Firth Group Cattle Divisions
Short Q&A with Doctor Ian Firth on Firth Red Brangus and Firth Wagyu
The Firth Group, comprising several farming divisions, also has two significant cattle divisions: Firth Red Brangus and Firth Wagyu. Doctor Ian Firth is the eldest surviving family member of the Firth family farm in Wolmaransstad. Farming together with his son, John Firth (4th generation), Firth Red Brangus and Firth Wagyu continue to be a notable source of revenue for the Firth Group of farms. In a short Q&A interview with “Doc” Firth (as he is fondly called), we find out more about these interesting cattle businesses.
Q: Tell us more about the Firth Red Brangus stud
A: We began the Brangus Stud in 2011 when we bought 50 heifers from Allan Green whose father imported the first Brangus animals into the country from America. We decided on Brangus because of their medium size, being naturally polled, ease of calving and good carcase quality. Our breeding policy has been to buy semen from the best local and international bulls for artificial insemination and then use top quality local bulls as “pick-up” bulls. A couple of outstanding cows were also bought, which were superovulated and flushed and the embryos inserted into surrogate cows. All animals bought are not only selected on their phenotype but also on their EBV’s (genotype). Three years ago when the herd had grown considerably, John Baxter (probably the most experienced Brangus Judge in South Africa) visited us and selected only the exceptional cows to form part of the core herd. John visits us annually to do a super selection after the society inspectors have been, so that only the best animals are retained in the stud. We are also part of the Veld Bull test group where the performance of young bulls is measured and evaluated under natural grazing conditions. We are at the moment growing the stud to the point where we have sufficient animals to be able to host our own annual stud sale of bulls and females from a maximum of 500 stud cows.
Q: Tell us more about the Firth Wagyu stud
A: We decided to start the Wagyu stud in April 2018 because Wagyu (meaning “Japanese cow” : wa = Japanese, gyu = cow) beef is the tastiest beef available due to its marbling (intra-muscular fat). We purchased six cows and a heifer from Brian Angus who imported Wagyu into South Africa.. To date our breeding policy to grow the herd has been to use embryo transfers, by superovulating our females, inseminating them with imported semen and flushing them. We have also bought top quality imported embryos which have been implanted into some of our top grade Brangus cows. This has been the most economical way to grow the herd with the best genetics. According to the Wagyu Society of South Africa’s breed definition,
Q: Tell us a little more about the market/s for both Brangus and Wagyu?
A: Both are beef breeds. Brangus are hardy animals with very good quality meat and do very well in feedlots. Wagyu produce the most sought after beef in the world. This is attributed to their exceptional intramuscular fat deposition which leads to an unbelievable eating experience when compared with all other beef breeds.
Q: How does Brangus & Wagyu compare with some of the other popular cattle breeds being farmed in South Africa?
A: Comparing the usual beef breeds, only Aberdeen Angus has better quality meat than Brangus. Wagyu is far superior to any of the other beef breeds with regard to meat quality.
Q: What are the health-risks linked to each breed?
A: There are no specific health-risks in our farming area. The tendency to Anaplasmosis (tick borne disease) is suitably managed and contained when necessary vaccinations are done on time and regularly. Neither breed is more susceptible to disease than the other.
Q: Apart from your own experience, who is your additional trusted (and reliable) vet — presumably somebody who knows these breeds well? Is having a vet keep an eye on these breeds necessary?
A: It is not necessary to have a vet keep an eye on the herds. The local vet will get called out for emergencies such as cows having calving difficulty. Once a year the State Vet comes out and tests all the cattle on the farm for Brucellosis and TB.
Q: What are some of the stock-theft risks and challenges?
A: Stock theft is a major problem because our farms are close to townships. We have 5 specialist tracker-guards who patrol the boundary fences at night, as well as Mr. Nel who is in charge of security and patrols around the farm during the night.
Q: On the farm, how are you able to withstand current drought conditions? In other words, how does one manage the herd in such a way that current dry conditions don’t put the herds at risk?
A: The only way to try and get through drought years is by not being over-stocked. In other words, by keeping well within the carrying capacity of the farm and by giving additional supplementary feed and selling off all unproductive animals.
Q: What are decided advantages and disadvantages of these breeds?
A: The main advantage of the Brangus breed is that it is medium-framed and very hardy. Brangus is a polled breed that has good mothering qualities. The calves are small at birth, resulting in very few calving problems. Brangus carcasses are judged highly in competitions The Wagyu has exceptional marbling, giving a wonderful eating experience. Wagyu cows give birth to small calves, but unfortunately do not produce much milk, so the calves have to be watched closely for the first couple of weeks to ensure that they are getting enough milk.
Q: What are some of the barriers to entry into farming/breeding with Brangus and Wagyu?
A: The main barrier I would say is finance and a lack passion for breeding top cattle.
Q: Any final words to other cattle farmers?
A: There is always light at the end of the tunnel. Cattle and beef prices are usually much higher when good conditions return.
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Author: Frits Van Oudtshoorn Frits van Oudtshoorn is a rangeland ecologist residing in the Limpopo province of South