How to harvest without using a litre of diesel

4 April 2024

On a scorching hot day in a stiflingly warm hall, Petrus Claasen van Eeden, a farmer from Harrismith, had the audience at African Farming’s sister magazine Landbouweekblad’s 2024 regenerative agriculture conference in Reitz on the edge of their seats with his “harvesting without using any diesel”.

Four years ago, Claasen van Eeden started a regenerative agriculture project on his farm in Harrismith, and he hasn’t looked back since. “I plough with earthworms, plant with horses and harvest with cattle. I harvest all my maize without using a harvester or a litre of diesel’.”

Claasen plants maize under irrigation on 250 hectares, with cover crops including oats, ryegrass and clover between the rows. The project is still a trial and he’s experimenting with rows of maize planted 1-2 metres apart.

Calf’s incredible growth

The maize is grazed by his 1 850 cattle and 400 sheep. Claassen lets the cattle graze one row at a time in a high-density grazing system.

“The people on the farm and the animals are all so calm. After lunch, the cattle bellow if they want you to move the grazing fence. I asked Uncle Andries and Uncle Jack, ‘Why haven’t you moved the fence yet?’ ‘No Mapidos’, (my nickname), ‘Uncle Jack answers, they will call us. From then on, Uncle Jack and Andries only go down to the fields after lunch when the cattle call them,” he says.

With the high-density grazing system, he can already see a difference in his soil health and profitability.

He recently sold a weaned calf at 12 months old that weighed more than 500 kg. This calf weaned itself from its mother and Claasen assumes it did so due to the optimal nutrition of the grazing system, which led to the animal’s incredible growth.

“There is so much food the calf is never hungry, and I assume it just didn’t need its mother’s milk any more. I don’t have an explanation (for this). All I know is the calf weaned itself and it weighed over 500 kg at 12 months.”

Full circle

“This is actually something a university should do, because it’s crazy, but it still makes sense. Some of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve made are to graze everything I produce; not to harvest it. And I was surprised to see how few maize kernels the cattle waste, and that the cattle eat whole maize heads.” 

The sheep graze on the leftovers, eating the maize and plant material that the cattle don’t consume.

Claasen was also surprised that he was one of the few farmers in Harrismith who didn’t have cutworm damage this year. “The grazing system must be part of the reason for that. We also have geese that graze in the fields in the evening – they must also have something to do with it.”

He says it’s special to see how this system works with nature. “You don’t take more out of the total ecosystem than you put in, you just complete the whole circle.”

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