Words by Richard Rennie, Photography by Elise Rutherford
Surrounded by dairy farms in Culverden, Robbie and Anna Clark could be forgiven for feeling under siege by the industry, but instead have managed to turn their situation into an opportunity, both for them and their dairying neighbours.
The Clarks have established Parkvale Speckle Park Stud, home to one of the country’s fastest growing cattle breeds that is helping dairy farmers meet the challenges of reducing calf wastage, and providing some valuable new genetics to New Zealand’s beef sector.
The dairy sector has transformed the Culverden-Amuri district into a thriving, fertile centre for North Canterbury. The sector’s demand for quality genetics that fit into dairy farmers’ needs has proven to be the foundation of Parkvale’s success in the past seven years.
Robbie and Anna along with their two children, Will and James run their cattle stud on an irrigated block just out of Culverden, along with a grazing block nearby.
“We had been doing Shorthorn for many years but as dairying increased, we were struggling to sell Shorthorn bulls to the dairy sector. The calves were too hard to identify at calving time, and the market preferred clearly marked breeds, particularly Herefords,” says Robbie.
A conversation with Masterton breeder Bruce McKenzie about the potential of the Speckle Park breed prompted them to give it a go.
“Bruce said to give the breed a go. It has the colour markers in it that make the calves stand out, which was a trait we knew dairy farmers wanted.”
Typically, dairying clients had ben opting to Herefords, with the whiteheads making them easily definable in the busy throng of calving mobs at springtime. At sale yards, rearers also tended to prefer the traditional whiteheads with their strong beef content.
“We put the Canadian sourced semen into our Shorthorn stud cows, and the results were simply too good to ignore.”
The Speckle Park (see accompanying article) markings were distinct, but the calves also ticked other boxes for both beef and dairying clients.
“They were easy to identify, were a moderate birthweight, but also were quick to be up and drinking once born, often in only 10 minutes or so and their growth rates were impressive. too. ”
The couple realised they had stumbled on genetics that offered something new and useful to the dairy sector – an ideal package with moderate birthweights, vigorous growth rates, and gutsy calves that easily adapted to the competitive environment of mob feeding for calves on dairy farms.
They also offered a valuable finishing alternative to the vexed problem of bobby calf “wastage” on dairy farms, something the sector is acutely aware of, and keen to minimise in coming years.
From a beef finishers’ perspective, the calves’ fast growth rate meant they can be finished in 18-22 months.
“That holds a lot of appeal to rearers if they can be finished over only one winter, rather than two. It also answers one of the environmental challenges farmers are having to face, about having heavier stock on over winter and wanting to minimise that where possible.”
Robbie emphasises they are not looking to compete with the other big breeds, rather aiming at a clear niche in the dairy sector, and doing what they do well.
“All breeds have their place. The likes of Angus, you have to take your hat off to them, they have done the promotion, branding and marketing very well with the breed and the final product.”
So convinced about the breed’s potential, they decided to start their Parkvale stud in 2010.
In the interim they were using artificial insemination (AI) on their commercial cows, building a commercial herd along-side the stud.
“It proves an expensive exercise, but you really cannot take short cuts and you have to keep onto it, every animal is different, every trait is critical.
“It has taken 10-plus years to develop our herd to the stage we can now offer proven genetics. Alongside semen sales we have yearling and 2 year old Speckle Park bulls for sale.”
For the past seven years they have been supplying Speckle Park semen into the dairy industry and have seen a surge in the breed’s popularity.
“In the past season demand for Speckle Park genetics has gone up 50%.”
It may surprise many to learn Speckle Park genetics is now the third most popular beef breed semen used in breeding companies, coming after Hereford and Wagyu.
The break-through in market penetration came when they started supplying CRV Ambreed, through Xcell Breeding Services at Woodend.
“At first, we felt lucky to sell 1000 straws a year, but now demand has increased, and we now have three sire bulls just used for AI collection”
Feedback is that the markings are popular for dairy farmers, and particularly those with larger operations employing migrant staff who need to be able to communicate a simple, quick means of identification that is recognised, regardless of language issues.
Parkvale has a strong Canterbury client base which for the past two seasons includes the large Rakaia Island Dairies operation, as well as local clients in the Amuri Basin
Typically, the Speckle Park genetics would be put over a herd towards the end of AI, once herd replacements numbers have been largely met.
But with the advent of sexed semen, using Speckle Park Genetics earlier in the mating season is also an option, utilising its quality beef opportunity on cows where a replacement heifer may not be the preferred option.
“Some will use Speckle Park genetics at the end, and then finish off with a short gestation Hereford.”
Robbie believes the silver lining from the devastating M.bovis outbreak has been farmers are more aware of farm biosecurity, and have a desire to use more AI rather than bulls where possible, minimising the risk of disease.
