In 2002, farming veteran Abel Naphtaly found his way back to agriculture by accident while searching for a slaughter ox when his successful security company celebrated 10 years in business. The purchase not only renewed his love of farming, it also sparked a new flame – he has since developed a passion for the Santa Gertrudis cattle breed. He shared his story with Peter Mashala.
The blood that runs through my veins contains a farmer’s DNA. There would be little to live for without agriculture,” says 65-year-old stalwart Abel Naphtaly from Mahikeng.
Abel’s long entrepreneurial career had landed him in the security sector before he founded DiADiranga Farming in 2002. “When I started farming full time, I reconnected to my roots, my health improved and my love of nature grew,” he adds.
Born on 17 December 1955 in Middelputs village on the banks of the Molopo River, in Botswana’s southwestern Kalahari district, Abel grew up in a farming homestead.
“As a schoolboy I was at the forefront of anything involving the cattle; taming, naming, or just general care of the animals,” he says. But when he left home to focus on his schooling, his passion for agriculture waned. He matriculated in 1974 and trained in service at Botswana’s department of postal services and telecommunications before moving to SA in 1980.
At first he worked for Radio Bophuthatswana and then moved to Agrico Development Cooperation (Agrico), working as an audio engineer and producing audiovisuals. In 1992 Abel founded Naphtronics, a security company that installed car, home and business alarms.
“I started with only one employee, but the business grew fast,” he says. “Soon we launched Flash Security, a guarding service. By 2002 we had more than 50 fleet cars operating in four provinces.”
BACK TO THE LAND
The company’s 10th anniversary in 2002 was a turning point. “My staff insisted on slaughtering an ox for the big celebration,” Abel recalls. He found the ox on Thys de Kock’s farm near Molopo Eye in the Rooigrond area outside Mahikeng. While negotiating for the animal, Abel spotted some beautiful kraaled heifers nearby.
“When I inquired about them, Thys said they were being fattened for slaughter. I insisted he couldn’t do that,” remembers Abel. “In our culture, it’s almost criminal to slaughter a female animal.” So Abel asked whether he could buy them. Thys refused. “I left the farm with the ox, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those heifers,” says Abel.
Lunching with his family after church the following Sunday, he offered to show them “his cattle” before going home. “They were surprised, because I didn’t own any animals at the time,” laughs Abel. They drove to Thys’ farm and found him at the kraal. “He was visibly irritated when he saw us,” Abel remembers.
“I told him, we’re here to see my cattle. ‘Which cattle?’ he asked. I said, the heifers I offered to buy last week!” Thys wouldn’t budge and asked them to leave, but before Abel left, he said a short prayer, referring to a passage from Joshua 1:3: “I have given you every place where the sole of your foot will tread, just as I promised Moses.”
A few days later Thys called Abel and offered him the 20 heifers for R65000. The deal was done the following day. Next, Abel negotiated with Chief Shole of the Ramatlabama area for grazing land in a communally farmed area and bought his first Simbra-Limousin bull in Derby. Then disaster struck when all his cattle were stolen in one night. Abel will never forget the date he received the terrible news: 13 March 2003.
“Tragically, all the heifers were pregnant,” he says. The theft of his animals made him even more determined to continue his farming venture. “I was not going to let a thief decide my fate.”
He set out on the auction trail and began to buy in cattle, regardless of their breed. On the road to and from the farm in Ramatlabama, he noticed unoccupied farms that he knew were state-owned. Hoping to acquire some of this land, he approached the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform in Mahikeng.
“They sent me from pillar to post until I was tired. The farms were not occupied, so I decided to waste no more time.”
He identified Klippan, a farm of 866ha, and started fixing fences and putting in infrastructure. “I moved to the farm in May 2003 and then I went back to the department, notified them that I was an occupant and asked for a formal lease agreement,” he says, laughing.
“They refused, so I told myself whoever wants me out would have to use a bulldozer.”
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
One day, on his way back from a trip to Kuruman, Abel saw a signpost with a picture of a Santa Gertrudis bull near Vryburg. Captivated by the beauty of the animal, he drove in and met the farm owners. Well-known cattle, game and citrus farmers Willie and Tina de Jager lost no time showing him their cattle. It was love at first sight for Abel, and Willie invited him to his next auction.
“I was impressed to see Willie’s heifers selling for between R23 000 and R36 000 each. It was unbelievable,” says Abel. He did his homework on the breed and decided to become a breeder. A few weeks later he bought 30 stud heifers and two stud bulls from Willie.
After years of nagging the department for a formal lease, Abel was finally granted one in 2011, with an option to buy. In the following year, he did just that – but he needed more land to accommodate his growing herd, so he purchased another farm of 930ha in the same area.
By this time Abel moved his Santa Gertrudis stud herd, now registered, to the new farm. Apart from the stud herd, he also ran two other herds for the emerging and commercial markets.
Abel suffered another devastating blow when his second farm became part of a successful land claim by the Bahurutshe of Zeerust. “I unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with them to lease me the farm and so I had to scale down,” he says.
He deregistered his stud and focused on building a quality commercial operation with the Santa Gertrudis, Boran and Simbra herds on the remaining farm.
