Positive encouragement from her parents, solid training and the right attitude set Lerato Senakhomo on the path to success in the farming world. Not a woman to let failure stand in her way, she takes advantage of opportunities to learn about agriculture and surrounds herself with excellent mentors. Lerato speaks to Peter Mashala about her thriving agri-business.
In 2020, in recognition of her excellent management and strong breeding principles, Lerato Senakhomo (30) of the Senakhomo Nguni Stud was named the ARC National Emerging Beef Farmer of the Year. In 2018 she was named the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Young Farmer of the Year after winning the department’s Female Entrepreneur Award and the Land Care Entrepreneur of the Year award. She had climbed the ladder of agricultural progress fast upon completing courses in livestock production, poultry production, project management and hydroponics at Buhle Farmers’ Academy in Delmas, Mpumalanga.
SMALL START, BIG MOVE
Lerato farms in Bultfontein near Nigel, Gauteng, with her parents, Tshidiso and Mmalerato Senakhomo, who enrolled her at Buhle on the advice of a neighbour. “My parents started small-scale farming on a leased plot in Hallgate outside Nigel in 2006.
My mom produced broiler chickens and my dad had a few cattle and some goats,” says Lerato. She joined her parents on the plot in 2012, after her time at the academy. Lerato knew that to farm profitably they needed more land and better economies of scale. In 2014 she made a breakthrough and the Senakhomos were awarded 535ha in Bultfontein by the department of agriculture and land reform. They soon moved their 15 sheep, a few cattle and some broilers and layers to the new farm.
“It was an overwhelming experience to move from a 1.2ha plot to a 535ha farm. We were intimidated by all the land. My parents wanted me to head up the business because of the knowledge I had gained from Buhle,” recalls Lerato. She knew she needed to use the 80ha of available arable land for grain production.
The snag was that she had no experience in that field, let alone equipment. “But God always has His ways,” she remarks. “Our neighbour, Jan Hatting, offered to mentor us and help us plant our first crop.” The agreement with Jan was that they would pay him after harvesting.
The Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) gave them 21 bags of yellow maize seed, which they topped up to plant the 80ha block.
“We didn’t do very well that first year, with a yield of only 2.5t/ha. In our second year we got over 3t/ha, which was enough to be recognised by Grain SA’s 250t Maize Producers’ Club,” recalls Lerato. But for an area with an annual rainfall of 700mm to 900mm it was a poor harvest, so they looked at all the possibilities to see where they’d gone wrong.
“We found out the soil pH was significantly low, and we needed to put down about 3t/ha of lime,” she explains. Faced with a lime bill of R96 000, the family sold their cattle to raise the money.
“I promised myself we would restock once the maize production was profitable,” explains Lerato. In the 2015/2016 season, the maize yields improved to 3.2t/ha and in the next season to 4.2t/ha. “We’re now sitting at 5.5t/ha,” says Lerato proudly.
In 2017, Lerato received the annual Star of Buhle award, given to an exceptional graduate from the academy. Patrick Kubyana, then John Deere’s smallholder farmer market development manager, attended the ceremony and met Lerato after the event.
“That meeting revolutionised my business,” says Lerato. “The John Deere team started by checking the books, my records, everything happening in the business, what goes in and what goes out.”
She was given a logbook and shown how to use it. “They made me look at how much money I used for petrol every month and taught me how to account for every rand I spent,” she adds. She was helped with bookkeeping, legal matters and business coaching.
“The business coach motivated me and I learned the importance of marketing,” says Lerato. Financed by John Deere, Lerato structured a deal to buy a John Deere E Series tractor, a threerow planter and a ripper. This meant she could stop paying a contractor to plant. Lerato currently plants maize on 80ha and grows grass, which is sold to feedlotters and livestock farmers, on 50ha. “We plant about 20ha to teff and the rest is veld dominated by Eragrostis curvula. We cut twice a year and get 500 bales of 1.2m per cut,” she says.
