In the 23 years since Thabang Tsephe began his self-funded dairy farming journey, he has come a long way. Thabang’s son, Phutheho, now farms with his dad. This father-and-son team have learned, and continue to learn, sometimes hard, but always valuable, lessons they are happy to share with other developing black farmers. Lloyd Phillips visited them.
In 1999 Thabang Tsephe used money he had saved from his family trading store business and his taxi business to lease Willary Farm in the Eastern Cape’s Ongeluksnek area. The farm had about 10ha of planted pastures, irrigated by draglines and a moveable pivot. There was also 80ha of dryland grain maize that Thabang milled after harvesting and sold as meal to shops and other customers.
His vision was to become a sustainable large-scale dairy farmer and today he has gone some distance in working his way towards that goal. Initially, Thabang milked 10 mixed-breed cows with a portable four-point milking machine. He drove long distances every day to market and distribute his milk, supplying local school feeding schemes, shops and direct consumers. Thabang leased Willary Farm for seven years and slowly grew his dairy herd to about 30 cows in milk.
GROWING THE HERD
In 2006, Thabang leased 150ha of arable land and 350ha of veld grazing and planted pastures from the Mariazelle Mission in the Eastern Cape’s Matatiele area. Once he was on the Mariazelle farm he built a basic eight-point swingover parlour. Despite the demands of running a growing dairy enterprise and marketing his own milk, Thabang also managed 70ha of dryland maize on the farm. In 2014 he was selected as a finalist in Grain
South Africa’s Developing Grain Farmer of the Year Competition. Thabang’s lease for the Mariazelle farm ended in early 2020 by which time he had grown his herd to about 74 cows in milk. He then secured a 30-year lease on a government-owned farm, Bon Accord, also in the Matatiele area.
Thabang says this long-term lease gives him greater security and gives him the flexibility to really pursue his dream of becoming a large-scale commercial dairy farmer. He knows this is a challenging task. But fortunately, he also has his son, Phutheho, farming with him. As a team they are tackling the issues, and solving the problems, together.
Phutheho says: “When we got to Bon Accord Farm, we had to do big renovations to the broken-down dairy parlour building, the milk lines, the cooling system, and the bulk milk storage system.”
The parlour now has 10 points on each side which the Tsephes will extend to a maximum of 19 points a side as cow numbers increase to the planned goal of 450 cows-in-milk. “We can only properly start growing the herd once we’ve arranged a suitable electricity supply and when we have all the pivot irrigation systems running.”
Dairy farming is a technical field and dairy farmers are continuously upgrading their knowledge and skills to stay ahead of the game. Thabang and Phutheho belong to various study groups and take part in training workshops, like those hosted by Milk SA. This father-and-son team have already learned many critical lessons, on the ground, that they are willing to share with other developing dairy farmers.
MAKE INFORMED DECISIONS
Thabang says before buying in dairy heifers and mature cows to help build up a herd, farmers should do as much research as possible into individual animal history and the production system from which the animal comes. This way farmers avoid the problem of buying in poor milk producers from another dairy farmer who is trying to get rid of them.
“Also, bought-in heifers and cows should come from a production environment or feeding system similar to yours,” says Thabang. Moving cattle from one system to another should be done with minimal stress on the animals.
He says it is important to develop relation ships with experienced dairy farmers who will give good advice on where to find, and buy, the best heifers and cows. Boughtin animals should ideally come from farms in the same area as the destination farm.
FIND THE RIGHT MARKETS
Phutheho says when he began farming with his dad their herd was still at the Mariazelle farm and all the milk was sold to independent local supermarkets, to local school feeding schemes and to an independent milk powder producer. There were no formal contracts between Thabang and these milk buyers, so they could reduce, or cancel, their orders at very short notice.
This meant Thabang could suddenly be left with excess milk and nowhere to sell it. There were times when the school feeding schemes would not pay him at all, and during school holidays they did not need milk.
“We would run around trying to find other buyers and would often be forced to sell our milk below cost of production. When we couldn’t find any buyers, we’d be forced to dump the milk. At one stage things got so bad that we were struggling to pay our creditors and faced a real risk of losing our farming business,” says Phutheho.
