In 2008 Cocky Mokoka came across a magazine article about how Brazilian farmers had transformed their businesses by no longer ploughing or tilling their soils. It inspired him to start letting Mother Nature make the decisions on his farm and turn his business into a sustainable, profitable and environmentally friendly operation.
Shepherds of the soil is what Grain SA, the organisation that looks after the country’s grain farmers, calls Cocky Mokoka and the group of farmers he belongs to. They promote the use of regenerative farming principles, an approach that puts nature at the centre of all decisionmaking on their farms.
By doing so, farmers become more productive and make more money while improving soil health. It’s also a cheaper way to farm, as less expensive inputs are used. Other advantages are less water that runs off, less soil and wind erosion, and better retention of water in soils – all common challenges faced by conventional farmers.
Cocky, who hails from Lichtenburg in the North West province, farms on the 740ha farm Seekoeifontein just outside Vanderbijlpark in the Vaal area.
Growing up in the former rural homelands of Bophuthatswana, Cocky was only ever exposed to conventional farming. The area was known for its solid farming industry, ably financed by the AgriBank of Bophuthatswana. And it is at AgriBank that he started working in 1987, servicing five districts: Mankwe, Madikwe, Bafokeng, Odi 1 and Odi 2.
“We were properly trained in agricultural development and I worked with cooperatives like Agrico, whose farmers were highly productive,” recalls Cocky.
With the collapse of the Bophuthatswana government in the early 1990s, AgriBank was absorbed by the Land Bank, of which Cocky managed the Lichtenburg branch until 2003.
“I left because the products we were selling just didn’t suit black farmers,” he says. “It also took forever to process applications and farmers were being denied loans because of debt on clothing accounts! It didn’t make sense, and the fact that I questioned this just made my seniors angry.”
After leaving the Land Bank, Cocky bought a farm in Zeerust, about 40km outside Mahikeng, where he began farming on a small scale. He also started a security company to help tackle game theft at Madikwe Game Reserve, but when the contract wasn’t renewed, he went to work for Mercedes-Benz in Johannesburg.
Later he sold his Zeerust farm and relocated to Johannesburg. In 2006, Cocky was allocated his current farm just outside Vanderbijlpark in the Vaal area through the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) programme.
“We initially leased the farm without the option to purchase, despite the scheme providing for purchase,” he remembers. After the Law Society of South Africa got involved, the clause was reinstated. “But it still didn’t clarify when and how the purchase should be done,” he points out.
In 2007 Cocky planted his first 150ha dryland maize and sunflower in rotation. With an average rainfall of between 700mm and 800mm, his yields were disappointing – between 2.5t/ha and 3t/ha for maize, and between 1.8t/ha and 2t/ha for his sunflower. He explains that the seven-foot planter he used at the time left too much space between rows, resulting in too few plants per hectare. In the following year he came across the article about the Brazilian farmers’ successful approach to regenerative farming.
“I visited the department of agriculture for help and met Dr Hendrik Smith, who at the time was working in the Climate Change & Disaster Management directorate,” recalls Cocky. However, when Smith left the department and Cocky lost touch with him, it temporarily derailed his plans to pursue regenerative farming.
“I was concerned about why South Africa wasn’t adopting regenerative farming while other advanced countries were doing it so successfully,” Cocky says.
He tried talking to some of his commercial neighbours about it. “But it was a foreign language to them. They weren’t interested and my efforts to do further research were fruitless.”
Then, in 2012, he reconnected with Smith, who was working for Grain SA by then. Slowly Cocky could start introducing regenerative farming practices on his farm. His first step was to introduce no-till. His yields gradually increased from the 3t/ha he used to get when he started farming conventionally 14 years ago to 6t/ha.
The regenerative principles, according to Cocky, are simple:
■ Disturb your soil as little as possible. Plant and apply fertiliser directly to the soil. Keep the soil covered with mulch (organic matter like crop residues). This protects it from wind and water erosion, and allows rain to better penetrate the soil, while building carbon in the soil and helping it to retain water.
■ Rotate your crops by using at least three different crops (soya, maize and sunflower are a popular combination). This prevents the build-up of disease in the soil and allows legumes like soya to fix nitrogen in the soil that serves as food for other plants.
■ Try to keep living roots in the soil for as long as possible. These are called cover crops, and are planted once the cash crop, like maize, has been harvested. Roots from living plants feed microorganisms in the soil keeping soil healthy.
■ Use controlled herds of animals to graze cover crops and residue. When animals are kept in herds when they graze, their urine and dung are concentrated and can so fertilise the soil while helping to build carbon levels in the soil. Many farmers use electric fencing to keep animals bunched up and to create the desired effect.
For Cocky the results have been phenomenal. His yields have risen, whereas input costs like diesel and fertilisers have dropped.
“I no longer prepare my soil before planting,” he explains. “I only use a ripper once in three years to loosen any compaction layers that might have developed, so roots can penetrate the soil.”
Regenerative farming has brought his soil back to life, with microorganisms and insects doing their jobs once again. “My soils are retaining water much better now because carbon levels are climbing,” Cocky says. He has also invested in a planter with 900mm spacing between rows, which has helped to increase plant density. He plans to reduce the spacing even further to 750mm.
THE VALUE OF LIVESTOCK
Cocky uses a herd of about 70 breeding cows to spread urine and manure while they trample crop residues into the soil. This reduces the amount of fertiliser he needs, because the urine and dung deposit nutrients, feed microbes and add additional organic matter to the soil. In this way, the carbon levels are increased and soil health is improved.
Cocky cautions, however, that proper management is crucial. Animals should not be kept on a field for too long. Their hooves can cause compaction and care needs to be taken that the animals don’t eat too much of the mulch that should be covering the soil. Livestock should be moved often, preferably with the use of moveable electric fencing.
He says his animals also help to stabilise the risk of cropping by providing a stable income. “I’ve already bought an extra 60 Bonsmara cows. This will increase my herd to 130 breeding animals, but I’m aiming for at least 200 breeding cows.”
Enlarging his herd will require him to halve his grain production from 400ha to 200ha, with 200ha to be used for planted pastures as grazing for the cattle.
“The land I’m using for pasture has a lower potential for grain, so it makes financial sense to rather produce beef there,” Cocky explains.
As is the case with most farmers, Covid-19 has affected his business. “I have a small farm feedlot where I fatten my culls, and at the time of the lockdown I had already bought two refrigerated trucks that were meant to distribute meat to various clients,” sighs Cocky. Fortunately his neighbour and good friend, Ferdinand Klopper, a commercial grain and beef producer, has an abattoir on the farm and agreed to provide Cocky with slaughtering, processing and coldstorage facilities.
IMPROVING MORE THAN SOIL
Cocky believes in giving back. He wants to help older women, especially, do regenerative backyard farming. This will help communities sustain themselves and stay healthy, as well as augment paltry pensions. “The plan is to produce high-value indigenous crops like morogo and beans for home consumption, while selling surpluses in the city,” he explains.
He’s doing the same for his workers. “Retaining staff is difficult,” he says.
“I think a lack of incentives lies at the heart of the problem, because farm work is generally not high paying.” So Cocky has allocated 40ha where his workers can grow vegetables. “Now we sell spinach, pumpkins and beetroot at the Joburg Market, and the workers share in the profits.”
He is also making his workers part of his diversification plans. “I plan to introduce 50 000 layers, and one house of 10 000 birds will be for my workers. It’s the right thing to do,” he explains, “and I’ve seen how eager and productive workers become when they’re valued and incentivised.”
Because in Cocky’s view, regeneration today is about far more than just his soils. It’s become a way of life.