Africa benefits from Aussie science

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Weddings, funerals and other cultural ceremonies are the main beef markets for South African smallholder farmers.

But in a first for the country, these farmers are being introduced to Australian technology, which will see their beef in the kitchens of wealthy consumers.

The High Value Beef project, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and led by University of New England Professorial Research Fellow Professor Heather Burrow, has the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) paddock-to-plate grading system at the heart of the African project.

Researchers are using the MSA science to help African smallholders meet tight market specifications so that they can sell beef under Woolworths South Africa's premium free-range beef brand where they can earn 15 to 18 per cent more for their product.

"Cattle are probably the most important livestock in African cultures, with cattle representing a symbol of wealth and sold or slaughtered primarily for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies rather than through commercial markets," Professor Burrow said.

"So linking these smallholder farmers to commercial markets is a very big change from their cultural practices but a change that many smallholder farmers are very keen to make."

But to do that Australian researchers have to help the smallholders change their farm management practices including stocking rates and using planted pastures to provide a consistent supply of beef to Woolworths that meets the free-range brand specifications.

They must also sell off surplus stock, such as cull cows, much sooner than they would traditionally.

"As an instance of the challenges: these cull cows are regarded culturally as 'grandmothers'," Professor Burrow said. "One farmer said to a senior manager that he had to learn to sell his grandmothers.

"If we succeed in this, it could be revolutionary not just for the smallholder farmers we are working with now, but for smallholders across other provinces, whether they are producing cattle or other commodities."