Obakeng Mfikwe, the founder of Lekatu Simbras & Simmentalers stud, hung up his stethoscope in 2010 to establish a successful commercial mixed-farming operation in Lichtenburg and Magaliesburg, under the name of KMF Farm Holdings. He told Peter Mashala more about his unplanned success in farming.
Lekatu Simbras & Simmentalers has won numerous awards and has dominated shows across the country. Owner Obakeng Mfikwe, a medical doctor who took early retirement, believes that by setting big goals you might miss them – but if you don’t set them, it is almost guaranteed you won’t reach them.
For him, the goal is building an integrated meat enterprise to supply local and international markets. KMF Farm Holdings runs its mixed-farming operations on five farms totalling 2 894ha: four in Lichtenburg, North West, and one in Magaliesburg, on the border between Gauteng and North West. The mixed operations include a 172 000-per-cycle broiler production, 350 Simbra, Simmentaler and Black Angus stud breeding cows, and 1 152ha for grain production. On the Magaliesburg farm, Obakeng plants just over 200ha maize and has recently started stocking a 20 000-capacity feedlot.
But it wasn’t always his plan to end up in agriculture. Like many young kids who grew up in rural areas, farming was part of his childhood. “I grew up in Jericho, a village near Brits in North West. My dad was a cattle farmer,” he says. Naturally he had to help his father with farming activities, an experience that wasn’t always pleasant. “Instead of having a good time with your mates playing, you’d be busy on the farm,” he explains.
Obakeng went on to choose a career as a medical doctor and later opened a practice in Fourways, Johannesburg, a world away from farm life. He also started another business supplying medical equipment to various hospitals. His elder brother, Rothman, was the one who later joined their father part time on 1 000ha in Beestekraal, near Brits, where they farmed with Simbra cattle.
Things took an unexpected turn for Obakeng when Rothman passed away in a car accident in December 2008. “Dad didn’t take it so well, so I had to fill my brother’s shoes and joined my dad on the farm,” recalls Obakeng. He bought his first four Simbra cows in 2009. A few months later he bought another 55 Simbra stud cows, which he registered with the breed society. “I named the stud after my dad – Lekatu was his childhood nickname,” he explains.
By 2011 Obakeng had grown the herd to 160 animals. Because of the capital investment he’d made, he began to pay more attention to the farming, and noticed he enjoyed spending time there. “I started closing the practice on weekends to be on the farm. The more time I spent there, the more fulfilled and energised I’d feel. This of course led to my decision to close the practice permanently to focus on the farm and my medical supply business that I got off the ground between 2010 and 2011.”
As the herd grew, Obakeng needed more land. In 2011 he applied for a farm he had identified in Lichtenburg in the heart of the maize triangle, 69km outside Mahikeng. The 466ha farm Rietfontein was allocated to him under a 30-year lease in December 2011.
“It was dilapidated and needed a lot of work. The last activity on the farm had been poultry production on about 16ha; the rest was grazing and arable land that had not been in production for years,” he explains. Obakeng arrived on Rietfontein with only his Simbra stud. “It took blood, sweat and tears to build it back into a fully functional farm.”
By the end of 2012, the farm was making a profit, producing maize on more than 150ha, with 150 000 broilers per cycle and the 160-strong Simbra stud. Obakeng’s knowledge of cattle breeding had also grown exponentially as he studied and attended various courses, including qualifying as a junior cattle judge.
Because of the quality of cattle Obakeng breeds, he would often be asked for advice by farmers who wanted to buy bulls from him. Most of these farmers were commercial cattle farmers doing cross breeding.
“Before I sold them bulls, I’d try to find out what their goals were and, depending on what they wanted, I advised them to get a good Simmentaler bull to create a stable genetic platform to breed from,” he explains.
These farmers would have a mixture of breeds, animals with different conformations, sizes, colours and so on, he says. Using a composite breed like a Simbra bull on a Bonsmara, a Brahman or any other type of cow may not get you the result you desire.
“However, using a pure Simmentaler bull on these cows first will help create a solid genetic foundation, giving your first-cross heifers good bone structure, good udders and milk, and the same colouring. Only then you should use a Simbra bull on those heifers for superior offspring. That’s how you breed better animals,” he says.
Farmers who took his advice were so happy with the results that demand for his bulls spiked, resulting in him founding Lekatu Simmetalers in 2013.
Last year Obakeng introduced a Black Angus stud on the farm as part of his plans for an integrated beef value chain that could access the lucrative niche market for certified Angus beef. “Besides its high fertility, the Black Angus is one of the best performers in the feedlot,” he says.
Very few breeds match the Angus in terms of fertility and meat quality. “People judge these animals based mainly on the environments one usually finds them in, like the lush areas of the Natal Midlands and the Eastern Cape or the planted pastures of the Western Cape. But if you buy the right type and size, they generally do well even under harsher conditions like here with us,” explains Obakeng. He plans to supply commercial cattle breeders with good certified Black Angus bulls with the aim of buying back all the calves at a premium for his feedlot operation.
Obakeng uses nine bulls in two breeding seasons. “The bulls are in with the cows from the start of January until the end of March for the summer season, and back again from July to September for the winter season,” he explains. He has a calving rate of between 85% to 90%, with a conception rate of about 92%. Topping his breeding objectives are fertility and carcass quality.
