Success often has humble beginnings – just ask Palesa Moahloli. As one half of a dynamic husband-and-wife farming team, her journey has taken her from a small plot to an award-winning cattle operation that has caught the attention of one of the country’s biggest beef producers. Peter Mashala visited their Free State farm and saw consistent hard work and self-belief in action.
It had been the best news of her farming career: their application to farm 1 300ha outside Boshof in the Free State was approved. Palesa Moahloli and her husband, Challa, couldn’t wait to move in. “The owners at the time got the shock of their lives when we arrived with our belongings before they had even moved out!” laughs Palesa. One could understand their excitement. “We had been farming chickens and vegetables on a small plot in Bloemfontein and had only 25 cattle running on communal land,” she recalls.
The Boshof farm was leased to them in 2012 under the government’s Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) programme. Eight years later, Palesa, who heads up the cattle operation, has grown the business to a profitable 120-head commercial herd that employs four permanent workers. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries named her the Free State Female Entrepreneur of 2018, and she and Challa were the regional winners of the Agricultural Research Council’s National Emerging Beef Farmer of the Year Award, also in 2018.
Palesa started farming full time with broilers and vegetables in 2010 after quitting her job in finance and buying the smallholding in Bloemfontein. She was encouraged by Challa, then working as an agriculturalist at the Free State Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “With him still working, I was hands-on in the 1 000-bird broiler operation,” Palesa says. “I was so determined that I pushed myself beyond my limits.”
These are qualities that certainly played a role in her being selected for the strict Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme, which forms part of a R300-million Jobs Fund initiative. The Sernick Group, one of the largest beef producers in the country, is headed up by renowned Bonsmara breeder Nick Serfontein, who also served on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s advisory panel on land reform.
Palesa was among 50 elite black farmers selected from about 300 potential candidates for Tier 3 of the programme. Each benefit from a rental herd of 35 cows and a Sernick bull. The participants are required to return 40% of the offspring to the scheme and get to keep the rest. They also qualify for shares in Sernick’s retail business, which includes meat outlets in greater Johannesburg. “We’ve already returned our 40%,” Palesa smiles proudly.
BONSMARA OR BRANGUS?
The Moahlolis run a weaner operation, selling to Free State feedlots. Palesa prefers Bonsmaras, whereas Challa is a Brangus man, so they run their herds on different portions of the farm.
Challa doesn’t believe one breed is inherently superior to another. “It depends on what you prefer and what animals do well in your area,” he says. For him, it’s the beauty and calm nature of the Angus in this Brahman/Angus cross that make his animals easy to work with. “They’re also naturally polled, so I don’t have to spend time dehorning them.”
Palesa, on the other hand, feels the Bonsmara’s exceptional traits makes it ideal for Boshof’s tough, extensive conditions, close as they are to the Northern Cape’s arid Kalahari. “We’re about 70km outside Kimberley, so their hardiness and good mothering abilities make a big difference,” she says.
The bulls start running with the cows from 1 December and are withdrawn again by March. The calving starts in late October until the first week of January. She starts weaning in May and June.
“We have a 98% calving rate and wean animals of between 200kg and 220kg at between six and seven months. They reach between 250kg and 280kg at eight to nine months but we prefer weaning earlier, at about six to seven months.”
The animals are kept on veld all year round and are given no supplements besides licks. “There’s enough grazing, most of it nutritious sweetveld,” Challa explains.
The Free State Department of Agriculture’s rangeland management programme has also helped them develop their four-camp rotational grazing system, whereas Sernick has assisted them in introducing licks to their Bonsmara herd.
According to Palesa, they keep about 5% of their weaner heifers to replace older cows. They have reached the ceiling of the farm’s carrying capacity, which means it’s impossible to increase cattle numbers any further, she explains. With a minimum annual rainfall of only 300mm, it’s not an option to increase their capacity by planting supplementary feed either.
“We stick strictly to the carrying capacity of one large livestock unit to 11ha,” Palesa points out. This makes the selection of efficient breeding animals critically important to ensure the long-term sustainability of their herd.
