Beef Production Systems

13 Nov 2020

Weaner Production System ran extensively in the Rust de Winter area (for illustration purposes).

Weaner Production System herd ran semi-extensively( photo credits: Chante' Kritzenger).

Two year old (oxen in the veld) managed extensively ( photo credits: Chante' Kritzenger).


By: Olebile Olibile, Okapuka Feedlot mentorship student

As a cattle farmer, it is important to understand and know the different production systems, because the system you choose hugely determines the sustainability and profitability of the farm.

There are a variety of ways in which beef production systems can be classified. The most practical classification is where the production system is defined by the age and body mass at which the animals are marketed. Additional beef production systems include carcass classification, feed, management and the breed of animals.

A common mistake made when talking about beef production systems on farms is that it is often limited to extensive, semi-extensive and intensive production systems, which only describes the management part of a production system. There is also a further misconception that a farmer that uses an intensive production system, as opposed to the extensive system, is more likely to have a profitable operation. This is not entirely true, as two farmers can be equally profitable besides using two different management systems. (For example, an emerging farmer managing a herd of Ngunis on an extensive system versus a commercial farmer managing a herd of Brahmans on an intensive system.)

Common beef production systems in Southern Africa:

  1. Weaner systems:

This is known as the “engine room” of beef production. Under this system, a cow herd is run on the farm and their calves are sold once they reach the age of six to eight months for further processing. Under this system, the number of weaners produced depends on the size of the cow herd, which is determined by the grazing available on the farm to keep the cows in good condition throughout their production cycle.


  1. Long-yearling system (Tollies):

Once bull calves have been castrated, they are let into the veld and stay on the farm till they are 12-18 months old before they are marketed. In this system, the herd composition is hugely determined by the age at which the tollies leave the farm. Meaning that, in most cases, the gender ratios will be slightly shifted towards steers rather than cows.


  1. Two-year-old system:

Farmers also refer to this system as “oxen-off veld”. Castrated bull calves stay for longer on the farm compared to yearlings, thus a farmer’s calculations in terms of the grazing available must factor in the oxen and not just cater for cows. With this system, the castrated bull calves (oxen) are marketed at a much later stage when an age greater than two years is reached.


  1. Buying-in systems:

With this system, a farmer would buy animals from an auction, irrespective of the age, keep them for a certain period during which they are fed to gain body condition or mass and then marketed. This is one system that is slowly gaining popularity, especially with the past droughts. The biggest challenge with this system is that the farmer must have good timing and understanding of the markets, i.e. know when to buy and when to sell without hurting one’s veld.

Although little is said about the female progeny, they are also often marketed. Usually, after selecting replacement heifers that  form part of the breeding herd, the farmer must sell the surplus heifers that do not pass the selection process at the same time as the relevant male progeny, depending on the production system implemented on the farm.

General herd composition guidelines for the different systems:

Production system:

Percentage of cows in herd:



Long-yearling (Tolly)


Two-year-old system (Oxen-off the veld)



Farmers should understand that even though the textbook figures are as shown above, maintaining these herd compositions during the calving and weaning periods will be a challenge. Thus, slight deviations are acceptable during these two periods of the production cycle.

Deciding on a production system:


Before deciding on the system to be implemented, there are several things that a farmer must consider.


1.  Climatic:

  • Climatic conditions determine a huge part of the beef breed that is to be used in the production system according to the breeds’ adaptability.
  • In areas where drought occurs regularly over a certain period of the farming calendar, a long-yearling (Tolly) system is more likely to work better than a weaner system. This is because:
  1. There is a high percentage of breeding cows in a weaner system. Thus, if drought strikes, the farmer will be forced to sell off a huge proportion of the breeding cows. Then following the drought spell obtaining good quality breeding cows is going to be difficult as market prices are likely to be relatively high and it may take time to rebuild the breeding herd again.
  2. With the long-yearling system (tolly) or two-year-old system (ox off the veld) the farmer can keep any surplus oxen and heifers and sell them just before or during the drought period to help reduce feed requirements and costs while maintaining the breeding cow herd. This helps the farmer to recover faster from the drought spell.
  • Alternatively, in areas with periodic droughts a portion of the farm can be committed to a buying-in system “speculation” that can carry the production costs of the farm during the drought spell.


2. Fodder flow:

  • Farmers should strive to produce as much fodder as possible on the farm in order to meet the feed requirements of cattle on the farm. This will help reduce input costs (feed costs mainly). This is irrelevant whether the herd is managed intensively or extensively. With market prices that are often low during the drought periods and feed costs that are high, on-farm fodder crops can help the herd survive the drought without having to make too much off-cut to the parent herd.



3. Production efficiency: 

  • Quite often farmers tend to use conception rates determined from a per rectum pregnancy diagnosis as a measure of the efficiency of the production system, which can be inaccurate. This is made inaccurate by the fact that from birth to weaning peri-natal mortalities can occur.
  • A more accurate measure of production efficiency is the weaning percentage, as there are fewer mortalities later in the production cycle.
  • With the weaner systems, a weaning percentage of at least 75% must be achieved with each cycle to sustain the production system.
  • With a weaning percentage of less than 65% it is not easy to make a profit in many beef production systems.


4. Profitability:

  • It is difficult to determine the most profitable beef production system, as specific circumstances favour one or more production systems and the cyclic fashion in which the markets change does not make it any easier.
  • It is quite tempting for a farmer to look over the fence and try to change the production system on the farm to what the neighbour is doing when the neighbour is doing well without understanding the depth of what goes into the production system of the neighbour.  This often than not does not end well, simply because changing a beef production system requires an understanding of the system. It is time-consuming (except for buying-in systems) and the markets change more rapidly than one can change beef production systems.
  • In the end, sticking with a tried, tested and familiar system while making small changes to it provides the best solution.


(Note that there are many more factors that need to be considered when deciding on a beef production system such as market availability, farm size and extent of development, transport, labour, and veld type).


In the end when making this decision, the farmer’s personal interest or choice must not override limitations of the farm, in terms of available forage and financial capabilities. 



Tainton, N. (1999). Veld management in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.‌

Mcdonald, P. (2011). Animal nutrition. San Francisco, Calif.: Benjamin Cummings; London.