A cattle breed that converts feed into lean meat “like no other”, could increase not just the efficiency but also sustainability of Australia’s cattle industry.
Stewart and Kathy Murray introduced the Canadian cattle breed Hays Converter through an embryo transfer project to Australia in 2016, and now have a small herd of 50 calves at their Bromelton House property near Beaudesert in south-east Queensland.
Dr Murray said Hays Converter was a bit of a niche market in Canada and different from other animals, with rapid growth rates that reached around 500kg by one year of age.
“They are highly efficient in converting feed into muscle and have good carcass quality,” Dr Murray said.
“Farmers need to realise that we are going to have to produce nearly twice the amount of meat in the next 30 years to support a population of nearly nine billion people, so we have to become more sustainable, have less environmental impact and need much more efficient production.”
Dr Murray said the Hays Converter breed also has fewer emissions due to their diverse rumen biome, allowing for more efficiency.
“They have about 25 per cent less methane production and a 15 per cent reduction in nitrogenise gases and CO2, so for climate warming they would probably be a good breed to look at because there are 1.2 billion cattle in the world.”
Hays Converter cattle characteristically have strong legs, are long-bodied and are mostly black in appearance.
Dr Murray said they were a hardy cattle breed that was highly fertile and early maturing, allowing them to breed and produce offspring sooner than other breeds.
The challenges to establish the breed in Australia
Professor Stephen Moore, director of the Centre of Animal Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland said it wasn’t easy to establish a new breed in another country.
“Not only do you have to do the basic biology and the animal breeding, you have to convince the industry that it is worthwhile to use these animals,” he said.
“All the animals on ground in Australia so far are the result of embryos implanted into Australian cattle and there are some potential issues, weather measuring those first-generation calves is going to be a true measure of the breed or if we should wait for the second generation.”
Professor Moore said it wasn’t easy to measure the animals’ efficiency of food utilisation in Australia, as the industry was largely based on pasture fed beef, whereas in the United States animals were in feedlots eating grain.
“It is a little bit more difficult to measure it when they are eating grass because it is difficult to measure what their actual intake is,” Professor Moore said.
“It is a long-term enterprise, the generation interval of a cow is five years, so by the time we get the calves of the animals that are on the ground now and have those animals measured, is going to be five years.”
Professor Stephen Moore said there were also other factors to consider, like cattle tick resistance, when breeding cattle in Queensland.
Vision to create composite animals suitable for Australia’s conditions
Harry Hays, former Canadian Minister for Agriculture and farmer developed the Hays Converter breed in Alberta in the 1950s, aiming to produce animals that gained weight as efficiently as possible, and would mature to market weight at the earliest possible age.
The breed is the result of crossing the Hereford, Holstein and Brown Swiss breeds, which was recognised as a pure breed and registered under the Canadian Livestock Pedigree Act in 1975.
Stewart and Kathy Murray’s Hays Converter project in Australia is a joint venture with Harry Hays’ son Dan Hays, based in Alberta.
Mr Murray said they considered their herd a synthetic breed, and would like to use them to produce composite animals crossing them with another breed to make them more suitable for the Northern Territory.
“We think we can design animals using genomics, if you like to achieve the goals of efficient production but maybe add in heat tolerance and tick resistance, so kind of design our composites,” he said.
Mr Murray said they would like to demonstrate that sustainability and carcass quality was important but also expose people to a new breed.