Livingstone Eland: The domain of massive bulls
His progeny sells for millions. Last year, a bull calf he sired, aptly named Junior, sold for R5 million. And his daughters don’t come cheap either. About the same time Junior traded hands, two of the “Beast’s” heifer calves sold for R1.8 million each. In fact, for two years now, none of his daughters have sold for anything less than R800 000.
He might very well be the most sought after breeding bull of any species within the South African game industry at present. Of course, some don’t agree. But in eland circles at least, Dawid – the prized Livingstone breeding bull of the Potgieter family of Burkea Wild – claims top spot.
“We will never sell Dawid,” admits Sollie Potgieter Jnr. “Then again, never is a long time.”
It’s a wild guess what Dawid is worth, even for the Potgieters who have been farming with Livingstone eland in the Vaalwater area for the past eight years. In the cattle industry, the rule of thumb is to multiply the selling price per weaned calf of the breeding bull concerned by eight, sometimes even as high as 13. “If you consider the bull calf that sold for R5 million…” deliberates Potgieter, “Well, you do the math.” And we did. R40 million, R65 million even. But as Potgieter says: “Dawid is priceless.”
Five years ago, Potgieter and his father, also Sollie, went on a mission: Buy the best Livingstone breeding bull in the country. And as they sifted through the numerous propositions and photographs and promises, Dawid appeared from amidst the clutter.
“We heard of a farmer who wanted to sell all his Livingstones,” says Potgieter. “Keeping eland on his land no longer made financial sense to him. We weren’t interested in cows or heifers. We drove there to see Dawid. But we never found him because of the sheer size of the property. That day we left empty handed. And yes, somewhat dejected.”
Not long after, the bull was put up for auction. “My father and I had discussed beforehand what we’d be willing to pay for Dawid,” says Potgieter. “We discussed it at length and took into account that the bull was in his prime and has 14 stripes, which in any Livingstone breeder’s books, is cause for a trip down to the bank manager.”
As father and son debated, Potgieter finally concluded that they should stop bidding at R175 000. His father, however, set the limit at R220 000.
“It all happened so fast,” recalls Potgieter of that day. “We stopped bidding at R200 000. When the price reached R700 000, I looked at my father and in our own quiet way, we both acknowledged that the time had come for us to bite the bullet and buy this bull. In the years preceding the day of the auction, we had successfully built up our Livingstone herd with prime female animals. Never before did we have an opportunity to acquire such a magnificent breeding bull.”
When the bid stood at R750 000, father and son nodded to the spotter and the Potgieters were back in contention. And as the hammer fell, they had bought Dawid for R800 000 – six and a half times more than the previous record price paid for a Livingstone eland bull at the time.
But what makes a great Livingstone eland?
Ellalien Davey of Romaco Ranch says it’s all about stripes and the right colour. “The two go hand in hand,” says Davey, who was awarded the prestigious WRSA Wildlife Rancher of the Year title for 2013. “But a breeder has to decide which of the two to implement first. Some ranchers initially direct their focus on producing Livingstones with that distinct ‘deep-red’ colour before shifting their attention to breeding animals with more stripes.”
There is a misconception that cows have more stripes than bulls. As calves, the stripes of both sexes feature prominently against their red coats. But the bulls eventually darken with age, and so do their stripes. A cow, however, retains her red colour as she grows older, thus providing the perfect backdrop to accentuate the white of her stripes for the duration of her life.
Davey says a “good” Livingstone eland should have nine stripes. “The more the better, of course. But nine stripes is a respectable eland.”
At Burkea, the Potgieters focus on quality rather than quantity when it comes to stripes. “If I have to choose between an eland with 14 barely visible stripes and one with 10 thick, prominent stripes – I’ll choose the latter any day,” says Potgieter, adding that the stripes should extend all the way down the animal’s body. “Be wary of Livingstones depicted in photographs from above. The eland might have plenty of stripes, but you never get to see just how far down the body the stripes extend.”
The greatest challenge in breeding top Livingstone eland, says Potgieter, is finding the “right match”. According to Potgieter, placing a 14-stripe bull with an equally impressive cow, does not necessarily equate to a 14-stripe calf. “There are no guarantees with Livingstones. This is why farming with them can be frustrating.” Potgieter goes on to explain that because of this, a cow is given two chances with Dawid, and if neither of her two calves meet Burkea’s standards, the cow is taken out of their breeding programme.
Davey, however, is of the opinion that producing Livingstones with the desired traits is as simple as placing the right bull with the right cow. “This is especially true with the white chevron on the face,” says Davey. “It’s not a matter of luck. A bull with a beautiful white chevron placed with a cow of the same pedigree, will produce calves with prominent chevrons. It’s all about the right genetics.”
Although Potgieter agrees that a top Livingstone bull should possess “a wide chevron on his black mask”, he dislikes this feature in a cow if it is too dominant. “Don’t get me wrong,” says Potgieter. “The chevron on a cow’s face is beautiful, but it should not overpower her femininity. A cattle farmer will tell you that you judge an excellent heifer by recognising the feminine features in her face. If the heifer is too masculine, chances are she will not deliver on her maternal duties.”
There has been a fair amount of criticism levelled at Livingstone breeders for neglecting horn length in favour of producing eland with the “right colour”.
Davey concedes that there should be a healthy balance between the two, but is quick to point out that the Livingstone eland is a colour variant, and should be farmed with as such. “When it comes to these animals,” Davey says, “the emphasis will always fall on their colour. It is the same with golden wildebeest. A potential buyer selects a breeding bull on the animal’s colour first, and then on the length of his horns. This is simply the demand the market has placed on us as breeders.”
Potgieter says Livingstone eland bulls are not known for growing long horns. “Stop worrying about horn length,” he says. “Focus instead on breeding massive bulls. And by this I mean massive in stature. You should be able to spot him from a mile off. Even if he is standing in the herd, there should be no mistake about which one out of the 20 is the bull. He should simply be enormous.”
On the subject of bulls with stature, Dawid is about 12 years old. Potgieter gives the bull his due. “We built our entire brand around Dawid. Dawid is Burkea. If you drive in to our farm, you drive past Dawid. And anyone who cares to ask, always wants to know how Dawid is doing. This is why we will never sell Dawid. We want to look after him well into his old day and have him eat as much as he wants… rest without anyone or anything disturbing him.”
And of that inevitable day some time not too far off in the distant future, when Dawid breaths his last, neither father nor son can foresee picking up a rifle. “We will have the vet come out,” says Potgieter. “We will say our goodbyes and put the old bull down.”