Boschveld, a 50 ha farm in the Bela-Bela area of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, is the operational heart of Mike Bosch’s indigenous chicken business.
Mike Bosch is white. He is also African to the core. His context is African, his approach is African, his adaptability is African, his knowledge and experience are African, his community is African.
Smart, observant and a highly successful farmer, he is a big picture man who never loses sight of the details. In Mike’s script, profit and expansion drive business, in tandem with providing practical solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty and growing functional rural communities.
Mike’s model is powerful, cyclical and sustainable. His business makes money. He helps subsistence farmers support their families and improve their lives. They produce excess, grow and start making money. The market expands, Mike’s business grows. (You get the picture.)
A Boran and Beefmaster cattle rancher, Mike started breeding chickens to control ticks. (The smart phrase for this is integrated pest management.)
“I was looking for a way to bring down my cattle dip costs and decided to try using chickens to eat the ticks off the animals,” Mike explains to a somewhat disbelieving journalist.
Extensively ranched cattle like to rest at shady water points and it was to these water points that Mike sent batches of 200 to 300 chickens to test his tick control experiment.
Visit the Boschveld website by clicking here.
THINK, PLAN, ACT
The trait Mike wanted, more than any other, was hardiness. He did the homework and researched indigenous African chickens and quickly deciding on a three-way cross. The cross was a blend of the Ovambo – aggressive, agile and good at ducking predators, the Venda – a productive layer with strong maternal ability, and the Matabele – a big chicken with a high meat component.
Crossbred chicks were taken to various water points when they were 6 weeks old and collected 10 weeks later. Engorged ticks, filled with blood (which has a 60% protein content) make sustaining meals, and the chicks eagerly pecked the parasites off resting cattle. Other delicacies like the umbilical cord of newborn calves were also favoured items on the menu.
“The only grain they got was a jam tin of crushed maize, in the late afternoon, to lure them into their night cages,” says Mike. (We all know that one jam tin for 200 to 300 chickens doesn’t count as a feed input.) Mobile cages gave the birds the necessary night-time protection from nocturnal predators like civets and genets.
The high mortalities (35%), were due mainly to predation by hawks and other raptors, domestic cats and the odd jackal. Although cattle will naturally try to avoid treading on small creatures, some chicks didn’t get out of the way fast enough.
“I had one selection rule,” says Mike, “survival.” Only the toughest survived the 10-week selection period.
The Bosch-bred fowls rapidly proved their worth as ecofriendly money savers. Dipping dropped by almost 50% from 26 dip days to 14 dip days a year. Mike enjoyed breeding the chickens and saw it as a useful hobby.
Then an article about his farming methods appeared in a farmers’ magazine and propelled Boschveld’s indigenous chickens into the commercial environment.
“Black small-scale farmers saw the pictures of my chickens in the magazine and they wanted them. Requests flooded my inbox.” That was 18 years ago. Mike now runs a thriving commercial poultry business with a growing continental reach.
NO-FUSS, PRODUCTIVE POULTRY
Mike’s chickens are popular across the continent and he aims to keep it that way by consistently supplying the best possible product.
“These chickens are going to live in rural Africa. I can’t send namby-pamby chickens to roost in trees, forage in the bush, meet other chickens and brush up against any number of diseases and difficult conditions,” says Mike. “They have to be tough.”
He believes that disease resistance, founded on a strong immune system, is essential if chickens are to contribute meaningfully to the lives and diets of rural African people.
During last year’s outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza (HPAI H5N8), one commercial Zimbabwean poultry organisation had to slaughter 800 000 layers in a week. In South Africa, alarming numbers of commercial birds were slaughtered.
To date, there has been no recorded case of a Boschveld chicken presenting with the H5N8 virus in either of the countries. This is anecdotal rather than scientific evidence, but what’s important to the farmer is that his chickens don’t get sick and die.
DIVERSITY, DIVERSITY, DIVERSITY
Introducing genetic diversity into the narrowed genetic pools of inbred village, backyard and smallholder flocks has enormous potential to overcome the significant problems created by decades of inbreeding.
Flocks of stunted scrub chickens with little disease resistance, and even less productive capacity, can be dramatically improved by the introduction of a couple of decent roosters, says Mike.
“You will not find an indigenous chicken in Africa with a rooster, or a hen, the size of these Boschvelders. Bigger birds mean more meat on the family table.”
