Words & Images by Victoria Rutherford-O’Sullivan – AngusPRO magazine 2022
Achieving quality beef takes forethought, consistency, and technology – principles Ben Todhunter of Cleardale Angus adheres to within his breeding program.
Based on the southern side of the Rakaia Gorge in Canterbury, the Todhunter family has been breeding Angus cattle and fine wool merino sheep for close to 100 years on Cleardale, a 1,500ha hill country property. The family introduced Angus stud cattle in 1990. They were an early customer of ANZCO’s Five Star Beef program and are cognisant about ensuring their progeny can finish well, but also handle a high-country environment.
“We aim to breed a functional, efficient cow that turns out a first-class eating product,” says Ben. “Animals that can perform in the hill and high country and fit into Five Star, AngusPure or other quality customer programs.”
Cleardale’s cattle numbers sit at 250 recorded cows, with 150 heifers carried through as replacements and there are 115 bulls. There are also trade cattle: 180 for finishing, and 270 R1 heifers are carried for 12 months (May–May).
The breeding objective for the stud is based around a combination of different traits. They select for temperament, calving ease and birthweight with good growth, and moderation around cow size. Efficiency characteristics include muscle and fat, with semen sourced from the USA, Australia and New Zealand, along with New Zealand herd sires.
“With the genetic analysis around nowadays, you can get a pretty good understanding of what traits – structure, temperament and growth rates – are available around the world, and we try to use proven stuff as well,” Ben says. “You can look at breeding values for growth, mature cow weight, muscle, make a comparison and pick the ones you are after. So you could close your mind and say those in the U.S. are no good but in certain carcass traits they are way further ahead than we are, and so is Australia. So, if you want proven carcass genetics, there is a small pool in New Zealand but there’s a bigger pool outside.”
Technology plays a big part in their breeding program and the last five years have really seen the rubber hit the road for both Cleardale’s fine wool merino sheep and the Angus stud.
On the sheep side, they run 5,500 ewes, with 1,200 stud ewes, Merino, Cleardale SX Fine Wools and English Leicester. They’ve done a lot of work on breeding dual- purpose fine-wool sheep with footrot resistance, an area they’ve helped develop a breeding value for within the industry.
“We are really happy with all the progress we’re making, using those sheep to go compete with crossbred sheep in crossbred country, but with a fine-wool fleece,” Ben says.
They undertake progeny testing extensively and are using software package MateSel to determine mating for genetic progress across the sheep and cattle operations.
“Basically it’s like married at first sight for cattle. It optimises the progress towards your breeding objective while minimising inbreeding. It’s been around for a while in Australia, but I think we were the first Angus stud to use it in New Zealand.”
Dams are presented with breeding values listed, along with a selection of bulls for mating. MateSel then optimises pairings for genetic progress – balancing genetic gain and diversity, but with deviations according to other technical and logistical constraints, as dictated by the breeder.
They have used this process for a few years in their sheep operation, and Ben says while there will always be debate around using technology for breeding selection, those who are using it are making good progress.
“One of the things we have found is we have actually dropped sires off the list that wouldn’t be helping us progress. As long as you are clear on where you want to go, you can make consistent progress towards [your goals].”
Cleardale uses neXtgen Agri as genetic consultants for both sheep and beef advice and recording data, and neXtgen helped set up the recording system for accuracy to ensure there is good data to base decisions on.
“They also help us with the selection of sires … if we want to pursue a certain trait or increase reproduction in our fine wool sheep, we can work out the best way to do that and look at any costs or trade-offs correlated. They test our thinking all the time which has been good,” says Ben.
Calves are weighed, tagged and recorded at birth, matched to the mother, then the EID system is used to record animal weights as they grow. DNA samples are taken at weaning and sent to Australia, where they use HD50K (a genomic product that assesses the genetic makeup of an animal at thousands of locations across the animal’s genome), with the resulting genomic information incorporated into the TransTasman Angus Cattle Evaluation for Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). Ultrasound scanning is used to record carcass traits such as muscle, fat and marbling.
Type-wise, Ben says he has a bias around the eyes.
“I am a little bit concerned with some of the really heavy- muscled cattle – they are getting a bit shouldery and they can’t walk properly, so I always want to keep a free- moving animal with a good shoulder set.
“If you get muscle up there you get bound up … I’ve seen it in a few cattle but my genetic consultant doesn’t agree with me,” Ben says with a laugh. “But it’s really good [working with] someone who approaches things with a different mind.”
In pursuit of breed advancement, Ben is part of the initial AngusPRO group of 24 New Zealand Angus Breeders, who made the shift to join the progressive Angus Australia Association. He says the group was generally aligned with their thinking on how to breed cattle and judge the marketplace.
“It was quite a tricky decision [to leave Angus New Zealand]. … I’d normally try to keep the industry together but the business had become really fractured and it was a case of choosing what people to go with and where to align. The people in Australia were a bit more forward thinking, progressive and aligned with using data to form breeding decisions.”
Ben says that while they haven’t explored all the options the move has afforded them yet, one of the big wins has been gaining access to the EBVs for structure. The tools and information they will have access to will expand as the database grows.
“It’s starting to get reasonably sophisticated, and the information will get more accurate as time goes on, around separating genetic from environmental effects and things like that.”
As the deputy chairman of NZ Merino, understanding and capitalising on opportunities within the value chain around customers is important to Ben.
“It depends a bit on your customer, but from what I can see with the youth of today and the consumers, they are very interested in things like the environment, climate change and animal welfare, so the opportunity for New Zealand is to be an exemplar in that space and provide a first-class eating product from a pastoral-based system and linking that through the value chain back to customers.”
Conservation is very important to the Todhunter family, and Ben says his forebears have always been very thoughtful about how they look at their land.
“Donna my wife is involved with the conservation side of things, so we are probably 10 years ahead of the market with that sort of stuff.”
They have recently co-purchased a property on which they plan to demonstrate a commercial model with conservation.
“It’s got some pretty stunning old vegetation on it and our intention is to convert it into native plants and forestry through natural regeneration and maybe some planting, but we want to fund it so it is self-sustaining … whether that’s from carbon credits or leasing land in the short term, or tourism. The carbon price is rocketing up at the moment … the whole place would offset our emissions here, and the main reason for us to get involved was the carbon side of it.”
On 13 June 2022, Cleardale will be holding their first on- farm bull sale. They have sold privately and have loyal clientele, but Ben says now that the breed is progressing, he believes they have more to offer the wider market.
“It’s quite challenging. You have to protect your existing clientele, because many enjoy the private buying experience and know they are getting looked after really well, but because we’re getting better on the breeding side we know that we are going to have more animals available that will be good products for people.”