As a teenage mango trader, Sibusiso “Sbu” Zwane learnt lessons in agriculture young and put them to good use later as he rose through the ranks in the pig sector. Now a commercial pig farmer who runs his own business, Sbu shares his experiences with African Farming’s Peter Mashala.
By the time he turned 14, Sibusiso “Sbu” Zwane was already running a small business, selling mangoes from his grandfather’s fruit farm in Shiluvana village outside Tzaneen.
“I was born and raised on the farm, which produced mangoes, citrus and cattle. My uncle runs it now but I still visit there from time to time,” says Sbu, adding that he is grateful for the upbringing that shaped his successful career.
As a youngster, livestock was not his interest. “I was more interested in fruit, probably because that’s where I made my pocket money.”
From October to November, he supplied small local processors with green mangoes. “I’d find customers who came in their bakkies to collect green mangoes – that would be for my income. My grandfather’s big client was Nkowankowa-based Monate Atchar, the largest buyer of green mangoes in our area,” Sbu recalls.
Sbu’s interest in livestock was stimulated as a student at Khataza High School, where agriculture as a subject was part of the curriculum. “My interest and my active participation in class grew as I began to learn about stuff I was already familiar with,” he says.
After matric, he enrolled to study animal production at Technikon Pretoria, now the Tshwane University of Technology. Here he excelled with distinctions in all his subjects at the end of his first year, an achievement that brought him to the attention of one of his lecturers – the late Professor Pieter Rossouw.
“I became close with Prof Rossouw, who started taking me to farms on weekends. We visited farms where he consulted and I’d help him with the work,” Sbu recalls.
Prof Rossouw’s primary focus was pigs and piggeries, and this helped to develop Sbu’s love of pigs, which became his major subject. He learnt about artificial insemination (AI) during on-farm training and then did an advanced course in AI.
In his third year Sbu needed in-service training and Prof Rossouw introduced him to legendary Bonsmara breeder David Baber of Nu-Alcade Bonsmaras, who had a 120-sow unit on his farm, Summer Place. David was looking for a piggery manager and gave Sbu the job.
“So I did my internship as a manager at Summer Place and stayed on for another two years,” he chuckles. But it was not all plain sailing. The transition from being a student doing part-time weekend work to managing a farm full time was a challenge.
“I had to manage people and change the management style completely. It was tough for the older guys, who had been there for years, to take orders from this young lad,” explains Sbu. But with David’s support the team adjusted quickly.
The second major change was to move from natural mating to an AI system. “We didn’t even have fridges for semen storage; I used cooler boxes and ice. I’d take the cooler boxes to my room and wake up in the middle of the night to check that the temperatures inside the boxes were still okay.
This went on for a few months until we upgraded the system,” he laughs. The significant improvement in conception rates using AI made David a happy man.
Now recognised as a competent young black pig farmer, Sbu’s name started popping up in discussions between some of the country’s major pig farmers. One such farmer, impressed by his performance, was John Wright of Ibis Piggeries in Polokwane.
In 2003 he approached Sbu, offering him a supervisor position in his boar house. “At the time, Ibis Piggeries was running a 2 500-sow unit and this offer was a great opportunity for a youngster like me,” recalls Sbu.
After talking it over with David and getting his blessing, Sbu joined Ibis Piggeries. A few months later he was promoted to assistant manager. “When I was at Ibis, in terms of conception rates, we were the best performing piggery in the country at 98%.
No one else came close,” says Sbu. He had been with Ibis for four years when Charles Street Veterinary Services (CSVet) in Pretoria offered him a job as an animal technician. “John wasn’t chuffed with the news at first but after a long talk between him and CSVet, he gave his approval,” says Sbu.
At CSVet he worked on various farms across the country, doing pregnancy diagnosis, blood and feed sampling, and medication supply. “We did back-fat management with several piggeries and helped them with AI. We also collected data and analysed farm performance,” Sbu explains.
At Ibis, back-fat measurement was used as a tool to help improve conception rates, he says. “It’s a balancing act; you have to manage the feed to make sure sows don’t gain too much fat or lose too much weight.
The fat layer should not exceed 15mm. The more fat in the pig, the less productive the sow is and the fewer piglets she will have.” This, along with good insemination timing, helps improve production, he says.
Sbu left CSVet in 2007 to join a leading piggery nearby. “The travelling was getting to me and I wanted to settle down,” he says. He started as the weaner and grower house manager of a 1 500-sow unit at his new place of work.
WIthin five years he was promoted to assistant production manager and then to acting production manager, until he left the company under unhappy circumstances.
“The job of production manager came up and when it was advertised, I applied and went through the screening process and the interviews in the normal way.
I came out as the second choice, an outcome I had no problem accepting. I had no resentment, as I knew that in an interview anything can happen. But then the guy who got the job changed his mind and didn’t join the company after all.
Despite this I was not offered the job, even though I had been the runner-up,” explains Sbu. During this period, the company was named best-performing piggery two years in a row, with 28 weaners per sow per year and
the highest number of piglets born alive.
When Sbu decided to confront the owner, they had a fallout that almost ruined his career. “I heard afterwards from a reliable source that the owner wanted a white manager,” he says.
Angry at how Sbu had been treated, the owner’s son resigned, and in 2014 Sbu also resigned. For months he unsuccessfully looked for a job, but kept coming up against brick walls.
“It’s a small world,” he says. “After the confrontation, no one wanted to work with me, because the word was out that I was difficult and that I had a bad attitude.”
After months of unsuccessful job hunting, Sbu decided to go on his own and opened his company, SQL Animal Diagnosis. The company started small, helping emerging farmers. Then he was contracted by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture to train and mentor emerging farmers in Gauteng.
He also supplied medication to small privately owned piggeries and government-owned projects such as those run by the correctional services, for extra income.
