The political environment of the early eighties made it unthinkable for a young black man born in Mohlakeng, Randfontein to entertain any ideas of becoming a commercial farmer. But for David Mthombeni, founder of Gegana Farming, becoming a commercial farmer was a dream worth pursuing despite all the hurdles he faced. Indeed, David failed many times during his agricultural career, but he refused to give up. Now, at 56, David runs a mixed farming enterprise of broilers, cattle, small stock and grains on three farms in Mpumalanga spread over 2 162ha in Greylingstad, Standerton, and Evander. David spoke to Zolani Sinxo about the choices he has made in his life that brought him to where he is today.
David Mthombeni was born at a time when black people could not own land, let alone run a business on that land, but that did not stop him from dreaming or from following his dream to get to where he is today.
“I was raised by two strong parents, Daniel and Fuduka Mthombeni, who never allowed the reality of the times to determine their fate,” says David.
His mother ran a small township bakery, while his father and his grandfather, Paulos Matholwana Mthombeni, were communal farmers. From them David drew the courage he needed to stick with his dreams. He says his parents taught him to take charge and to be independent, responsible and accountable for his actions.
“I now work with my two sons and I am trying to teach them the value of not giving up and of putting in some hard work if they want to achieve anything in life,” explains David. He believes that hard work and dedication pays off.
Born in 1966, David, like any young person of that time, had a difficult upbringing. But thanks to some strict discipline from his parents, he got through school and then acquired a diploma in mechanical engineering. After graduating he started working in the mining sector around Gauteng. He also worked for Sasol for several years before starting his own farming business in 2003.
David bought his first farm (448ha) in Evander, Mpumalanga and ran 18 cows that were managed by his father, while he carried on working at Sasol. He finally left his job at Sasol two years later to become a full-time farmer.
“After working in the mining industry and in the private sector, I decided that agriculture was the only industry where I could leave a lasting legacy for my family. Investing in the agri-sector may be a long-term thing, but if it is done correctly and properly it is an investment one will never regret making,” he says.
HERD PRODUCTION AND MANAGEMENT
From a small foundation herd of 18 cattle in 2003, David’s herd has grown to 650 cattle. The animals graze an area of over 1 600ha, 156ha of which is made up of planted pastures. “We have two herds with about 320 breeding cows and 13 bulls in each; one herd is commercial mixed-breed cattle and the other is a purebred Bonsmara herd. We run them on two farms,” he explains.
Bonsmara bulls are used for the commercial cow herd. David rates the Bonsmara breed highly, citing its traits of excellent mothering ability, easy calving, adaptability to African conditions and a calm temperament. He sells the weaners at auctions in Mpumalanga and he says the Bonsmara is a leader in producing high-quality weaners, which makes it the preferred breed of feedlot buyers.
The bulls are prepared three months before mating and David feeds them a production lick in the run-up to breeding. Bulls are checked and tested for fertility and semen quality in August before the breeding season starts in October. They are also tested for STDs including trichomoniasis (trich), a highly contagious STD in cattle.
“It’s important to have the bulls checked because this disease often has no obvious, visible symptoms. One would only realise there is a problem at the end of the season when you get a lower-than-normal conception rate,” explains David. “This can cause a major financial loss as one has to have calves every year.”
Gegana farming has a single breeding season which begins in October, when the bulls are sent in to run with the cow herds, and ends in January. This, according to David, is to ensure that his cows calve in spring and early summer when grazing is abundant. In winter, from April to August, cattle are supplemented with winter licks and fed chicken litter that comes from the poultry operation.
“Cattle can get botulism from eating chicken litter so I am very careful about vaccinating my cattle against botulism to avoid any risk of contracting the disease,” warns David. He maintains however that chicken litter is the cheapest way he can get protein into his animals. The farm’s poultry enterprise produces two million birds a year which means that chicken litter is a plentiful resource.
David also runs 200 SA Mutton Merino sheep on the same land and has recently started farming goats. “We now have about 40 goats on the farm,” he says.
DIVERSITY IS KEY
David currently produces just over two million broilers a year running eight cycles of 33 days to 34 days each. “We are working on an expansion project to raise that number to five million birds a year. He works through a contract with Astral Foods, the largest integrated poultry producer in the country which sells and distributes various poultry brands including feed, broiler genetics, day-old chicks and chicken products.
A business the size of David’s comes with some challenges but David and his family have embraced these challenges and always try to learn from their mistakes. “The toughest challenges we face are an [unreliable] power supply from the Lekwa Municipality and high feed costs. We have a backup generator in case of power failure but using it increases our fuel costs. Feed is a fixed cost determined by the commodity markets and we don’t have much power to influence this,” says David.
He feels it is a major advantage to run a diversified farming business, as one operation can benefit another. In David’s farming enterprise the chicken litter from the poultry operation helps the livestock section. He is also planning to use chicken manure in grain production to reduce fertiliser costs. He plants 540ha of soya beans and yellow maize.
“We also rent out machinery and provide contract services for planting and harvesting to our neighbours and other developing farmers in and around Mpumalanga and Gauteng,” he says.
SUCCESSION, A STRATEGY FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Management of an operation this size is not easy, David admits. He has two managers helping him run the farms and he is looking for a third person to join the management team. His sons, Thubelihle, 25, and Tholo, 20, are still learning the ropes before they move into management positions.
“My two sons are hands-on in the business. Thubelihle has a degree in animal science and is already an operational manager on one of the farms. Tholo is still doing a BSc in soil science, agronomy, and agricultural economics at the North West University. We manage this company in a very strategic manner and our long-term plan includes a good succession strategy,” says David.
He says it is important to keep up with trends and developments in the agricultural sector and he relies on the internet and what he can learn from commercial farmers in his area. “In farming, one needs to have patience, to think positively, to think practically and to draw customers and satisfy market demands by applying the best farming practices,” explains David.
“Farmers must get their produce out at the right time and in the right quantities to keep their businesses sustainable and profitable” he advises.
Farming is David’s chosen life as well as the way he makes a living. “When I look at our animals and the entire farm, I can’t help but feel proud. This is what I want to instil in my children and their kids,” he says.
His advice for young people who wish to pursue farming is to change their thinking and move away from the hope that the government will do things for them. “You must be willing to get your hands dirty if you want to succeed. Leave politics to the politicians and put in the necessary time, effort and skill,” says David.