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Brahman cattle in northern Australia. CSIRO, CC BY

Food for thought: the rise of Australia’s mighty Brahman

The cattle in northern Australia are different to the rest of the national herd and the most striking thing is they have humps. But these humped Brahman cattle are here for a reason: because they adapted to surviving where others cannot in harsh tropical environments.

Brahmans were first introduced to Queensland in 1933. Today the national beef herd is around 26 million cattle and Brahman genetics can be found in around 50% of the national herd. More than 70% of the bulls working north of the Tropic of Capricorn are Brahman.

Such has been their impact that, before you can leave Ausralia’s beef capital of Rockhampton, you are greeted with a giant statue of a Brahman bull, a tribute to the immense economic benefits it has delivered. In 2001 it was estimated that Brahman genetics had contributed an extra A$8.1 billion to the Queensland economy.

The Brahman cattle statue in Rockhampton. Michael Thomson, Author provided

But its impact has been far greater than just dollars and cents. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the great experiment of introducing these bloodlines into Australia laid down the ideal model of research and industry collaboration that all fields of science can still learn from today.

Like all great advances in human endeavour, it began with an insight, followed by a vision and then years of unrecognised and thankless toil.

Inspiration from Texas

In the 1920 the Australian veterinary scientist John Anderson Gilruth toured the United States and viewed the cattle at the Pierce Estate in Texas. According to Angus Packham’s book of Cattle Breeding Research at Rockhampton, Gilruth said that “a vigorously controlled cattle breeding experiment in north Queensland would be wise”.

Gilruth later became the first chief of the new division of animal health at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR was the precursor to today’s CSIRO). There, he put forward a proposal to acquire Zebu cattle (Brahmans are a sub-breed of the Zebu species of cattle).

Wise indeed, but it took until 1933 for the first Zebus to be imported by CSIR on behalf of a handful of cooperating progressive pastoralists, even though most cattlemen did not see value in these humped “feral” cattle of inferior genetics.

The CSIR’s animal geneticist Ralph Bodkin Kelley said at the time:

A cooperator refused to use a CSIR-installed cattle weigh-bridge and another stated that nobody was going to tell him how to breed cattle that were his.

Even then it wasn’t until 1941 that Kelly was able to record that “the most worthwhile experiment with respect to Zebu crossbreeding in Australia” had begun. It was another decade before the property Belmont, north of Rockhampton, was purchased as a dedicated research property for cattle research.

Every scientist with a grand vision would appreciate these long thankless years. In fact, the CSIR Executive Board questioned:

[…] whether anybody is cognisant of the very large number of major and minor difficulties and problems, of husbandry and science, which will have to be overcome or solved on the ground before Belmont can become the centre of a beef cattle research programme of which CSIR can be proud.

Thankfully, things reached a tipping point, and this is where things get really interesting for designing future research collaborations.

Brahman cattle dominate the northern Australian herd. CSIRO, CC BY

The Queensland herd

In 1965 less than 15% of the Queensland cattle herd contained Brahman genetics. By 1981 it was 60%.

Author provided

That rise coincided directly with a rise in industry visitors to CSIRO’s research facilities at Belmont, which coincidentally or not, tracks a similar rise in the number of scientific papers published by the researchers.

Author provided

Strong links with industry reflected by official visitor numbers appears to have been vital in maintaining research momentum, helping to frame industry-relevant research questions and driving adoption of innovation by Queensland cattlemen.

Alas, amid government funding cuts and rationalisation of research activities, the CSIRO left Rockhampton in 2009. It consolidated its northern livestock program to Townsville, leaving the beef capital without a research presence.

The once crowded Rendel Research Laboratories were emptied, Belmont’s pastures were used by private herds, and producers started looking elsewhere for inspiration.

A new approach

Despite the successes of the Brahman breed, the challenge facing the north Australian industry remains the same: identifying superior genetics that can thrive in harsh and remote environmental conditions with limited human intervention.

Case in point being the abysmally low fertility rates in some northern Australian herds, where 47% calving rates are normal, compared with the national average of 76%.

Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) research also shows that the 25% of producers in the northern region (i.e. those operating profitably) are acutely focused on their genetics, their pastures and their labour efficiency. They achieve higher reproductive rates, lower mortality rates and heavier sale weights than the rest of the producers.

So the focus now is on engaging producers in the development of new automated monitoring systems to identify new genetics that will take the industry to the next level of productivity.

Systems have been developed that are capable of gathering data on individual animals and Belmont (now owned by farmer association AgForce) is again the touch point for industry.

A stockman musters cattle on CSIRO’S Belmont research station, 32km north of Rockhampton. CSIRO, CC BY

This allows our researchers to track in real time which cattle are reaching optimal markets weights the fastest, and which cows are most fertile, as well as the pasture and water availability.

If this sort of technology is rolled out across the industry, the data gathered will dramatically enhance analysis of industry-wide genetic linkages. Producers will be able to more accurately select from a larger number of bulls and cows which have detailed fertility records, and whose progeny will grow faster than their ancestors while consuming less pasture.

For the producer this means more beef produced per hectare, bolstering their bottom line and the nation’s export returns. For the consumer it means industry can select genetics that are known to produce tender beef. And for the environment it will reduce the amount of grazing pressure on ground cover and waterways.

But this will all remain just a scientist’s crusade if producers can’t see the value in adopting new innovation. The key to that riddle is once again opening the doors to Rockhampton’s beef research facilities and recreating that strong link between researchers and producers that proved so successful in the past.

The challenge for governments and the research community is to understand the value of investing for the long-term, riding out the dark and lonely days and the importance of engaging with end-users along the way.

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