WORKING WITH NGUNIS
Lerato joined the Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) Kaonafatso ya Dikgomo scheme, which helps emerging cattle farmers apply beef recording and improvement technology and select for economically important traits to improve the profitability and productivity of their herds.
“One of the most important things in management of any business is to keep records. That way you can see whether your business is growing or stagnating,” Lerato emphasises.
Her first application for Nguni cattle under the Nguni Cattle Development project, jointly run by GDARD and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), had been unsuccessful in 2016. However, encouraged by her extension officer, Vuyo Bottoman, she applied again in the following year and was successful.
“The first time I failed the interview. A panellist asked me how long the pregnancy of a cow was, to which I confidently replied that it was nine months. But they told me it is counted in days, so they needed the number of days,” recalls Lerato.
“I was angry because I thought that was just being spiteful.” Yet, with Vuyo’s reassurance, she tried again. “The second time around I was prepared and I was granted the loan.”
The scheme loans 30 incalf Nguni heifers and a bull to aspirant cattle farmers in an effort to reintroduce the Nguni breed into black farming communities, with a longterm view of developing an international niche market.
“Beneficiaries of the scheme must repay the equivalent cattle or their commercial value within five years,” explains Lerato. To her surprise, when her animals were delivered in February 2018, 72 animals arrived. They were part of a registered herd whose owner had decided to let it go.
“After discussion with my Kaonafatso ya Dikgomo mentors, we decided to keep the herd registered,” recalls Lerato. When she knew the cattle were coming, Lerato had applied for equipment from the Department of Agriculture and received a crush pen with a neck clamp and scale. “I was set up for my livestock venture,” she says.
Lerato says the programme has helped her in terms of looking after the herd. “We work closely with the ARC and provincial technicians and vets on animal health issues and disease management,” she explains.
The cattle are run on a semiintensive system. “We give them supplementary feed, mostly in the morning, and let them graze after 10am. Sometimes they leave the kraal earlier and then they get their supplementary feed in the afternoon,” says Lerato.
The primary ingredient is yellow maize, mixed with grass and sometimes with soya oil cake. She says no pampering is necessary, as Ngunis do very well on veld and are generally problemfree.
“They’re hardy, tolerating extremes of heat and the cold of the Nige area in winter.” Ngunis also have good resistance to tick-borne diseases. “We don’t have a strict vaccination programme but before the start of the rainy season we vaccinate against lumpy skin. We vaccinate our heifers against contagious abortion. We also dip with Drastic Deadline every few weeks,” explains Lerato.
Nguni cows mature early and are known to be fertile and easy-calving animals. Lerato says their well-developed maternal instinct can make a herdsman’s life difficult. “Sometimes they hide their calves in the veld and come back to the kraal alone. We monitor them carefully, especially during late pregnancy, so that we don’t lose calves. We test for pregnancy twice a year and estimate probable calving dates to help us monitor the cows.”
“There are 58 breeding females in the herd; because we are still building numbers, we keep most of our heifers. We sell culls to the informal market, especially to the Muslim community and to the traditional-ceremony market,” she explains.
The feedlot sector, however, does not like to take Ngunis as they have a reputation of non-performance in the feedlot, Lerato says. Bulls destined for slaughter are raised as oxen and sold to the Muslim market, which at specific times slaughters only oxen.
“I have a relationship with most of these guys,” says Lerato. Once herd numbers are up, she‘d like to establish a commercial beef herd by crossbreeding Ngunis with Droughtmaster cattle. Lerato says in addition to the superior disease resistance of the Nguni, the breed also produces very tender meat. She feels crossing Ngunis with Brahmans or Droughtmasters would put weight onto the animals without compromising meat quality or disease resistance.
To keep her cash flow healthy, Lerato speculates with sheep and goats. “We used to run sheep and goats on the farm, but with increasing theft we now only buy and sell. We buy most of our goats and sheep at auctions in the Free State and the North West,” she explains.
Because the farm is close to a large township and to town, she markets the small stock informally, with most of her customers buying from the farm. Lerato has earned her place in the farming world through diligence, drive and her ability to focus on the details while never losing sight of the big picture.