Mega cattle farm in Botswana requires hands-on management


By Charl Van Rooyen | 20 April 2017
cattle farm
A Simbra calf with pure-bred Brahman cows. The Brahmans and the Brahman-crosses only need tick treatment twice a year.

A cattle farm with more than 5 000 animals on 65 000 hectares can only be successful if the farmer’s management is impeccable and he ensures that everything is in place to keep things running smoothly.

He started farming with next to nothing on a small piece of land – with only a tiny house and a few boreholes – but 40 years later, third generation farmer Rudi Lemcke of Ghanzi, Botswana, talks proudly about his enterprise: about 4 000 commercial cows, 800 Brahman, 300 Simmentalers and 100 Charolais on 65 000 ha of land.

cattle farm
Rudi Lemcke and his wife Ada.

Rudi, who grew up in this western region of the country, has been farming on their homestead since he married his wife, Ada, 36 years ago. “There was almost nothing here when we arrived,” they say in unison. “There was just a smallish house and no electricity or telephone.”

Ada only saw her family in Walvis Bay, Namibia, once a year.

Today Rudi not only runs the farm, but also a comprehensive business that started off making firebreaks for the government. Today they lay tarred roads, build town infrastructure and even build runways for aircraft. The Lemckes are also property developers. His sons, Hugo and Quinton, besides being involved in the businesses and the farm, also have their own transport company.

Because of the scale of their activities, Rudi had to develop a management system that made it possible to efficiently run the farm part-time.

cattle farm
The Lemckes farm with several cattle breeds and cross-breeds. Here are pure-bred Brahmans and Charolais cross-breeds.

HARD WORK

Rudi’s dad, Hugo, had the misfortune of his mom passing away when he was only six years old and his father passing away when he was eleven. At that stage, Hugo’s family lived in Namibia and he and his older brother, Albert (20) moved to Botswana.

Albert is the founding father of the famous De Graaff family of Botswana, of which Christiaan de Graaff, a former Minister of Agriculture, is a member. The third Lemcke brother, Bruno, followed later.

Hugo and Albert earned money by digging wells for farmers and doing other manual labour. They saved money and bought the farm, Godabis, in 1940 where Rudi’s son, also Hugo, now lives.

Rudi’s forefathers began their pioneer work on Godabis and started farming with Brahmans. They had to erect fences to renovate the infrastructure.

In the early years, there were two outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Botswana, one lasting two years, and Rudi and Ada couldn’t sell a single animal. Without an income, they lived on maize meal and meat. The ban on cattle sales did, however, allow them to increase their cattle numbers.

BUSH ENCROACHMENT

Rudi says that when he started farming the camps were very large – up to 1 500 ha each. The ground around the watering points was extremely compacted and bush encroachment was a major problem. As money became available, they erected fencing.

In the beginning, he merely erected camp blocks, but bit by bit, as areas were cleared, the farm was reconfigured using computer technology. There are currently about 300 camps on the farm.

Rudi also re-designed the cattle kraals to simplify cattle handling. Everything was constructed with thick gum poles and steel and was designed to make the flow easier and reduce injuries. Each cattle station has a large kraal where the cattle are received, and two smaller kraals where he can divert up to 30 head of cattle at a time. This leads to a sorting pen with four gates.

One gate leads to the crush and loading ramp, and the other three gates lead to smaller pens where he can sort different groups of cattle such as weaners, cows, heifers and old cows. Slaughter cows can also be weighed there before they are loaded onto trucks.

IMPORTED PURE-BREED ANIMALS

The quality of the cattle steadily improved and Rudi soon started making a name for himself as a breeder. He began to sell bulls to other breeders in Botswana. He was among the first Botswanan farmers to import pure-bred Brahman cows from South Africa.

cattle farm
Superb Brahman cows. Rudi was one of the first Botswanan farmers to import pure-bred female animals from South Africa.

Because of time constraints, Rudi doesn’t register his cattle with a breeders’ association. He no longer sells bulls, but uses the best 700 cows to produce stud bulls for himself.

In the thick bush, he would lose up to 150 calves a year due to leopard and wild dogs

He doesn’t have a fixed calving season. Each herd in a camp consists of 100 cows and four bulls. There are always two bulls with the cows while the other two bulls rest. They are rotated every two months. In 2015, the weaning percentage was 85 which is higher than when Rudi had larger camps, thanks to the improved management of smaller camps.

Since he has been clearing the bush in the camps, there have been a lot less mortalities. In the thick bush, he would lose up to 150 calves a year due to leopard and wild dogs.

cattle farm
Good examples of Brahman bulls. Only the best breeding material is good enough for Rudi. He buys stud bulls of various breeds to put with his pure-bred commercial cows.