Boschvelder hens can lay up to 200 eggs a year, which translates to 600 eggs in a laying lifetime of 3 years. This, too, makes a meaningful protein contribution to the diet. Hens are strongly maternal and raise robust, thriving chicks.
There are 2 30 000 egg incubators at the Boschveld breeding facility, with 2 more about to come online. Inside the incubators, eggs turn for 18 days in temperature and humidity controlled environments. They go to the hatchery for the last 3 days of the 21-day incubation period.
The day after hatching, chicks are sexed, sent to the nurseries and inoculated. “The sexing technique can cause injuries to the stomach or liver of a day-old chick and we get our highest mortalities after sexing,” Mike explains.
In the nurseries, skilled on-farm personnel inoculate chicks against Newcastle disease (ND) and Marek’s. Chicks are sold as day olds, up to 10 days, and shipped to buyer destinations, or they are moved to a growing-out facility.
From the breeding houses hens and roosters, at a 6 : 1 ratio, supply the incubators with fertilised eggs.
Hallmark Bosch, the nurseries and the breeder houses are simple, practical affairs. Chicks and chickens are exposed to fresh air and sunlight and hens lay their eggs on sawdust in open half-drums.
FAST-LEARNING FARMERS SUCCEED
In Zimbabwe, Mike’s agents, Novatek Feeds, market the Boschvelder chicks and Mike’s subsistence farmer transformation product, the mobile cage kit.
Read more about the kit here: Simple and diverse – the keys to growing a village chicken business
Novatek supplied 20 000 day old Boschveld chicks to subsistence farmers in the Gokwe region, near Lake Kariba, a year ago, as part of a rural development scheme.
There was no money for extras. The scheme’s farmer-participants free-ranged the chicks, shepherding them into whatever shelters were available at night.
“When the guys went to Gokwe, a few weeks ago, to do some training, there were 200 000 Boschvelder chickens on the ground. “These farmers are not fools, they saw the value of the Boschvelders and they moved fast to act and capitalise on that value. It’s a development success story.”
Mike says he fills initial export orders into Africa at a ratio of 4 hens to 1 rooster. “In the first year they order 4 000 hens and 1 000 roosters. In the second year the order switches to 1 000 hens and 4 000 roosters. They take the roosters into the rural areas and tell the farmers: ‘slaughter those mongrel roosters of yours and get the Boschveld roosters in’.”
The advantages are obvious when the new chick is 6 weeks old and the same size as its mother, says Mike. “A major genetic explosion takes place and new genetics are seen in meat and egg production improvement.”
Wherever one meets them, and whatever their differences may be, African smallholder farmers share this distinct quality – they have an enormous respect for, and appreciation of, knowledge. They will read, share, and listen with great attention in their search to access information that will help them become better farmers.
Novatek’s field agents use farmer questions as a foundation for training sessions, says Mike. Once the problem-related questions have been written up on a chalkboard, agents tackle them 1 by 1.
Based on the most common problems and issues that have come up at training days, Novatek has published a manual in booklet form as a reference for its clients.
FIT FOR THE FUTURE
Drought, political uncertainty and a weak maize price currently create a difficult agricultural environment in South Africa.
“I’ve had 12 mm of rain in the last 2 months,” says Mike. “But the drought is not affecting my chickens and the falling feed price obviously helps me.”
Permission to export, recently reinstated for Mike, after the end of the HPAI outbreak, means he can now meet export demands coming in from Malawi, Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia.
“I’ve just installed a 30 000 egg incubator dedicated to exports and have another 5 5 000 egg incubators that will go to Boschveld depots in Africa.” A recent order from Botswana for 3 000 of Mike’s mobile chicken cages was quickly followed by a further order for 8 000 cages.
In the structure of his “pay-it-forward business model” Mike plans to hire 4 or 5 Botswanans to help build the first 3 000 cages in Botswana.
“We will get the building, buy the welding machines and teach the guys how to weld and make jigs. By the time the first order is filled, they will have the hands-on experience they need. Then we hand over the equipment and it’s up to them to carry on.”
Mike Bosch farms and does business on the continent of his birth with an easy confidence that could, at least partly, come from a deep reservoir of experience. But more than that, Mike has a straight-line approach that does not admit clutter.
Bob Boon, a visiting businessman and game farmer, said of Mike, “Man, he makes it all seem so simple.” And that’s the truth.
Contact Mike Bosch: firstname.lastname@example.org