Not that long ago, Maria Tswayi ran a few cattle on communal land in Masilonyana village near Theunissen in the Free State. Today, with the help of fellow black farmers and the Sernick Group, Maria is an award-winning farmer well on her way to commercial success. She tells Peter Mashala how hard work and consistent effort got her to the top of her group.
The Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme’s Female Farmer of the Year and Emerging Farmer of the Year 2021, Maria Tswayi, says she won these awards and got to where she is today through consistency and hard work. Maria joined a Sernick study group in 2016 while farming on communal land in Masilonyana between Hertzogville and Bultfontein in the Free State.
Today she runs a commercial Bonsmara herd of 90 breeding cows and six bulls on the 1 155ha farm Scheerpan about 18km from Hertzogville. “I was shocked by the announcement because I wasn’t even thinking about winning awards. All I did was work hard and apply what I had learnt since joining the Sernick study group and later the Emerging Farmers Programme,” says Maria.
This hard-working farmer grew up in Theunissen in the Lejweleputswa district municipality where her parents, Sabata Mokoni and his wife, Elisa, worked on various farms. Later the family moved when Sabata left his job to start a butchery in QwaQwa.
“My dad had cattle, sheep and goats running on communal land there,” Maria says. However, Maria often visited Theunissen thanks to family ties (her grandparents still lived there) and when she met her husband, Abram Tswayi, they settled back in her home town.
“Because I’d always helped my dad with the livestock and the butchery, I wasn’t used to being idle,” she says. She soon found a job at a local doctor’s surgery, but it wasn’t enough to keep her busy, so in 2008 she started her own construction company taking small subcontracts building RDP houses. “We worked from 2pm until 7pm at the surgery. This allowed me to start at the site before reporting for work.”
GROWTH AND TRAGEDY
Maria soon branched out by using some money she’d saved to start a small piggery, later adding cattle to the mix. Then tragedy struck when her son Lucas died in 2012. Gutted, she fell into a deep depression and isolated herself. “I left my job and my business took a knock,” she says.
In an effort to cope, Maria decided to focus on farming, which she found easier and less stressful at the time. Gradually, as she started enjoying it, she became involved in community farming projects. Then she met black commercial farmers Michael Ramohudi, Jacob Kgothule, Reuben Maphira and Johannes Setshego, who introduced her to the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (Nerpo).
Maria says she learnt some of the basic principles of cattle farming from these four men. “I’ve had enormous support and guidance from them and they are the reason I’m here because they also introduced me to
the Sernick Group through Patrick Sekwatlakwatla.”
When she joined the Sernick study group, Maria was running 20 cattle on communal land. She attended farmers’ days and went to study group sessions, gaining access to experienced farmers keen to help with the advancement of aspiring black farmers. The more she engaged, the more she learnt about cattle farming. In 2016, with the help of the four farmers who acted as her mentors, Maria applied for a farm through the government’s Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (Plas).
“It was an intense process that went on for almost a year, during which time I was interviewed more than once. Finally, I was allocated Scheerpan on a 30-year lease,” says Maria. She moved to the farm later that year with about 25 mixed-breed cattle. The challenge with farming on communal land, says Maria, is that it is virtually impossible to manage your animals closely. Cows inevitably meet up with bulls that belong to other stockowners.
“It was always an issue when it came to the ownership of that bull’s calves, or identify who the calf belongs to since they all look the same,” explains Maria. “Many farmers in the communal areas do not tag their animals.”
In 2018, when the Sernick Group and treasury initiative The Jobs Fund launched the Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme, Maria was part of the first intake. “We were given Seta-accredited training and the opportunity to exchange our old stock for quality Bonsmara cattle,” she says.
In time she advanced from the programme’s first tier to its second tier and received advanced training and technical upskilling. This tier also includes financial management training to help farmers develop and maintain a healthy cash flow.
In 2019, she reached the third tier and got the chance to lease 35 cows and a bull, with an agreement to return 40% of the male offspring every year. Maria says she qualified for the third-tier programme because she met the requirements.
“I had enough land and my herd had grown to more than 30 cows. Because I implemented everything I learnt from the training, my livestock and my infrastructure, especially the fences, were in great condition,” she explains.
HERD HEALTH AND GRAZING
Maria maintains a healthy disease-free herd by following a strict vaccination and supplementary feed programme. “We don’t have too many diseases here, but we do have a lot of ticks.
Because of our high rainfall, we dip every week,” she explains. “We vary the pour-on dips to avoid tick resistance.” The veld is dominated by Themeda triandra (red grass or rooigras), which provides nutritious grazing in good supply. She has divided the farm into 13 camps of 90ha to 110ha. “I don’t use all the camps. In summer I slow the grazing rotation down and keep the animals in a camp for a maximum of one month,” she says.
In winter she speeds up the rotation to avoid overgrazing. “I feed out a ready-mixed winter lick from Sernick to help maintain body condition. We feed winter licks from April to October, because our rain is usually late.” From mid-October, when the grass has flushed, the cattle go onto a summer lick.
“There is always a production lick out, especially for cows that haven’t weaned their calves,” she adds. Instead of having two breeding seasons, Maria has divided the herd into two groups and puts the bulls with the groups a few months apart.
“I used to have a winter breeding season, but I phased it out. Calving in March puts cows under pressure as they’re trying to maintain body condition while their calves are still drinking milk off them during the hard winter months,” she says. She had to feed out more supplement as the winter grass frosts off and has very little feed value.
But nowadays she puts the bulls in with the first group from October to December, and with the second group from January to end-February. Since making this switch in 2019 Maria has achieved a calving rate of 100% every year.
In January she vaccinates with Supavax to protect against anthrax, botulism and blackleg. In September she vaccinates against lumpy skin disease and Rift Valley fever. The heifers get RB51 (a compulsory vaccine against brucellosis, also known as CA, or contagious abortion) when they are weaned at six months, at an average weight of 180kg to 200kg.
“We sell all weaned bull calves at Sernick for their feedlot,” says Maria, “but I do want to keep a few bull calves to raise as breeding bulls for the emerging farmers’ market. I have quality bulls and cows in my herd and some of my bull calves look good enough to use for breeding.”
DIVERSIFICATION ADDS VALUE
Maria aims to become a commercial farmer in the next five years. “Land is a challenge, but I’d love to grow my breeding animals to 200 cows, which is what this farm can carry now,” she explains.
She intends using the arable land to grow maize and possibly teff to increase her carrying capacity. Seeing the potential in raising goats, she has started with 30 breeding Boer goat ewes and two rams, which she aims to increase to 300 animals. “I also have about 20 Dohne merinos, but I wouldn’t want to exceed 100 sheep. They are labour-intensive and risky for this area.”
Goats are more independent and will return to the kraal without a herdsman whereas sheep need to be driven out in the morning and back in the evening, plus they’re easy prey for predators, Maria says. She also plans to introduce layers to boost cash flow. She helps women in nearby communal areas on a volunteer basis.
“I share a lot of information with them and try to get them organised and working in small groups – I discourage larger groups, as I find there is always conflict,” she explains. “I also offer training on basic animal husbandry.” This way, Maria says, she does something concrete to help others and shows her gratitude by “paying forward” the encouragement, support and generosity she has received from other commercial black farmers