Balls needed for bull business

A 1900 bull operation in North Waikato which provides sires for beef and fairy mating is one of the largest in the country. Mike Bland reports.

In Business15 Minutes

A 1900 bull operation in North Waikato which provides sires for beef and fairy mating is one of the largest in the country. Mike Bland reports.

Dave and Fiona Mackenzie’s North Waikato service bull operation is one of the largest in the country. But getting almost 1800 bulls ready for the dairy mating season takes a lot of balls.

The Mackenzies run 1400-1500 beef bulls on their 330ha effective farm at Waikokowai, west of Huntly, and 200ha of lease land at nearby Pukemiro and Te Kauwhata. Another 350-400 Jersey bulls are grazed on other farms in the region.

The Mackenzies have farmed service bulls since the early 2000’s. In 2005 they teamed up with New Zealand Farmers Livestock and friends, Greg and Vicki Straker, to start one of NZ’s largest service bull sales. About 300 bulls were offered in the first ‘Bullseye’ sale, held in spring, with numbers climbing to 750 at the peak.

Three years ago the Mackenzies held their first autumn sale to service the growing number of autumn-calving dairy units in the region.

Dave and Fiona have also moved into leasing, and lease about 1000-1100 dairy and beef sires annually.
With the farm situated so close to dairying heartland and dairy cow numbers rising, the Mackenzies saw an opportunity to provide beef and dairy bulls for cow and heifer mating.

Dave felt dairy sires would also be a better fit for the farm because its contour was not ideal for beef finishing.
They have about 410ha of land, but close to 100ha can’t be grazed because it’s in bush, waterways or limestone bluffs. About 200ha of the grazeable land is easy-rolling and the rest is in steeper faces.

“So it’s very hard to split up with electric fencing.”

Numerous limestone outcrops give the country character but can be a hazard for stock.

“If we pushed the system too hard we’d end up grazing stock close to the cliff tops and that’s not going to end well.”
Instead he and Fiona have opted to farm service bulls at a lower stocking rate than finishing. Run in mobs of 30-40 and shifted once or twice a week, the bulls have plenty of space to move and that reduces behavioural problems.
Most are Hereford, Angus or Jersey. But the Mackenzies also supply Murray Grey and Red Devon sires if demand is there.

Some of their clients are looking for easy-calving bulls to put over heifers, others want beef bulls to maximise the value of progeny from tail-end cows. The Hereford-Friesian (whiteface) is a popular cross, especially in the Waikato and South Auckland regions.

Dave says deciding how many bulls of each breed to run is based on client feedback and the previous season’s bull numbers.

Farm Facts

  • Waikokowai, west of Huntly
  • Farming about 530ha
  • Running 1400-1500 beef bulls on home farm and lease land
  • Grazing Jersey bulls off-farm
  • Supplying lease and sale bulls for dairy mating
  • Finishing ex-lease bulls

Bred for calm temperament

Many of the Hereford and Angus bulls are sourced from the East Coast as yearlings. They arrive in mid to late November.

Dave tries to buy direct from farmers where possible and he has a number of regular suppliers.

They have built up a good relationship with them. Trust is very important.

“They know we have to make money but we want them to make money too. It’s got to be win-win for it to work.”
Yearling prices vary from year to year, depending on the schedule.

He says they have to be prepared to meet the market and pay the same price as a store steer, otherwise the suppliers have no incentive to run bulls.

Dave says temperament is the “number one priority” when selecting potential sires. Dairy farmers want quiet bulls that focus on the job and don’t cause damage onfarm.

Some of the yearling bulls are coming off hard hill country and may have had limited human contact. So it’s crucial they are bred for temperament.

They are handled carefully when they arrive on Vue Farm, especially when being shifted or in the yards.
They take it nice and gently.

“If we are in the rush all the time, the bulls will be in a rush too.”

In most cases they can just stand at the gate and call them and they will come.

Bulls are generally mobbed according to breed. Sometimes they add Jersey bulls to a beef mob to help them settle in.

“The Jerseys are quiet and soon start leading the other bulls.”

Dave says while they are much smaller than their beef counterparts, Jerseys like to think they are the boss and don’t back down.

The Mackenzies aim to get beef bulls to a weight of 550-600kg by the time they are leased or sold. Most yearlings are bought at 350-400kg, but Dave says they don’t get too hung up on weight.

“As long as they have plenty of frame, we can grow them out.”

Last year he broke his own rule of not buying weaners.

“The weaner market was holding at about $600-$800, which was $200 less than the previous year. So we bought 100 Herefords in May because we had space on the farm.”

“Dairy farmers face a big loss if they don’t get cows in calf, so they still need good service bulls.” 