IMPROVED CARRYING CAPACITY

Over time, the cattle farm became overgrown by invasive bush. At one stage Rudi couldn’t even use some areas for cattle. When his father still farmed there, he could maintain a capacity of one large stock unit (LSU) on 8 ha, but over time that deteriorated to 20 ha.

Four years ago, Rudi started clearing the bush using chemicals and has already cleared 40 000 ha. Large areas were treated with the granular herbicide Molopo (Reg No. L6111 Act 36/1947) applied aerially and using manual labour on some camps. Follow-up treatment is necessary to prevent regrowth from occurring, for which he uses the same herbicide in a liquid form applied to the soil around the stems with a knapsack sprayer. The most effective dose is 5kg/ha.

Blackthorn (Senegalia mellifera) is the biggest invasive threat, as well as camel thorn (Vachellia erioloba) which takes over wherever the blackthorn is cleared. Rudi leaves the large trees for shade for the cattle and only eradicates the smaller bushes.

cattle farm
Thanks to a well thought out rotational system, the veld is in good condition. This photo was taken in the dry season at the beginning of the year.

The cleared camps are now back to 1 LSU/8 ha and Rudi is hoping that it will improve to 1 LSU/6-7 ha as he eradicates more bush.

“Carrying capacity depends largely on how effectively you utilise the land in the growing season. We do general grazing rotation. When it rains and the annual grasses grow, the cattle graze in a camp for one week. During that time, they eat only those grasses. The perennial grasses then get a chance to grow and set seed. That is what we need in order to improve the land.”

WEANER PRODUCTION

The cattle farm is focused on weaner production and because he doesn’t have a specific calving season, Rudi sells weaners right throughout the year, directly from their mothers as they are weaned. Everything is sold to the Feedmaster feedlot in Gaborone, which send trucks weekly or bi-weekly to the farm to fetch the calves. The feedlot agent weighs the calves as they are loaded.

The last 3 000 weaners weighed on average 272kg each. The weaner price has remained pretty constant at P12.50/kg (about R16.50 or K11.60) for the last year.

“One can go far with such a price. My overheads on a cow are about P800 (R1060) per year on licks, veterinarian costs and salaries. I also get quite a lot of money for my cows that I cull, especially for the larger Brahman cows that make up about 80% of my herds,” says Rudi.

cattle farm
Pregnant clouds bear the good news of approaching rains. Good farming is possible with an average of 450 mm of rainfall on the sweet savannah veld.

There is sometimes a shortage of beef in Botswana, normally from November to January, when there is a scarcity of cattle in good condition. He then markets cows that have not calved and old cows in good condition. These animals are sold to Senn Foods in Gaborone, which produces processed foods such as polony.

In times of abundance, he will get about P18/kg for cows, but Rudi prefers to sell them in November, December and January, when the price can go up to P25/kg. At that time, he will get P6 500 (R8 590 / K6 060) per cow on average, which makes a big difference to his income and profitability. Because he farms on such a large scale he has sold up to 700 cows during those three months.

STRICT SELECTION

Rudi selects very strictly for fertility to ensure a high calving percentage, good walkability and udders because he doesn’t have time for calves that battle to drink. He rejects cows with weak pasterns, as those animals don’t walk well.

Milk is important, but he prefers cows with an average milk production that always have enough for their calves rather than cows that have a high milk production in the good times but struggle to produce in the leaner times. Consequently, he selects cows that calf regularly, produce fat calves, and have good conformation. “We don’t have time in our comprehensive farming enterprise for cows with too little milk or bottle teats. Those animals are culled.”

‘She can be the prettiest heifer on the farm, but if she doesn’t conceive she is culled’

The selection of female animals already begins at weaning. Thin calves are culled first. The calves that remain are then inspected for foot problems and those with defects are also culled.

The most important selection comes later when the heifers are placed with the bulls. Heifers that don’t conceive within three to four months are grown out on the lands and slaughtered. “She can be the prettiest heifer on the farm, but if she doesn’t conceive she is culled,” says Rudi. He will get P29/kg (R39) from Senn Foods for these animals.

None of the cattle get feed. In summer (for nine months of the year) the cattle will get just a salt and phosphate lick, and from July to September, or October if the rains come later, they will get a protein lick.

VETERINARIAN COSTS

The Brahmans and Brahman-crosses only need tick treatment twice a year for which Rudi uses a spray. Some of the other breeds need treatment monthly. Bont-legged ticks (Hyalomma rufipes) are the biggest problem. Anaplasmosis occurs occasionally but redwater and heartwater are unheard of.

