The modern Sussex is a highly economical, well muscled, easy and economical to produce animal giving the best quality beef. The Sussex are one of the oldest pure cattle breeds in the world. The breed developed on heavy, poor soils in S.E. England, where they were used mainly for drawing wagons or the plough. Only strong animals with a good temperament were taken up as breeding stock. Winters were spent in tough conditions in cattle yards or open fields, with fodder being generally scarce.
Sussex were imported into Southern Africa from 1903. Thereafter the breed spread throughout the sub-continent in areas ranging from hot/dry to cold, high altitude regions. Farmers soon realised they were well suited for use as a pure breed, but especially for crossbreeding with the indigenous Afrikaners. In subsequent decades it became the norm for commercial producers to improve their beef herds by using sires mainly of British origin like Sussex.
The end of the century has also seen the emergence of many new synthetic breeds with some Bos indicus or Sanga background. Initially, heterosis in these new breeds works to the benefit of the commercial producer but reduces by 50% with each subsequent backcross to the original synthetic line. When the need arises for increased hybrid vigour in the progeny, the solution is to go back to a breed that is genetically far removed from the parent stock in question. Sussex (i.e. Bos taurus) are unrelated to indigenous and synthetic breeds and when crossed with the latter optimal heterosis results.
Sussex bulls almost always have a good work rate (libido) with high pre-potency, hardiness, and often above average post-weaning growth. Sussex cows are invariably good milkers with a high butterfat content leading to higher weaning weights and relative early maturity. They are quiet and easy to manage, which is a real benefit in modern times when good labour is scarce. They have won many block tests and are sought after by feedlots. Sussex has a blocky conformation with a medium-large frame. Their even dark brown coats are much improved over earlier years – smooth in summer with a relatively short dense coat in winter. The breed has proven high tolerance to heat and cold and will adapt to changes in climatic conditions. Both horned and polled types are bred in SA, showing good muscling / depth. They produce a quality carcass with an even fat layer. Sussex cows weigh 520-620kg, while bulls generally weigh 800kg+- when two years old. They have high live-weight gain potential with an economic feed conversion rate although their feed intake is higher than the indigenous breed.
With average management cows consistently achieve high conception rates, and in many areas calving percentages of 90% and higher are fairly common. It is usual for Sussex calves to wean above 200kg from medium-framed dams at an age of six or seven months. Breeders can attest to the ability of cows to maintain their condition even while raising a calf. While this may not lead to a high cow/calf ratio (weight of weaned calf to the dam), cows go into winter in much better condition. This also means a definite reduction of expense in fattening old cows after a productive life of 10 or 11 years, All breeds need to adapt to the needs of both the commercial as well as the physical environment. As mentioned above, SA stud breeders have to a large extent eliminated the heavy coats in winter which originally was an evolutionary response to freezing winters in S.E. England.
However, in high altitude sour veld conditions, the cold resistance of Sussex is a big advantage. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they have the highest number of sweat glands of any British or European breed. It is interesting to note that north of the Limpopo, numerous Sussex herds thrived in tropical conditions in Rhodesia and Zambia, with all challenges of the tick-borne diseases that those countries have. Initially, they were mainly used for crossing with Afrikaners and indigenous Sanga and Mashona cattle, which brought rapid improvement from the first generation as regards fleshing. Sadly with the break-up of white-owned farms due to land dispossession, the once numerous Zimbabwe herds have almost disappeared.
Historically British farmers bred top beef animals which went on to dominate the world’s export trade when it came to quality. In the meanwhile not much has changed. Sussex still offers superior quality fine-grained beef with even fat covering and internal marbling for enhanced flavour. In today’s world quality is everything and this applies especially to high-quality beef competing against other and cheaper forms of protein such as chicken or pork. Sussex beef quality was confirmed in recent restaurant/consumer taste tests in 2012 and 2013 with one standout comment by culinary journalists and chefs in the run-up to the Ultimate Beef Challenge last year, namely, the best sirloin ever judged in the competition.
What does the future hold? In all likelihood, relentless cost pressure on producers will continue, and thus easily achievable productivity gains via hybrid vigour will become even more important in future. In a commercial breeding context, producers look for predictable performance from dependable breeding animals. Sussex have proved their reliability and profitability over the decades.
When crossbred with other breeds, the Sussex is usually dominant in the offspring. This applies even with indigenous breeds as well as larger framed animals. Farmers who have mixed-breed females can sell weaners that are uniform in type and red/brown in colour. Heifers that are kept back for breeding adapt well in all areas and are also in good demand at auctions.