“It’s been a devastating one for the dairy sector, particularly here in Canterbury. It is great to be able to offer valuable genetic option that helps lower that risk, and retain some value for farmers as a good rearable calf.”
Parkvale’s Speckle Park genetics have been in Breed Plan right from the start, and Robbie has played a key role in that.
Until recently he was on the Australasia’s Breed Society’s Board - Speckle Park International Ltd, the breed’s Society based in Australia. He was part of the Board that pushed to have Breed Plan adopted by the Speckle Park breed.
“You really need to have the numbers. The first thing any dairy farmer will ask you is ‘what is the calf’s birthweight?’”
Parkvale’s stud bulls visit the Xcell Breeding Services centre at Woodend for semen collecting, often spending more time there than at home in Culverden.
The relationship ensures fully certified collection conditions, and provides access to latest genetic technology including embryo transfer services to help fast track gains from the purebred females.
That genetic information gathered through Breed Plan has been further strengthened, thanks to their relationship with Rakaia Island Dairies.
Having a large herd allows us to get some very valuable data back about the bulls that we supply especially around calving ease and birthweights.
Robbie cautions breeding requires vigilance, which the data is invaluable in reinforcing.
“Even when you think you have it nailed, you don’t want to take your eye off the ball. Traits can vary within a line of animals as much as they do between lines. We try a bull ourselves first before putting his genetics out there – if you would not use him yourself, then we would not be selling it.”
Anna spends four months a year rearing calves nearby and knows full well the need to have the right beef genetics in a dairy herd.
Robbie admits that as a new breed to New Zealand, they have come up against some traditional views about what constitutes a “good animal” for crossing in dairy herds.
“But the people who come to us, they are really looking for a solution, not just for a change. We have found those who do and see the results, are happy to come back, and pass it on.”
When he looks across to Australia he is heartened to see how the breed has taken off there in beef circles, and the couple have genetic interests from operations there using the breed.
Accessing good bulls in Australia is now possible, and the couple acquire semen rights for New Zealand, a good option when animal imports are expensive and restrictions likely in light of the M.bovis issues.
Robbie is concerned the impact M.bovis, market volatility and the Covid epidemic have all had on calf rearers’ opportunities as the next link in the beef supply chain over the past year. He hopes this coming year will see more stability.
The couple enjoy the contact they have with their dairying clients, and Robbie says he has come to appreciate the proactive, innovative approach New Zealand’s dairy industry is taking to its biggest challenges.
“We are fortunate to be providing part of the solution to one of the sector’s issues around calving. Having a beef breed that goes so well in the dairy sector is just one way of helping bring the entire farming sector together in helping deal with the challenges by providing a new opportunity, one farmers may not have had before.”
Anna says being affiliated as a Ruralco supplier provides another valuable avenue to market for Parkvale.
“And by buying through Ruralco, customers get a discount. For those Ruralco members who use LIC, it is a simple process to get semen into their tanks.”
“We will be at the South Island Field Days at Kirwee this year in the West Section at Site 180 and welcome anyone who is interested in Speckle Park to come and see us.”
Speckle Park growing fast
As attractive as Speckle Park calves may look, they also offer a new alternative to the dairy sector looking to better integrate with beef breeds that deliver a “win-win” for both sides of the calf rearing equation.
The breed originates from Canada, one of the few cattle breeds to do so and originally consisted of a blend of Shorthorn-Angus and White Park, and only recognised officially as a breed by the Canadian government in 2006.
As a breed they have proven to be highly adaptable, literally capable of living between sub-zero and tropical temperatures.
Robbie Clark says he has seen the cattle in Canada living outdoors in -35C temperatures, and in 35C plus in Australia.
“They have this incredible ability to go well across a wide range of climates.”
Australian farmers are finding that Speckle Park genetics is delivering a better-quality beef animal when crossed with their dry-climate cattle, with minimal calving difficulties and robust calves.
The resulting beef has long time Australian cattle growers singing the praises about better eating quality, despite the tough drought conditions recently experienced.
As a finishing animal they are renowned for their good grass to meat conversion ratio, producing well marbled, high-quality meat off moderate sized carcases, with a welcome tendency to finish earlier than many more traditional breeds.
A Future Beef competition in 2018 had a Friesian-Speckle park carcass yield an impressive 68%, with yields of up to 70% claimed.
The breed’s carcass can deliver a Wagyu like marbling effect through the meat, adding to the high-quality eating experience.
Rearers report the calves display a gutsy attitude when it comes to feeding time, a welcome change for anyone who has been left trying to teach sulky Kiwi-cross calves how to feed over the busy spring period.
Meantime, once up and growing Robbie says the calves offer consistent even growth rates as growing calves, rather than a “stop-start” pattern.
Feedlot results from Australia over five years suggest Speckle Park genetics are beating other common dairy cross breeds by providing a consistently good yield with well marbled-tender meat.
The dressing out percentage here in New Zealand suggests that is transferring well to our grass-fed environment.