It’s a strategy the Mackenzies might consider again if they have room, because it reduces their exposure to the yearling market.

From March onwards, bulls are supplemented with balage made on the farm. Dave says this helps reduce the facial eczema risk in autumn because bulls aren’t grazing pastures too low.

Stock numbers plummet in late spring as sale and lease bulls leave the farm, just as pasture growth is taking off. The Mackenzies make balage on the tractor country but a significant proportion of the farm’s pastures go rank.
This doesn’t worry Dave, though.

“That long pasture protects us from the summer-dry and promotes natural reseeding. It takes a few grazings to get on top of long grass but by late March we’ve got pasture quality back.”

Typically, the beef bulls will gain 200-250kg during the 10 months they are on the farm. Dave says a daily liveweight gain of 0.85kg/bull is sufficient for them to achieve sale or lease weights.

He says the aim for sale bulls is to achieve a minimum margin of $300/head over what they would make as finishing bulls. This margin helps to cover the extra workload that comes with sourcing and testing bulls and preparing them for sale. A considerable amount of time is also spent liaising with stock agents, clients and graziers.
Dave says it’s a people business as much as a stock business.

He and Fiona employ two staff – Charlie Sanson, who works on Vue Farm and the Pukemiro lease block, and Curly Woolley, who oversees the Te Kauwhata lease block.

Leasing adds flexibility

Bull leasing added a new dimension to the Mackenzie’s service bull business.

About 10 years ago they were approached by independent livestock agent Kevin Fathers, who suggested they try leasing. For the client, leasing means not having to carry the capital cost of buying bulls, and they aren’t exposed to the market risk associated with selling bulls after mating.

“Last year, farmers who bought bulls probably would have been better off financially because the schedule stayed up. But in previous years it hasn’t always worked out that way,” says Dave.

About half the lease bulls are Jerseys, for heifer and herd mating, with the balance beef bulls.

Kevin Fathers acts as lease coordinator and lease numbers have doubled since the business started.

Dave says some farmers will lease one bull a year and some will lease up to 40. But the average client takes 8-10 bulls.

Lease bulls go out for mating between September and November and return during December/January. The farmer pays the cost of freight to the farm and the Mackenzies pay for the return journey. Most of the two-year Jerseys will be kept for another year of mating, the two-year beef bulls will either be sold at the autumn sale or finished at about 30-months.

This season, about 600 beef bulls were processed directly from lease clients, averaging 320-340kg carcase weight (CW). R3 Jerseys are finished at 230-280kg CW.

Dave says the biggest advantage of the leasing operation is that it gives more flexibility.

“We have to get our sale bulls into top shape by September 20, even though a lot aren’t going out until November. But with the lease bulls we’ve got more time to get them ready.”

Payout and schedule impact 

While sales of bull numbers have reduced in recent years, the Bullseye annual sale is still the highlight of the Mackenzie’s calendar.

Dave and Fiona say preparing for the sale is a big job but expert help from friends and family ensures it runs smoothly. It always draws a crowd and usually achieves a full clearance.

“We always do our best to meet the market.”

The dairy payout and the bull beef schedule play a big part in the prices achieved on sale day.

Last year the spring sale, which offered about 450 bulls from the Mckenzies and Greg and Vicki Straker, achieved an average of $2384 for Hereford bulls, $2250 for Angus and $2300 for Murray Grey. Average price for the 180-head yarding at the Mackenzie-only autumn sale was about $2200 across all breeds.

Bulls at both sales are tested for BVD and TB, and double inoculated for BVD. As an extra precaution a proportion of bulls are also blood tested for M bovis. Vendors at the spring sale can take delivery of their bulls up until early November as they require them.

One of the largest auctions of its type, Bullseye has helped the Mackenzies develop a loyal client base.
Dave says much credit for the success of Bullseye belongs to Bill Sweeney of NZ Farmers Livestock, who has been behind the concept since the very first sale.

“I knew Bill from my days in the livestock industry. His company has very strong connections in the Waikato dairy industry and we trust him completely.”

At this year’s spring sale, NZ Farmers Livestock showcased a new selling platform that enabled buyers to bid on line. This meant potential buyers who weren’t able to attend the sale didn’t miss out.

Fiona Mackenzie says bulls were sold as far away as Invercargill.

This year’s Bullseye sales will be held on Monday, May 10, and Monday September 20.

Dave Mackenzie says the service bull industry is highly competitive. Many dairy farmers have reduced their stocking rate by 10% in recent years, meaning fewer bulls are required.

Changes in artificial insemination technology also pose a challenge.

Despite this, the Mackenzies are optimistic the demand for service bulls will remain strong. “Dairy farmers face a big loss if they don’t get cows in calf, so they still need good service bulls.”