Since 2019, the Tsephes have supplied all their milk to food and drink processor and manufacturer, Nestlé. The company has a programme to help developing dairy farmers grow and increase their scale of production. Part of the programme is a guaranteed milk offtake agreement with farmers like Thabang and Phutheho.
Guaranteed offtake means a guaranteed income for developing dairy farmers that allows them to plan for business growth. Thabang says Nestlé’s programme is helping them with financial recovery. “Nestlé also offers soft loans to developing milk suppliers and these loans have been very helpful,” he says.
MILK SA AND GRAIN SA LEND A HAND
Milk SA is a nonprofit organisation representing the Milk Producers’ Organisation (MPO) and the SA Milk Processors’ Orga nisation (SAMPRO). Milk SA has a mandate to promote South Africa’s dairy industry, and to drive transformation in the sector.
Thabang and Phutheho explain that as part of its transformation initiatives, Milk SA has a programme that financially assists developing dairy farmers to grow their herds, upgrade their infrastructure, and buy the necessary production inputs.
Milk SA’s financial assistance requires the qualifying dairy farmer to contribute part of the costs. “Milk SA wants to see that the farmer already has a small dairy business. Milk SA has been very helpful to us with developing our dairy business. We also regularly attend their ongoing training workshops,” says Thabang.
Grain SA also has a programme that helps developing farmers produce better grain and silage maize. Grain SA establishes and supports study groups countrywide, and dairy farmers who grow grain and/or silage maize are encouraged to join their local study group and learn more about improved production practices.
At study groups farmers learn about selecting the best maize hybrids, land prep, planting and calibrating planters and sprayers.
Thabang explains that Grain SA also has a programme funded by brewing company, AB InBev. The programme offers soft production loans to developing farmers who grow silage maize and/or grain to be used in concentrate animal feeds. These soft loans allow developing dairy farmers to make a profit that can be ploughed back into developing their businesses.
RECORD-KEEPING IS KEY
The Tsephes insist it is extremely important that farmers throughout the sector, at every scale, should keep written records of all aspects of their businesses. Phutheho says every animal in their dairy herd has an ear tag which holds information about the animal’s birth year, birth month and the number it was born among its peers in that particular year. The information from each ear tag is recorded in the farm computer.
“This information helps us plan things like when to breed a heifer or cow, and which bull to use. It also helps us monitor when an animal should be dried off and when she is due to calve down,” says Phutheho. Both he and Thabang warn that failing to keep detailed and accurate records poses risks like inadvertently milking a cow late in her pregnancy which could lead to mastitis and high somatic cell counts in her milk.
Milk buyers financially penalise farmers whose milk has high somatic cell counts. Thabang adds that records help a dairy farmer to manage the entire business, including nutrition management and silage production.
He continues: “Know your production costs, your income, your profit and loss. Find out what your biggest expenses are and where you generate the highest returns. Identify and fix problems with a negative impact on your business. Everything must add value to the business.”
The two men agree that if a developing farmer can afford it, he (or she) should hire an independent bookkeeper to help with accurate record-keeping and generate objective information to guide improvements in the business. The father-and-son team add “it doesn’t help to lie to yourself, to your business or to your supporters”. Organisations like Milk SA, Grain SA, Nestlé, and others will want to see accurate records before they help a developing farmer.
A LOT TO LEARN
The Tsephes are humble enough to appreciate that there is much to learn about keeping the herd health in tip-top shape. They rely heavily on the advice and guidance of a representative of animal health products company, MSD Animal Health.
The MSD rep visits Bon Accord Farm to assess the herd, the production environment and the milking system and to develop a herd management programme for the Tsephes. He teaches the Tsephes and their employees about identifying and appropriately treating immediate health problems, and trains them in injection and dosing techniques. He cautions them to observe various milk withdrawal periods after using some of the veterinary products.
“Having a herd health management programme means we can proactively prevent or minimise problems that could result in loss of production, sick animals, and even mortalities. Health problems may have a seriously negative impact on production and profit. Given the poor state of government’s animal health resources, it’s critical that we have a good relationship with someone like an animal health company representative,” says Phutheho.
For more information contact Thabang and Phutheho Tsephe at email firstname.lastname@example.org