Gerald Hargreaves is a man on a mission. And, he tells NEIL GRANT, it involves a lot of bulls and a lot of mathematics.

For most of his life, Gerald Hargreaves was like most bull breeders – he believed American cattle were soft and not much value in New Zealand’s conditions.

But on a trip to the United States six years ago, he had a “road to Damascus” conversion. In one day, he realised his preconceived ideas were wrong, and he changed his whole philosophy.

“At the age of 56, I got this mission, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.”

He says New Zealanders were critical of American sires because the genetics that had been brought in produced tall cattle which did not like our high country, lost fertility, structure, and ease of calving, and developed traits such as hocks that gave way.

What he realised while he was in the States was that the range of bulls he could see and select from, was enormous.

“They have 300,000 registrations per year, compared to 30,000–40,000 total in New Zealand and Australia. In one performance centre, I saw 2000 bulls originating from many sires, but from different herds through America. I’d get an overview of the type of cattle I liked, that looked structurally sound; then I’d hop in a plane and see a whole heap of sons by some selected sires. You can get a very good idea of how they are breeding.

“So I buy genetics from proven sires with high EBVs (estimated breeding values). I have the power of selection to make genetic progress.”

The transformation of the Kakahu Angus Stud, near Geraldine – where Gerald and Sue Hargreaves run angus beef cattle and composite sheep, and, just for variety, a rhododendron nursery – has involved a mix of science, mathematics, aesthetics, economics, plain common sense, and the ability to change your mind on the basis of overwhelming evidence.

Hargreaves selects for 12 traits he believes most important. These produce hardy, fertile cows of medium build with strong structural soundness. He believes that, to be economical, they should be easy calving, live a long time, and, after a short gestation period, produce medium birthweight calves that will “grow at a rate of knots”. Temperament is important, as is the ability to survive in the tough times and recover quickly to get back in calf, and be fat by mid-summer.

The mathematics can be seen in Kakahu’s bull-sale catalogues. Hargreaves says the stud is totally committed to performance recording, and includes a wide range of data for buyers, especially on carcasses.

“People have said my catalogue has too much detail. Well, so has an Auckland road map if you don’t know where you’re going. If you don’t know where your breeding programme’s going, my catalogue can be confusing. You have to have a breeding principle.”

Understanding the mathematics is vital, says Hargreaves. “I look at a performance recording, and can tell you what that animal’s going to turn out like; because there are relationships between the figures that tell you something. We’ve looked at the figures with practical sense, as well as the science.

“New Zealand bulls are seen as being well fleshed, but frequently, the muscled appearance is caused by good feeding producing excess fat. We produce animals that have muscle through performance recording, without becoming big and gangly. This is efficiency. Let the genetics tell you how good they are.”

The genetics Kakahu imports produce bulls that grow fast, yet come from mothers with moderate mature cow weights. This is against the norm in New Zealand, says Hargreaves.

Kakahu breeds cattle intended for the international meat market, so the meat must suit butchers, supermarkets, and the people who eat it.

“We stick with angus cattle because they are better than most at being hardy and producing premium beef.

“British cattle were bred to eat, and continental cattle were bred to haul. It’s hard to turn a 1000-year genetic type into an animal that roams and is hardy. It’s like trying to turn a tiger into a domestic cat. Continental animals have been kept inside, and grainfed. British animals tended to be kept outside, foraging.

“In New Zealand, we seem to be promoting dairy beef as a source to eat. It’s all right, but doesn’t have the flavour.

“Angus marbles more consistently than other breeds. It is red meat with white fat. The intramuscular fat is what makes it tender, and it is lower in cholesterol. Also, that is the fat that is readily available to the animal to mobilise in the tough times. So the less effort you have to put into feeding, yet still produce the marbling the market wants, the better the economics.”

The Japanese like angus meat, especially because of this marbling quality, and meat from AngusPure producers is selling really well in the US, he says. Many restaurants are reporting increased sales and profits because of the quality of New Zealand angus. The Wholefoods chain of US supermarkets is promoting New Zealand beef because it is grass-fed. Consumers there are wary of grainfed beef because of the fear of antibiotics.

Hargreaves says Kakahu produces bulls for commercial breeders, and its clients have been at the top of calf sales, such as at Temuka, Cromwell and Taupo, for years.