The selection of the heifer weaners is based on their mothers’ history. “We simply don’t keep heifers with defects. A skew face or an undershot jaw prevents an animal from grazing properly,” Palesa says.
She also makes sure to select only fertile, medium-framed animals. “Besides often being infertile, large-framed heifers become big cows that need a lot of grass, and we need to be very careful about how we use our limited grazing,” she explains.
DIVERSIFYING WITH PIGS
Having reached the limit of their cattle operation, the Moahlolis diversified with a piggery, starting with 20 Large Whites.
“Our only growth opportunity is to build the piggery into a full commercial-scale operation,” Palesa says. They have managed to grow the number to 65 breeding sows within two years and aim to increase it to at least 100 by December.
“Our mentor, Dr Edgar Payne, encouraged us to breed our own gilts because they’d be more adapted to our farm. So we buy boars from different producers to avoid inbreeding,” she explains. They need one boar for every 20 gilts.
The Large White breed is known for producing big, healthy litters and has great mothering abilities, exceptional growth rates and good feed efficiency. The boars are also productive breeders. The Moahlolis are now considering artificial insemination, as it would give them access to quality genetics from top breeders.
When selecting sows for breeding, Challa says, the critical elements are temperament, milk production, functional teats and good mothering abilities. “Any aggressive sows who are careless with their piglets are immediately culled,” he insists.
“Sometimes sows lie on their babies or mutilate them. I won’t even consider their gilts for breeding, as they could be carrying those bad genes.”
GET BREEDING RIGHT
After selection, the gilts are put with a boar at between six to eight months when they show the first signs of coming on heat, like a swollen vulva, raised tail and pricked-up ears. “When you try to press gilts down on their backs and they refuse to go down, you know they’re on heat,” Challa explains.
Gilts must be in a good condition to produce large litters and should never be too fat at the time of mating. “I keep an eye on the whole process, from when the boar mounts the female to ejaculation,” says Challa. Those that haven’t conceived come on heat again 21 days later, and 31 days after mating a final pregnancy test is done. Then the pregnant gilts are moved to pens for the duration of their pregnancy. It takes about 114 days before they farrow. “When they’re farrowing, I check the pens morning, day and night,” he says.
’N BOER MAAK ’N PLAN!
At seven days old the piglets get their first iron injection. At weaning they get a RespiSure shot to stimulate their immune systems and prevent chronic pneumonia.
“After that we just make sure they’re fed properly and their pens are clean,” Palesa explains. “It’s worked well for us. We rarely medicate pigs beyond weaning. We’re also lucky to have a very good relationship with our veterinarian. He’s also our mentor and a commercial pig farmer himself, so we have access to the right advice.”
Yet Challa warns that things can still go wrong. During the past winter, cold killed most of their newborn piglets, as the newly built pens had no electricity for heating.
“We were losing piglets daily. One pig lost all 11 piglets in one night. We tried everything. We even tried burning ethanol in the farrowing pens, but the pigs knocked over the burner and it almost ended in a disaster!” he recalls. “Fortunately I was close by.”
Then Challa thought of using hot-water bottles. “It worked! I put a two-litre hotwater bottle underneath some hay and we didn’t lose another piglet. Then I knew what ‘’n boer maak ’n plan’ means,” he laughs. However, with their plans to increase the piggery to at least 100 sows by December, they’re taking no chances and are installing a solar-power system to heat the piggery.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
The Moahlolis sell porkers of between 40kg and 55kg as well as baconers between 60kg and 100kg to the Bloemfontein abattoir.
The informal market, especially the shisa nyamas, prefer larger, older pigs. Challa says they’re toying with the idea of a meat-processing plant on the farm to increase their supply to the informal market.
“A lot of people are asking us to supply them directly, especially the social-club groups and traders in the township.”
Meanwhile Palesa continues to keep her eyes open for more land on which to expand their beef operation. “We want to leave the business to our two sons,” she says. “It must sustain the coming generation and for that we must grow!”