SCHOOL students from across the Sydney basin are getting their first taste of agriculture through the UniSchools Steer Challenge.
Western Sydney University farm production coordinator Joe Kovacek manages a 200 head cow herd of mainly Poll Herefords joined to Simmental bulls at Hawkesbury in Sydney's west, with the aim of producing the best cow herd possible to turn off vealers for the local domestic market.
Taking over the reins four years ago, he has bred away from the straight Poll Hereford herd in search of an ideal crossbred female to join to a terminal sire - and produced steers with better yield and good growth rates in the process.
"The idea with the Poll Hereford/Simmental is obviously to produce the ideal cow and become a self-replacing herd, that produces good females as well as steers," he said.
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Mr Kovacek said the butchers they were dealing with were looking for something different, and it was essential to have an article that people in the industry wanted.
"Maternal instinct is the most important thing in the cattle herd and Simmental cows are renowned for milking ability and maternal instincts," he said.
"In the past couple of years we've had the Simmental-cross steers and the processor they were sold to said they were spot on for market specifications with good eye muscle area, yielded well and the fat was even. They ticked all the boxes for our local Sydney market. They perform well and grow well when you put them on feed."
The steer portion are also used by the UniSchools Steer Challenge, hosted at Western Sydney University each year.
The program gives the students an opportunity to see what crossbreeding cattle does for the industry.
"Many students only get to see purebred shows or stud operations, this gives them a good insight into why we do crossbreeding and why we are chasing hybrid vigour commercially in the industry," he said.
"Crossbred animals are the best out there as they give you multiple traits - in this instance good eatability with good muscle and carcase. The steer that we are feeding is growing 2kg a day - in terms of feed efficiency it is a lot better."
This year's UniSchools competitors include Arndell Anglican College; Bede Polding; Colo High; Caroline Chisholm College; Chevalier College; Elizabeth Macarthur High; Knox Grammar; McCarthy Catholic College; Macarthur Anglican School; St Columba's Catholic College; Xavier College; and for the second time, the university's livestock show team's first year students are participating.
Adjunct Fellow Stephen Blunden said the steers go onto feed for close to 100 days during the challenge.
"The schools take the responsibility of growing the steers out to medium domestic carcass weights of up to 240kg ... we have a training day at the beginning of the year for novice students, and we go through basically everything - grooming, nutrition, handling, all of the above," he said.
Mr Blunden said the competition aimed to present secondary school students with career opportunities that exist in the industry.
"Most of these students, from urban based schools on the rim of the Sydney basin, haven't come from a livestock background at all.
"This is an opening up of opportunities for them. The surveying I do shows the students weren't looking at participating in ag past school, and after the program their interest has been sparked into opportunities in ag."