’t want to travel anymore," said Rollins. "I want to retire and stay home. I’ve worked all my life to get to where I can farm again."
Rollins trades at Limestone Farmers Co-op in Athens. He relies on the Co-op for his STIMU-LYX mineral tubs as well as for his animal health needs. He also purchases his fescue and clover seed from the Co-op.
Persons interested in more information about Bonsmara cattle may contact Rollins at home by calling (256) 233-7199.
They may also visit the following website for additional information: smith-bonsmara.com.
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.