All the cattle are treated twice a year against internal parasites, once against anthrax, botulism, and black quarter, and in good rainfall years also against lumpy skin disease.

Red Brahman cows and a healthy calf. The condition of the animals improved over the years.

HERD AND MOTHERING INSTINCT

Rudi farms primarily with Brahmans because they are less susceptible to ticks.

They also have a good herd bond and the cows have a strong mothering instinct which is valuable in Botswana where they have a problem with leopards and wild dogs. The Brahmans protect their calves well. When a cow is busy calving and is vulnerable to predators, the other cows will normally stay with her to protect her. For this reason, it is good that Brahmans are somewhat aggressive.

Even so, Rudi selects strictly for temperament, because he doesn’t want to farm wild cattle. When they are weaned, heifers that are too wild are culled. The cows are also monitored continuously and those that become too difficult to handle are slaughtered.

“Stud farmers mustn’t try to change the Brahman. We must maintain their adaptability and their hardiness. Don’t try to make the Brahman a feedlot animal. They grow out fast enough on the veld. That is where their value lies,” argues Rudi.

Rudi’s Brahman-cross cows will calve until they are 10 or 11 years old, and will produce a fat calf every year

Longevity is of prime importance. Rudi’s Brahman-cross cows will calve until they are 10 or 11 years old, and will produce a fat calf every year. If he then decides to finish an old cow for slaughter, she will fatten easily.

The fact that Brahmans have two sets of teeth increases the chances that the cattle will be prime grade until they are older and thus get the highest price per kilogram. Although he is a weaner producer, he will keep the heifers on the veld longer before he markets them so that they are heavier. At 32 months, a Brahman is normally still a two-tooth cow, which makes A-grading possible – the most desirable, and expensive, meat.

They don’t farm with oxen at all, but Rudi is looking at acquiring land closer to the market with the intention of marketing oxen straight from the veld.

BULL REPLACEMENT

The farm replaces around 50 bulls of different breeds per year. To this end, he selects stringently to keep only the top bulls, specifically those that can improve the herd. Among other things, he keeps his eye open for sheath problems, weak feet, and weak pasterns, and also doesn’t like an animal with a long head.

Younger bulls are more virile. Bulls are culled if they have problems with infertility, become injured or too old.

cattle farm
Rudi and Ada with one of their Brahman stud bulls. They don’t sell bulls but use the best 700 cows to breed stud bulls for themselves.

Rudi wants to ensure that he farms with the right breeds for his environment. To that end, he is now conducting tests with different breeds so that in time he can decide which would work best in a cross-breeding program.

“There are good animals in every breed. I prefer a cow that matures early, with strong feet, that can look after herself, especially in the winter, and can, with the help of just a little lick, maintain condition and conceive again,” says Rudi.

All the types he uses for breeding from the different breeds are good medium-frame animals. He uses Sussex bulls with all the breeds to cover the heifers the first time. These cross-breed cows eventually produce good weaners that fatten quickly. The benefit of using Sussex bulls with Brahman cows is that the Brahman’s temperament and longevity remain.

Simmentaler bulls are also used a lot thanks to the breed’s high fertility and good feed conversion. The Brahman-Simmentaler cross-breeds are good cows that produce heavy calves.

Rudi is also evaluating Beefmaster and Droughtmaster bulls, but hasn’t had enough results yet to draw any conclusions.

ENQUIRIES: Rudi Lemcke, email: taugrading@gmail.com

SWITCH TO SOLAR POWER

Solar power will eventually provide all the power for Rudi Lemcke’s entire cattle farm. He is not connected to Botswana’s national power grid.

He already has solar power at home. The solar panels and generator (approximately 32kW) charge a bank of batteries that are sufficient for the entire set-up. There is a similar system at his son Hugo’s house at the far end of the farm – some 60km from his parents’ farmstead – as well as at that of a foreman. They intend to equip all the workers’ houses with solar panels over time.

They have already replaced all the wind-powered and petrol-driven pumps on the farms with solar-powered pumps.

cattle farm
Rudi Lemcke replaced his windmills and petrol water pumps with solar powered pumps to lower the running costs. Here he is at a solar power station in the veld. The bore hole here is 300 m deep and requires many solar panels to run effectively (about 7 m³ per hour) and supply water to 800 heads of cattle.

LAND OWNERSHIP IN BOTSWANA

South African farmers may farm in Botswana, but they must realize that the market infrastructure is not as well developed as that in South Africa, says Rudi Lemcke.

Land may be purchased directly from other farmers or through a leasehold system whereby land may be leased from the government for 50 or 100 years. For property purchases, one negotiates directly with the farmer to whom it belongs, only after it has been advertised, so that local residents also have a chance to purchase.