It’s futile trying to get farming out of your blood when your family has been dyed-in-the-wool cattle farmers in the Vryburg area in the North West province of South Africa for many years. Hinner and Heino Koster, brothers and animal scientists, decided to establish an intensive farming enterprise on a smallholding outside Pretoria in Gauteng and have made a huge success of it.
With an annual turnover of R20 million (K13.5 m) one would expect such a major enterprise to be on a huge farm, but the well-known Köster family have achieved their success on just 24 ha.
The Ukhebe laying hen enterprise, which consists of 100 000 hens, produces about 25 million eggs annually and makes up 90% of the farm’s income. The farm belongs to Dr Hinner Köster, his brother Heiko, and Heiko’s wife, Esté.
Other diversifications are their Viceko Dohne-Merino and Dorper stud and the Vicedale Hereford stud which initially operated in Vryburg, and at its peak was the largest Hereford stud in the world.
Hinner, an animal nutritionist, mainly manages the support around the intensive nutritional program on the farm, while Heiko, also a nutirionist, co-ordinates the management and business aspect twice a week, and with his vast experience of the poultry industry ensures that their laying hen operation functions at a high standard.
Together they plan and implement the strategic goals of the entire enterprise. Esté is mainly involved in the use of genetic breeding values in the sheep and Hereford herds to identify animals with superior breeding characteristics. Together with Heiko and Hinner, she makes the final decision on which animals in the stud meet the high requirements needed to be kept and which animals should be sold off.
Hinner is an expert in animal nutrition and also a shareholder with Heiko in the same five companies in the animal nutrition chain of the holding company, Kaonne Investments. Hinner is the chief executive and Heiko a director of the company.
Laying hens produce 25 million eggs
The best performer in their farming enterprise is currently the laying hen division. The remainder of their income comes from the Hereford stud (7,5%) and the sheep stud (2,5%).
The farm has five hen houses in which 100 000 hens lay more than 25 million eggs per year. The hens (primarily Hyline Brown and Silver) are sold as ready-to-lay chickens at 17 weeks by Hy-Lay (Kuipers group head office in Centurion).
Initially they lay smaller eggs and reach their prime at 23 weeks when they achieve a laying percentage of 96%. Over their lifetime, they will lay between 350 to 370 eggs up until about 80 weeks when they are sold as cull hens. The daily feed requirement is about 110g/hen and the feed is dispensed by automatic feeders.
The specially formulated feed (for high production and strong shells) comes from the Barnlab Feed Factory near Vereeniging, of which the Kösters are also shareholders.
All the eggs are sold to retailers serving the local community and to restaurants, guest houses and bakeries in the Cullinan and Pretoria area. The advantage of this is that the added cost associated with the sorting of the eggs (labour and equipment) is not incurred. However, a minimum size of “large” is guaranteed. The same retailers also buy the old hens that are no longer laying at their optimum.
All eggs are currently collected by hand. Each hen house has two workers who collect and pack the eggs. The eggs are then moved to a packing house where they are counted. The eggs are then sold and loaded by the retailers at the back of the packing house. This limits access to the farm by unauthorised people. It also reduces both the biological security risk and the security risk.
The entire farm currently employs 18 workers, of which 14 work at the laying hen division.
Chicken manure well utilized
The chicken manure that is removed from the hen houses is used to fertilise the natural and cultivated grazing. The manure is scraped out of the hen houses by means of a mechanical system and is strewn over the grazing with trailers. The excess manure is supplied free of charge to other farmers who fetch it from the smallholding and use it for fertilising their grazing and maize lands.
The Kösters originally used the chicken manure as a feed supplement for the cattle, but that adversely affected their fertility which resulted in a decline in their inter-calving periods and AI success. Since they stopped used the manure in the feed, the calving percentage increased and now stands at 100%.
Nothing goes to waste in the egg-laying unit. The pulp of cracked eggs is separated from the shells in a washing machine specially purchased for this purpose, sealed in 20kg plastic bags, frozen and then sold to restaurants and bakeries in the Cullinan district.