Today Abel keeps just over 150 breeding cows and six bulls, two for each herd. “My reasons for running three breeds are based on research that included attending many auctions and watching the performance of the different breeds price-wise,” he explains.
According to Abel, the Simbra, Boran and Santa Gertrudis always came out tops at the auctions he attended. “Any good businessman will tell you to choose high value products that give high returns with minimal costs.”
He also considered the functional traits of the breeds, as these need to be suited to his specific farm environments. Abel endorses the Afrikaans word skaalbreker (scale breaker), which is often used to describe Santa Gertrudis cattle.
“The breed is a Brahman/shorthorn cross from the US, a meaty animal that is sensitive to drought. However, with the right feed inputs it does very well and adapts quickly. Santas make a good cross as they have smaller calves that grow well on their mothers’ milk.”
Boran, he explains, do not need feedlot fattening as their performance on veld is exceptional. Moreover, says Abel, they are not popular with feedlots because they gain weight faster than other breeds over the prescribed feedlot time.
An indigenous African breed originally from Ethiopia, the hardy, thick skinned Boran is highly resistant to tick-borne diseases and adapted to drought.
“They are good cross-breeders and tame, too – easy to work with.” The Simbra, on the other hand, is an allrounder. A cross between the Simmentaler and Brahman breeds, it milks well and is a productive meat animal. “Simbras also cross well with other breeds and show good weight,” Abel adds.
The market has an additional influence on his breed choices. “There are many emerging black farmers on the lookout for quality bulls to improve their herds. My strategy is to have a variety to offer farmers,” Abel explains.
The focus is on producing quality animals for the market. “The animals must sell themselves. When a farmer walks into my kraal, he or she must be able to pick an animal of their choice confidently.”
Abel breeds his cattle in the summer. The bulls go in from 1 December to the end of April, and are well prepared before breeding.
“We follow a strict supplementary feeding programme and provide muscle builders to keep them in top condition,” he says. They go onto a Phase-D feeding programme, which contains the necessary trace minerals, including vitamins A, D3 and E for optimum performance.
“If they are not properly cared for, they’ll tire quickly and have low libido,” Abel points out. The breeding season is a long one because the farm has enough summer grazing. “Our good rains fall between December and April, and the average ranges between 400mm and 500mm per annum.”
“We inspect the herd, and test for brucellosis and trichomoniasis,” he says. A vet does the sheath washes and checks that the semen is viable. “It is an expensive but necessary exercise,” says Abel.
Among the cows he aims for a body condition score (BCS) of between 3 and 3.5 (on a scale of 1 to 5) at breeding. During summer when the rains come and the grass is green, the cattle are given a phosphate lick. “The soil in the southern part of Africa lacks phosphorus, an important mineral that plays a role in the bone structure of the animal.
We have to provide this in the form of licks,” Abel explains. From the end of April into winter the cattle switch to protein and energy licks. “Farmers need a good grasp of basic biology to manage production. Knowing when and what to supplement is important,” he says. Equally vital is enough clean, accessible water in all camps – having to walk long distances depletes energy and makes it difficult for the animals to maintain optimum body condition.
“Animals with a BCS of lower than 3 may battle to conceive. If you allow an animal to lose condition, it is very expensive to get it back to prime condition.”
Injectable minerals are given at least three times a year – in April, August and November. Calving season begins in September and weaning is at six months, with weight targets of between 210kg and 240kg. The calving rate ranges from 80% to 85% and the mortality rate is below 1%.
“The first two weeks after calving are crucial. Cows should be fed properly and injected with Multimin and vitamin A to help restore what they lost during calving,” explains Abel.
Abel vaccinates the herd annually with One Shot Ultra 7 against diseases such as blackleg, gas gangrene and pneumonic pasteurellosis. He also administers a Supavax booster every April.
As part of his diversification strategy, Abel runs a small-stock operation of 220 whiteand black-headed Dorpers, and about 120 Boer goats. The sheep are run on Dorinboss, a 235ha farm in the Rooigrond area near Molopo Eye, whereas the goats are kept at Klippan. (Abel moved from Mahikeng to Dorinboss in 2008 when he bought this farm.) He chose Dorpers and Boer goats because they’re hardy, adaptable animals suited to the North West’s tough conditions.
The sheep and goat flocks are bred every eight months. “One must run an intensive operation with enough grazing for this type of breeding system,” Abel says.
During breeding, rams are rotated every three weeks. He says the ratio on his farm is one ram to 25-30 ewes. “Dorper rams are quite lazy and only work short periods. To keep them fit we exercise them every morning and evening by walking or running them for 500m,” says Abel.
At mating time the rams are put with the ewes for 35 days. Ewes are scanned for pregnancy two months later. Those that haven’t conceived go back with the rams for another 35 days. Sheep are especially sensitive to crowding, which affects their productivity, says Abel, so he recommends providing enough space to allow free movement.
“With sheep and goats you can reach a lambing/kidding rate of more than 150% due to multiple births. We haven’t exceeded 100%, but we are working towards improving.”
This ability to grasp a concept and then follow through with decisive action is key to Abel’s success. He has risen above some pretty serious setbacks and is blessed with the will to forge ahead of the pack.