“I want broad and longer animals that carry more meat. Other traits I don’t compromise on are good mothering abilities and milk production.” He maintains calves should not wean at anything less than 240kg. “About 15% of our animals wean calves of between 270kg and 290kg,” he says. These animals are selected as core breeding animals.
“As cattle farmers, especially stud breeders, we often focus on bulls and neglect the cows, forgetting that they’re equally as important,” he points out.
“With weak dam lines, even an exceptional bull is not going to improve your herd substantially.”
Any cows that do not conceive at the end of their breeding season are culled.
Obakeng says he is no longer as concerned with adding numbers to the herd as with having superior genes. “My cows have to produce the heaviest calves that are long and broad with sound conformation. Cows must produce enough milk and have exceptional mothering abilities,” he stresses. Admittedly, such exceptional quality is not yet as widespread as he would have liked.
“This year I will be selecting my top five cows for embryo flushing. These embryos will be implanted into the 100 cows at the bottom end of my herd, so I can accelerate the breeding of above-average genetics,” explains Obakeng.
According to Obakeng, a good fodder flow programme is key to the success of a stockfarming enterprise. He runs the 350 productive females on 1 800ha of natural and planted pastures, including maize stover in winter. “Keeping the cows in good condition plays a major role in their productivity. It determines whether they will be ready to take the bull after the calving season,” he says.
All his camps have enough clean water. “Animals should not have to walk far from where they are grazing to find water, as they tend to lose condition,” Obakeng adds. To supplement natural veld, Obakeng plants Smutsfinger grass (Digitaria eriantha), eragrostis, 16ha irrigated maize for silage, and 36ha Sorom stooling rye under irrigation. In winter, the cattle run on maize stover.
Obakeng says he doesn’t believe in pampering animals with supplementary feed. Cattle must be as hardy as possible. “I sell cattle to farmers all across the country, some in pretty tough areas like the Kalahari. They must be able to buy my animals with the confidence that they will do well in their area,” he explains.
“If your animals are always eating with you in the kitchen, then they will struggle in harsh environments and this can affect your reputation as a breeder.”
Obakeng believes your reputation is everything when you’re a young black stud farmer, and superior genetics is the name of the game.
Obekeng provides his animals regularly with pre-mixed licks – a phosphate lick in summer and a typical protein lick in winter. He says he adds a little bit of salt to stimulate the water-intake of animals.
Between May and December the cattle are given chicken litter daily.
“Chicken litter, which is readily available because of my poultry operation, has about 18% protein content, making it the cheapest source of protein,” he explains.
GRAINS AND SOIL HEALTH
Obakeng produces 70% maize and 30% sunflower on a combined 1 152ha (952ha in Lichtenburg and 200ha in Magaliesburg).
“The cattle run on maize stover in winter, so it’s part of my grazing plan. Maize is also an easier crop that sunflowers, which needs to be rotated every three years, while maize can be planted on the same ground year after year,” he explains.
The planting windows differ on the two farms: in Magaliesburg it starts between 20 October and 20 November, whereas in Lichtenburg it’s much stricter.
“For maximum yields, you should plant between 20 November and 20 December, otherwise you’re sure to lose about 2t/ha or more if you even go a week later,” he warns. His average yield for maize is 5,8t/ha and 2,4t/ha for sunflower, with an average rainfall of between 500mm to 550mm.
Although Obakeng does not practise regenerative farming, keeping his soil healthy is important to him. “I only rip when I need to, about every three years or so,” he says. The cattle are put on the lands immediately after harvest. They leave dung and urine while trampling and working some dry matter into the soil.
“We also put chicken litter on the lands every three years to help conserve our arable land,” he says. This process means a saving on fertiliser too, because once every six years, depending on soil samples, he doesn’t apply fertiliser at all.
Obakeng says the decision to do no-till or regenerative farming should be guided by science. “If you do not have deep soils, like we have in this area, no-till doesn’t make sense. For us, conventional farming works because you must till the land to allow the plants to develop a nice, deep root structure. With our soil types here, if you don’t till you will not provide the depth needed by the plants,” he explains.
Obakeng says he intends to introduce precision farming in the next season, and his machinery and equipment are all precision ready. “With me planting ever more, I need to start prioritising efficiencies. I need to save time where possible, and cut down on my fertiliser and other chemical costs. Precision farming also helps enormously to streamline farm records.”
Just what you need, when you’re planning to still grow your business quite a bit.
THE POWER OF PEER REVIEW
Obakeng participates in shows across the country. This, according to him, is for marketing purposes as well as a peer-review mechanism.
“You get to compare yourself and your animals with other breeders. It’s an opportunity to see whether you are keeping up with industry standards,” he explains.
“You want to see whether your animals are too small or too big in terms of breed average.
“You wouldn’t want to breed animals that are too big, because then fertility becomes a problem; and you wouldn’t want to breed animals that are too small, because then growth becomes a problem.”
Obakeng says if he for instance has a bull competing in a 16-24 month class, he will always compare his animal’s size with those competing against him.
“If your bull is smaller than the rest of the bulls, you’ll know growth is the problem. And if your bull is the biggest, you know fertility could be a problem. But if the bull is on par with the rest, you know you’re on the right track.”