Game changer for emerging farmers

Patrick Sekwatlakwatla has played a significant role in the beef sector, introducing and developing new players to mainstream commercial farming, for more than 25 years. He has been instrumental in establishing impactful programmes that help empower emerging farmers in South Africa. Peter Mashala spoke to Patrick, who is also South Africa’s first black cattle judge.

There is no question about Patrick Sekwatlakwatla’s unmatched passion and energy for the development of black farmers. He has been at the helm of farmer development for over 25 years, steering and implementing powerful and effective programmes through companies like Obaro in Brits, in the North West province, and the Sernick Group near Kroonstad, Free State.

During his 12 years with Obaro Patrick was responsible for establishing the company’s Emerging Farmer Development Programme which ran carcass competitions in partnership with the South African Meat Industry Company (Samic), held information days and started the emerging farmers’ backyard feedlot project. “We were doing all sorts of training and mentoring for emerging farmers, focusing on livestock management and improvement,” recalls Patrick

He was also part of the founding team of Temo Agri Services at Obaro which carried out development work with emerging grain farmers. While he was with Obaro, Patrick played a role in the development of black farmers, many of whom are now recognised as progressive black commercial farmers.

In 2014 Patrick’s work came to the attention of Nick Serfontein, chairman of the Sernick Group. “Nick phoned me and wanted to meet. He drove all the way from Edenville, in the Free State, to Brits. During our discussion he told me he had read about me in agricultural magazines and would love me to join his company,” recalls Patrick. Nick’s vision of developing black farmers and empowering them to become part of the solution to the land reform debacle, resonated with Patrick.

“He had a dream for black farmer development but didn’t really know how to go about it. Although I was a bit hesitant I knew I wanted to be part of this dream,” says Patrick. He joined Sernick in August 2014. It’s seven years later, and Patrick has never looked back. He is now running the well-known Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme. The programme, a comprehensive intervention that aims to commercialise black farmers, has over 660 emerging farmers on its books. 

From a small village in Limpopo

Patrick grew up in rural Limpopo, in a place called Edwinsdale near Bochum, some 150km from Polokwane. His family farmed livestock and he spent much of his childhood herding animals. “I was raised by smallholder farmers and quite naturally I wanted to be a farmer,” recalls Patrick. His parents, however, thought otherwise. “They didn’t see farming as a business and insisted that I find a good job and build a career,” he explains.

After he matriculated from Mathipa Makgato High School in 1992 a shortage of funds closed the doors to university or college education. So, in 1993, he applied for, and was accepted by, the South African National Defense Force. Ten years later he left the army with friends and brothers-in-arms, Steve Sayer and Mike Chapman, to start a private security company. Routine security site visits to Obaro’s Pretoria West branch put Patrick in touch with Obaro personnel.

“We had our guards posted there. At the time I was studying animal and crop production through the University of South Africa,” remembers Patrick. His frequent interaction with Obaro’s branch manager led to his being recruited by the company.

“The security company wasn’t doing that well and I wasn’t really keen on the work,” he says. At Obaro he started off as a salesperson and worked himself up the ladder until he was head of corporate social investment, a position he held until he left the company in 2014. Patrick completed various agricultural courses during this time including an AVCASA course with the Tshwane University of Technology, and an NQF 3 animal production course with the Peritum Agri institute in 2007. In 2010 he became South Africa’s first black cattle judge. 

A move to the Free State

The first farmer Patrick met in the Free State was Solomon Moshweu, from Heilbron, who recognised him from the same articles Nick had read. “Ntate Moshweu was very excited about the new Sernick venture. He helped me bring Heilbron farmers together and we had our first farmers’ day, attended by more than a hundred farmers, on his farm,” says Patrick. After that they held information days in other towns and areas in the Free State.

“While we were teaching farmers we were also listening, as they told us of their challenges,” he explains. The most common problems, especially for land reform farmers, according to Patrick, are a lack of funding, skills and support. As part of the solution to these problems the first Sernick Training Center was established at the Sernick farm in Edenville. “We now have three training centres in the province offering various NQF level livestock courses, theoretical and practical, which are making a big impact on the ground. We also offer short practical courses on dehorning, branding and artificial insemination,” explains Patrick.   

Inbreeding was another difficulty as many farmers were only interested in cattle numbers and not too concerned about animal quality.  “The bulls were kept in the herd for the longest period and inbreeding was prevalent,” explains Patrick. Farmers lacked basic management skills and infrastructure, such as handling facilities and properly fenced camps with waterpoints. “They didn’t have breeding seasons or weaning targets; they were not selecting and separating weaners and heifers or grouping their cattle according to age and breeding season,” he says.  

Sernick introduced a bull and weaner exchange programme to address the inbreeding issues. “This was a crossbreeding programme where we offered quality bulls to the farmers on loan. Many could not afford the bulls, so they sold weaners back to us to repay the loan over a period of up to three years. They kept the heifers,” explains Patrick. In the first year the programme helped 25 farmers. When many had repaid their loans and were producing quality weaners, the carcass competition was introduced for the first time in the Free State. This was done to extend the reach of the project and to teach farmers about the importance of proper nutrition and quality weaner production. They used a customised feeding model and farmers brought their weaners to Sernick’s feedlot for a full 120 day cycle.

“At the end they would compete against each other for prizes sponsored by the Land Bank, Old Mutual’s Masisizane Fund and Sernick itself,” explains Patrick. Depending on the sponsorships available the winner could walk away with R20 000 in cash and a bull bred and sponsored by Sernick. “This was very encouraging, and farmers began to see things differently,” explains Patrick. 