Dohne-Merino and heartwater
The family also runs a Dorper and Dohne-Merino stud, but will eventually only keep the Dohne stud because this wool and meat breed provides two sources of income.
The weaning weight (about 10kg more than the breed average at 8 weeks) and carcasses are also much heavier than those of the Dorper slaughter lambs at the same age on the same feeding and health program. Many more twins are produced by the Dohne-Merinos than the Dorpers. The Dohnes also don’t have any problem adapting and the lambs have immediate immunity that is carried over from the donor Dorper ewes in their embryo program.
For newly purchased animals, a special heartwater program is followed as prescribed by Dr Herman de Bruin of Bronkhorstspruit. In this fashion, these animals acquire the necessary immunity in a short period. The success of the program is dependent on the number of heartwater ticks present on the animals during the dosing program.
For this reason, they should not be dipped, but care should also be taken to avoid the ticks becoming too numerous and causing abscesses and other problems. “Monitor the animals daily and be on the lookout for other illnesses such as pulpy kidney (enterotoxaemia), pasteurella, pneumonia, and swollen head black quarter,” says Hinner.
Once they arrive in the heartwater area, the sheep are taken to the veld without first being dipped. On day 7 they get a normal injected dose of tetracycline (a short-acting agent and not the long-acting product). The tetracycline is administered in 100mg/ml (10%), 123mg/ml (12,3%) or at the most 150mg/ml (15%) dosages. Thereafter they administer a short-acting tetracycline every 14 days at the normal dose (usually 1ml/10kg weight). This procedure is repeated for two to four months.
Hinner says that the treatment depends on the number of heartwater ticks on the animals during the period that they are injecting the tetracycline. If there are few ticks (such as in winter), the period of preventative treatment must be extended.
There are vaccines available that can only be administered intravenously, but unfortunately cause abortions in pregnant animals, he explains. The injecting of lambs before they are 25 days old is still a good way to control heartwater, especially with lambs that are born in winter when the heartwater tick activity is low. Lambs must be inoculated intravenously with heartwater vaccine before the age of 25 days, or be bitten by a heartwater tick, otherwise they will die.
“Therefore, do not keep the lambing ewes in the pen for 20 to 25 days, as the lambs must come in contact with the heartwater ticks. The heartwater ticks inoculate your lambs for free. You just have to give them a chance,” explains Hinner.
Dohne-Merino stud growth
They are planning to build up a Dohne-Merino stud of 350 top stud ewes in the next three years using embryo transfer with the best breeding material available in South Africa. Young Dohne-Merino ewes are mated or artificially inseminated when they weigh about 50kg at 10 months, thanks to good nutritional practices and the best (but not excessive) feed supplements.
The smallholding is enclosed with 3m-high electric fencing. Security lights, cameras and alarms were installed to protect the farm and the animals against theft and predators and to keep out stray dogs.
About 10ha of the 24ha is currently planted with kikuyu grass. Three strong boreholes are used for irrigation and in the summer (October to April) they land is used for grazing.
During March, they sow rye grass seed between the kikuyu that provides grazing in the winter (April to October). This is divided into camps of about 400m² to 2000m². More kikuyu is currently being established.
As the grazing in the camps is depleted, the various groups of sheep, along with the young cattle and auction bulls, are moved to the next of many kikuyu and rye grass camps. The animals are moved daily to the next camp depending on the state of the grazing.
Often the cattle graze first for a while on the cultivated grazing followed by the sheep, as they can more easily utilise the grazing once it has been cropped short. In this manner, the grazing is used to its maximum and the regrowth is more even.
Hinner says that there are permanent feed- and water troughs in the camps. All of the camps are connected via roads and paths to make it easy to move the animals, which is sometimes a daily affair.
The sheep graze the entire year on cultivated grazing where the Kösters practice strict parasite control with an effective management program of dosing, inoculation and rotational grazing.