Young farmer finds his pot of gold in livestock

Noko Seboni’s love of farming almost died when he moved to Gauteng, but his father’s illness led him back to his true calling. Now, he is thriving as a farmer and has found success through crossbreeding. He tells Lebogang Mashala how he carefully selected breeds for his family’s cattle operation, resulting in increased profitability and a resilient herd that can withstand Limpopo’s tough bushveld conditions. 

Noko Maatla Seboni had always dreamed of living in the “city of gold”. But when his father Zacharia fell ill, he had to return to the village to take over the family business. Zacharia had been farming for as long as Noko could remember and owned multiple shops, taxis and cattle in Letshwatla village near Bochum, about 150km north of Polokwane, Limpopo. 

As a child, Noko was fascinated by his father’s business and often accompanied him to auctions. During his high school years as a boarder in Polokwane, his father picked him up to attend auctions in Mokopane. However, Noko’s life took a different turn when he moved to Johannesburg to pursue a career in information technology (IT). He studied IT at Stanford Computer & Business College and completed his studies at CTU Training Solutions in Pretoria in 2008. He secured a job at an IT solutions company in Bedfordview, Johannesburg.

Four months later, Zacharia fell ill, and since Noko was the eldest child he had to return home in 2009 to take care of the businesses while his father recovered. Noko had lost interest in cattle when he started studying and got a job. Even when he travelled home from Gauteng for visits, he didn’t see the cattle. Now that he was back, however, he had to balance managing shops, operating taxis and tending to the cattle – as well as adjusting to a different lifestyle.

Despite giving up his salary, he never lacked anything thanks to his father’s generosity, and he focused on improving the farming business. He researched cattle breeds and identified Brahmans, Borans and Charolais as the best options for their area. Noko gradually became knowledgeable about farming and committed himself to making the business successful.

By the time his father recovered, Noko was heavily involved in the cattle business. Returning to Johannesburg was no longer an option, and he decided to end his involvement in the other businesses to focus on cattle. When he returned home, he found his father had just over 100 mixed-breed cattle. Now he had to convince Zacharia of the need for a change. “I spoke to him and explained why we needed to improve our cattle breeds to those with better traits.”

According to Noko, the Brahman breed is popular in Sub-Saharan Africa due to its favourable maternal traits, fertility, longevity, hardiness and hybrid vigour. Noko farms in one of the hottest and at times driest regions in Southern Africa, making the Brahman an ideal choice. His goal is to have animals that yield exceptional results in South African climate conditions, and the Brahman has the potential to do so due to its adaptability and efficient use of natural grazing.

Noko says Brahman cattle mature later than other breeds but have excellent fertility. They are also good mothers, resistant to parasites, and have a long lifespan. These traits make them low-maintenance and profitable to raise in challenging conditions, according to Noko. “Therefore, they are widely used for crossbreeding and are considered the best in the market.”

Noko says the Borans share similar traits. They are well-suited to Southern Africa’s climate and highly adaptable to different weather conditions, including heat and cold. “Their shiny thick and loose coat allows them to tolerate hot and humid environments, as well as colder temperatures in the winter,” he explains. Additionally, the Boran is resistant to parasites and eye diseases, making it a hardy breed for the bushveld area. “As a non-selective browser and grazer with a strong rumen and metabolism, the Boran can survive in this environment,” he says.

As for the Charolais, “it gives you a competitive edge”. He explains that his weaners are highly sought after, with buyers lining up to purchase them. “We’ve built a strong reputation for ourselves because our buyers are willing to pay a reasonable price for our weaners,” Noko adds. He notes that the Charolais gains fat late in the production cycle. This makes it a preferred choice for feedlots, which can maintain and feed the animals longer when meat prices are low. Additionally, abattoirs appreciate the large carcasses because they are easy to debone, saving processing and transport costs.

Noko and Zacharia decided to buy three bulls – a Boran, a Brahman and a Charolais – to run with their 100 cows. “We established two herds from our offspring, primarily consisting of Brahman and a mix of three breeds. Our farms are in Mokopane and near Grobler’s Bridge (Botswana border), which we lease from two different communal property associations,” says Noko. The mixed-breed herd is kept on the Limburg farm under the Bohwa Bja Rena communal property association, while the Brahmans are raised at Keizerbosch farm outside Windhoek village (Ga-Mankgodi) near the Grobler’s Bridge border post. The reason for this separation is due to the high rainfall in Mokopane, which means there is sufficient grazing for the mixed herd throughout the winter without extra feeding. 

Noko says they rarely use supplements in Mokopane. “The main concerns are theft and veld fires. Our farm is situated close to the villages, which puts us at risk of both fires and theft. Although we haven’t had many theft incidents, it is still a possibility.” He says the advantage of their breed combination is its unique look. “It is almost like a Seboni trademark we are known for. If anyone steals our cattle, they must sell them very far away because people around us will recognise it as ours,” he says.

Before Noko took over, the farms’ mortality rate was quite high. Between 2015 and 2020, they lost about 90 animals due to theft and illness. Noko’s dad was not keen on veterinary services, so postmortem examinations were not performed and animal deaths were accepted as unfortunate incidents. Since taking over, Noko has introduced veterinary services and the mortality rate has declined to less than 1%. This year, they have lost only three animals from more than 300 in both herds. 

Noko says the farms have different breeding programmes. There are two breeding seasons in Mokopane and only one in Windhoek. This is due to the better land and grazing available in Mokopane. The Brahmans in Windhoek run with bulls throughout the year.

Both farms are in heartwater areas and Noko says they control the disease through blocking, using antibiotics such as Terramycin 100. It is administered at the end of winter when cattle are leaner. The medication is more easily absorbed than when the animals are fat during summer, according to Noko.

Due to poor grazing at Windhoek, cattle get supplements in winter. They are provided with a home-made mixture of molasses, Rumevite P12, Kalori 3000, salt and urea. “We give nothing in summer,” he says.

Calves are weaned between seven and nine months, depending on the veld and the mothers’ condition. “We use several camps in which we rotate the cattle every three months. Some of the camps are substantial enough to carry animals up to five months.” 

Noko recently married Ipeleng Kwadi-Seboni, and involving her in the business has been an invaluable addition. Ipeleng has extensive experience in the industry and has pushed for a stronger marketing strategy. Noko admits they’ve been hesitant to promote themselves on social media due to safety concerns, with police and hospitals far away. 

With Ipeleng’s help, they’re reaching a wider audience, including potential stakeholders such as the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. In future, they plan to acquire their own farm and add value by introducing facilities such as a feedlot. This will enable them to sell fatter weaners at better prices. “At present, we are investing a lot of money in farms we don’t own, which is financially draining and risky,” says Noko.

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