Sernick and the Jobs Fund 

The programme’s success became well known and soon Sernick was overwhelmed with requests from farmers who wanted to join. But there was not enough money to absorb more farmers. Then in 2017 Sernick was approved by the Jobs Fund to implement the project on a much bigger scale. The Sernick and Jobs Fund Emerging Farmer Development Programme was launched in 2018 with funding of R165 million.

The company had to top this up with its own contribution – a prerequisite for all companies participating in the Jobs Fund Programme. About 600 farmers across the province were recruited and separated into three categories: tier 1, 2, and 3. In tier 1, Patrick explains, farmers get Seta accredited training and an opportunity to exchange their livestock for quality animals with greater market value. In tier 2, 300 farmers, selected from the 660, train to develop their own herds and improve their financial literacy. From this group of 300, 60 farmers are selected to be part of tier 3, which aims at developing them into fully-fledged commercial farmers. The 60 farmers who qualify for the third tier are selected on their abilities and must be full-time farmers with enough land to farm 100 cattle or more

The farmers should own the land or have a formal lease for more than 20 years. “They are loaned 35 pregnant Bonsmara cows and a bull, and we finance infrastructural development, including kraals, handling facilities and solar powered water distribution points to all their camps. There is a weaner offtake agreement with Sernick and farmers are given the opportunity to acquire shares in a new company, Sernick Wholesale, established to consolidate the group’s wholesaling operations,” explains Patrick. He adds that farmers are not forced to sell exclusively to Sernick. “They are allowed to sell to whoever offers them a better price. But many still prefer to sell to us.” 

Success story

Patrick says he is proud of how the programme has changed the perception of farmers, especially elderly farmers some of whom are now implementing succession plans. “Most of our current participants in the training courses are young men and women, mainly the children of farmers who are involved in the operations,” explains Patrick.  

He says the project has been a game-changer in women’s empowerment. “The women in the project are doing exceptionally well. Most of them are doing better than their male counterparts. More often the farms owned by women are neat and tidy and the infrastructure is maintained in a good condition,” says Patrick.

He believes their success can also be measured by the increased number of clients who were not part of Sernick’s traditional market. “About 40% of Sernick clients who buy bulls at our auctions are black farmers most of whom have been through our programmes over the years,” says Patrick. “These are farmers who couldn’t afford good bulls a few years ago. But now they can pay anything from R60 000 to R200 000 for cows or bulls from Sernick,” he adds. 

Patrick would like to see more farmers benefiting from the programme, including those in other provinces. The programme, he says, is only possible if the private sector and government work together. “These partnerships are key to the success of the industry and to correcting the injustices of the past.” 

Animal health and nutrition

All the farmers on the programme have a standard programme for animal health and nutrition. The greatest challenge is tick-borne diseases. Patrick says they seldom lose animals to diseases such as botulism, anthrax, lumpy skin and Rift Valley fever because they apply the prevention-is-better-than-cure principle. “We have a strict vaccination protocol which everyone has to follow,” he explains. Brucellosis (contagious abortion) which is fairly common in the Free State, is a big problem. “We teach our farmers to vaccinate their heifer calves, between four and eight months, with S19 or RB51 to protect against brucellosis. Then we vaccinate again with RB51, 60 days before they are ready to mate,” explains Patrick. 

Supplementary feed in summer and winter compensates for year-round nutrient deficiencies in the grass. “We feed winter licks with 40% protein at 400g to 500g per animal. This gets their intakes up and they should be able to eat more dry winter grass to help maintain their body condition,” he says. Pregnant cows are fed production licks to maintain body condition, support the birth of a healthy calf and help the mother with milk production. Calves are weaned at six months at average weights of between 200kg and 220kg. 

Once the grass has flushed after the first September rain they switch to summer licks. “There’s only about 10% protein in these licks and they are higher in phosphorus. There is a deficiency of phosphorus in South African soils and for the greener months until May cattle should have the summer lick,” explains Patrick.  

The bulls are tested for fertility and trichomoniasis in August, three months before they go into the cow herds. The bulls are always on bull finisher or a production lick. Patrick describes the bull finisher as a complete ration containing natural protein, NPN (Non-protein nitrogen compounds), carbohydrates, and other trace minerals. Bulls run with the cows from December to March.  “For those with two breeding seasons, the same process will be repeated after the bulls are taken out at the end of the summer breeding season before they go back for the winter season,” explains Patrick. 

Side bar

Buying animals

Patrick always advises his farmers to buy bulls from reputable breeders who provide a fertility certificate, and preferably some of the bull’s history. “The first questions I ask when a farmer wants to buy a bull are about numbers and type of cattle. I want to know whether his animals are older cows or heifers, and whether they are short or long animals,” explains Patrick. This information will help to choose a bull that is fit for purpose. “This really matters,” he emphasises. A large bull may cause birth complications for heifers if the calf is too big. “For heifers, one should look at smaller framed bulls,” he explains.

“This is why it’s important to examine the records when you buy a bull. One can study these to check the birth weight, maternal weight and weaning weight of that bull. With those facts, you can determine if the bull will be okay to use on the heifers. A bigger bull with a birth weight of 39kg to 40kg cannot be used on heifers as it could lead to a difficult birth (dystocia) where the calf may get stuck in the birth canal and both mother and calf could die,” Patrick explains.   

“I always advise farmers who are starting cattle farming to buy pregnant cows, a cow and a calf, or a three-in-one (a pregnant cow and a calf),” he continues. These animals tend to be more problem-free. “I advise inexperienced farmers not to buy pregnant heifers as they may not know what kind of bull serviced them. As a first-time farmer you don’t want to experience birth complications,” stresses Patrick.  

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