Tracy Marobobo, one of the top performers in the Sernick Group’s farmer development programme, gave up an engineering career to continue her father’s farming legacy. Tracy and her husband, Thukela, farm alongside her father, Matoo Khothule, and are setting a great example of successful succession planning. Peter Mashala visited them on their farm in Ventersburg in the Free State.
Female farmers are proving to be more successful than their male counterparts in the Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme.
Patrick Sekwatlakwatla, Sernick Group head of marketing and transformation, believes women tend to take better care of their cattle and farms due to their natural caregiving instincts. One of these leading female performers is Tracy Marobobo, who joined the Sernick programme in 2018. It’s been a quick rise for Tracy, who has only been farming cattle full-time since 2016.
She studied engineering at the University of Cape Town. After successfully passing her first year, she obtained a bursary from Sasol, and worked for Sasol for a few years after graduating. Then, Tracy and her husband, Thukela Marobobo, moved to Durban and set up an engineering consulting business.
“We offered consulting services in project management and engineering in mixed-use residential development. I also conducted motivational talks, especially for young female entrepreneurs,” explains Tracy.
In 2016, the couple left their consulting business to join her father, Matoo Khothule, on a 526ha farm near Ventersburg in the Free State. This state-owned farm consists of three farms, Roodekrans, Doorndraai and Al Teklein.
Leaving their consulting business to join Matoo was quite a big risk – but livestock farming has always stood Tracy and her father in good stead.
“Livestock has always proven to be a wise investment for us. The first year of my studies was funded by my father using proceeds from cattle sales; and whenever we ran out of money, cattle saved the day. When things got tough in our business, Dad would sell an animal or two to help us,” recalls Tracy.
Tracy has set her sights on becoming a commercial Bonsmara farmer – and continuing to build on her father’s farming legacy is important to her.
Matoo began farming back in 1997, after he was laid off from the gold mines at Allanridge, near Welkom in the Free State. During this period, the gold rush had come to an end and Goldfields closed its Welkom operations. The local economy collapsed and many people were left destitute.
Matoo started farming with only four cows in the communal area of Allanridge. When his herd grew to 16, he left Allanridge and found a 145ha farm in Steynsrus, near Ventersburg, through the former Department of Land Affairs.
Tracy grew up on this Steynsrus farm, and worked with her dad part-time before her move to KwaZulu-Natal. “I had around 30 cows when Tracy started university and sold some to put her through school,” says Matoo.
In order to expand the farm to accommodate the increasing stock, Matoo applied for more land. After following the process for more than 10 years, he was finally given a caretaker contract on a farm in Ventersburg, where they are now. In 2016, he acquired a second, larger farm nearby. The three farms, Roodekrans at about 186ha , Al Teklein at 0.5ha, and Doorn- draai at about 339ha, were given as one farm.
The expansion allowed Tracy and her husband to join Matoo in 2016. “A larger farm would allow us to expand the business and focus on it full-time,” says Tracy.
The state purchased the farm for R5,4m in 2011. At the time, it had excellent infrastructure, including poultry sheds, windmills, water pumps, a house, dams, and proper fencing. Unfortunately, the farm was left unattended for years.
“Upon arriving here in 2016, we found that all of this infrastructure had been vandalised. All electrical reticulation had been removed from the homestead, and the overhead transformer that provided electricity to the farm, had disappeared,” Tracy says.
Even the veld had been severely overgrazed by nearby farmers. The first step was to repair or replace everything that had deteriorated. “This included installing pumps and electricity, as well as rehabilitation of grazing land. We also had to introduce ourselves to the neighbours and establish new relationships with them.”
Although they have rebuilt the farm using their own savings, as well as an intervention from Sernick, they do not have sufficient funds to fix all the infrastructure. They were allocated just over R350 000 for infrastructure development through the programme, which was mainly used for fixing and lining two cement dams and restore water reticulation to the various camps.
“We have sunk two boreholes, installed two solar water pumps, two 10 000 litre water tanks, a brand new handling facility, including a scale, and put up fencing for three main camps,” she explains.
As they still don’t have a proper lease with the department, their biggest current challenge is funding opportunities. “We are still operating under a caretaker agreement.”
BETTER BEEF WITH SERNICK
While they continue to work on securing their lease agreement, their focus is on improving the quality of their beef cattle. Tracy quickly realised that they needed more knowledge in order to improve production. She began attending farmers’ meetings and information sessions. In 2018, she attended the Sernick Group’s farmers’ day in Edenville and heard about the company’s emerging farmer programme.
“I met Patrick, who advised me to enrol in the training programme. I applied for and started training through the Sernick pro gramme in 2019,” Tracy explains.
The programme provides SETAaccredited training for livestock production; including technical skills to enable farmers to develop their own herds, and maintain healthy cash flow and working capital.
Through a system of three tiers, farmers can upskill to become viable commercial farmers with their own reproductive capacity. In the third and final tier, farmers receive 35 good quality cows and a bull on a rental basis, to give them an opportunity to replace their old stock with good quality cattle that fetch higher prices. Farmers repay the loan by returning 40% of their offspring each year to Sernick over a fiveyear period.
“We have already sent our first batch of weaners to Sernick, and the second batch will follow later this year,” Tracy reports.
During training, Tracy learned a lot about good breeding practices and the importance of improving herd genetics. “We had a lot of mixedbreed animals on the farm, including Jersey cows, which my father originally bought so he could provide milk for himself and the workers.”
Impressed by the hardiness, muscling, body condition and weaning weight of the Bonsmara breed, the trio made the decision to change from mixed breeds to pure Bonsmaras. “We started replacing the older animals, keeping a few heifers as replacements.”
Productivity is their priority in the current herd. Tracy’s first rule of breeding is that each cow must produce a calf every year. Not only that, but the cows must be capable mothers and wean their calves at a good weight.
While they’ve made mistakes in the past by keeping unproductive cows, they do not com promise now. “Unproductive cows are like thieves on your farm, stealing your resources. We have two bulls from stud herds and we perform fertility tests on them every year.”
Tracy admits another mistake was using the offspring of a good stud bull they had received from the department some years ago.
The family runs 70 cows on the farm and hopes to increase to 105 cows within a year or two. The maximum carrying capacity is one livestock unit (LSU) per 5ha, Tracy says.
“We basically have sweet veld with a mix of grasses that are very palatable, including species like Smuts finger grass (Digitaria eriantha), that were established by the previous owner.”
The cattle are divided into three separate herds. Two groups of cows each run with a bull. “A third group is made up of open heifers that will enter production this season,” says Tracy. The heifers will be artificially inseminated to avoid using the two large bulls on them. “Getting a third bull is not an option, so we need to get semen straws from a smaller bull that is suitable for heifers.”
In the meantime, Tracy is working with a veterinarian to prepare the heifers. With a 100% calving and weaning rate and zero mortality, Tracy says they have a successful operation.
All participants in the emerging farmer programme receive vaccinations and nutrition plans designed by Sernick, which include the use of summer and winter licks. “Since we are in the middle of calving season, we are currently feeding the cattle a production lick,” says Tracy.
The production lick helps cows produce enough milk. “We also provide our own mixture of salt and LS33 from Voermol throughout the year.” Salt encourages cattle to drink more water, she says, while LS33 is a liquid protein, vitamin and mineral supplement with a molasses base.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
The goal is to optimise their land by diversifying production. Their future plans include developing about 200ha of undeveloped arable land for maize production, as well as teff grass to build a fodder bank.
Recurring veld fires are an ongoing concern as they destroy grazing reserves in the dry season. “It’s critical to be prepared with a fodder bank for such emergencies,” says Tracy. They’ve also started egg production with a layer unit of 300 birds – with plans to increase to over 1 000 in the future – and will later add sheep and pigs.
Tracy would like to leave the farm in a better financial and physical condition for her children than the condition they received it in.
“Succession planning is absolutely para mount as it ensures the businesses survives and continues to exist through the gene rations. Successors must be groomed early to enable the proper transfer of skills, leadership and business acumen.
“In this way, we can avoid situations where the business crashes when the owner dies. We must teach, groom and empower our children to run our businesses in our absence,” says Tracy.