His big break came when his application for the farm where he is currently based was approved in 2019. “I knew this farm because I consulted here when I was with CSVet,” he says.
“I arrived in March 2019 and found the farm in awfully bad shape. Because the owner was selling, he had neglected the maintenance.” The farm was set up for a 250-sow unit, but there were only 150 old sows when Sbu took over.
“The keys were handed to me and the next day I woke up with 150 pigs and nothing else. I had to cash in all my savings just to keep the pigs alive,” he recalls. Had it not been for those savings, or had the farm been given to someone with no experience, the operation wouldn’t have lasted another two months.
“This is how our government sets up smallholder farmers for failure. This is the type of thing that happens, and then all black farmers are labelled incompetent,” says Sbu.
He had to buy replacement sows, fix and replace broken equipment and infrastructure, and upgrade the farm’s security. “We are right next to an informal settlement outside Atteridgeville and security is an issue,” he explains.
The first step was to replace older, less productive sows.
According to Sbu, pigs have about 10 productive years and produce an average of eight to 12 piglets per litter. Commercial producers generally cull sows when they start dropping to fewer than eight piglets per year.
“I have two cycles per year per sow and I inseminate between six and eight sows every week. Our pigs farrow year-round,” he says. He uses three PIC line boars on the farm: PIC 337, PIC 380 and PIC 410. “One boar is good for a week because I can mix about 30 doses of semen per boar,” he explains.
This gives the boars at least two weeks of rest. Sbu uses only AI because it is cheaper and more effective. “If I were using boars for natural service, I’d need 20 to 25 boars for 150 sows. The whole process would take longer and I cannot afford that. A boar can serve one sow a day and work for a maximum of two days,” explains Sbu.
“Even so, by the second day, the sperm quality would drop.”
According to Sbu, the 30 doses he mixes from one boar can fertilise eight sows a week. A sow needs about two doses to be fertilised properly.
“I get about 350ml of semen per draw from one boar and after processing this, I will mix about 1 litre, which can make up to 30 doses. I mix the semen with a prepared diluent solution and it stays viable for at least 10 days, stored in a refrigerator at 17°C,” he explains.
Sperm count and quality are checked microscopically. In a drop of semen from a healthy productive boar, there should be lots of active, well-shaped sperm cells.
“When the sperm cell count is low, or the cells are deformed or they are not very active and don’t swim properly, I know something is not right with the boar,” says Sbu. “If it’s not an old boar, I’d probably medicate the animal and leave it for two to three weeks. Semen can deteriorate when a boar is sick or stressed. But if I tap it again and get the same results, I’d look at replacing the boar.”
Sbu says there is no special diet for the boars. They are fed dry sow and boar feed made from maize, soya oil cake, bran and pre-mixes containing essential amino acids. Amino acids are vital for maintenance, growth, reproduction and lactation in pigs. The sows are not on any special diet either.
“Many farmers feed ad lib when they are breeding, but in my experience – and according to research – it makes no difference. I don’t flush feed because it doesn’t really work,” Sbu says. There are farmers who feed 1kg of ration twice a day, but he feeds his animals only once a day. “I feed 2kg every morning and that’s it, except for lactating sows with suckling piglets – they are fed three times a day.”
Sows switch from lactating feed to dry sow feed just before breeding. “At this time, they are stressed because they have been taken away from their piglets and are in a new environment. Stress stimulates heat,” explains Sbu. “What matters most is the timing of the insemination.”
The best time to inseminate, according him, is when the sow is at her cycle peak with the greatest number of ovulated eggs. “The more eggs ovulated, the greater the chances of getting more piglets. But if we artificially inseminate too early or too late, we could miss that opportunity,” he says.
The ovulation peak period can last between 18 and 24 hours, depending on the sow. “I heat-detect early in the mornings by walking through the pens alone, without a boar. If the sow stands next to me immediately, I know she’s ready,” explains Sbu.
Responsive sows are marked, and round number two is done with the boar. “If the sow stands next to the boar, I know she is on heat, but not at her peak. I mark those animals and leave them for later in the afternoon,” he says.
Sows that stand without the boar are inseminated immediately. “I check for heats every day after the morning feed.” After insemination, a record is made indicating the day and time of the service and the predicted farrowing date. Pigs cycle every 21 days.
“So I also record the predicted dates of the first (21 days from AI) and second (42 days from AI) cycles. On Day 21 after insemination, I will walk the boar in the pen; if the sow shows signs of heat, then I know she is not pregnant.
If there are no signs of heat then she is pregnant,” explains Sbu. He repeats this procedure on Day 42. By this stage pregnancy can usually be confirmed by eyeballing the animal.
“You’ll start seeing swollen teats and in some pigs you can feel the piglets. A week before they farrow, I move them to the farrowing house and switch them from dry sow feed to lactating feed,” says Sbu.
Piglets get a Dexiron 200 or Uniferon 200 iron injection on Day 7. “I dock tails and tattoo them with the identification mark on Day 10,” says Sbu. Piglets have easy access to creep feed to prepare them for weaning. “I wean the piglets between 28 and 34 days and vaccinate with M+Pac to help prevent mycoplasma hyperpneumonia [pneumonia].”
MARKETING AND THE FUTURE
Sbu markets a minimum of 60 porkers a month to various clients. “I prefer to sell porkers rather than baconers, as I get paid more per kilogram because the meat is leaner and more tender,” he explains.
“My porkers are always graded P, which is the highest quality. If you get graded O or R, it means the carcass has more fat content. So once you start growing them heavier, you will be graded lower.”
Sbu’s background and inherent capacity have stood him in good stead this far, helping him go from strength to strength while rising to face difficult challenges. Now that he is in the prime of his life, Sbu has the ability, the experience and the resilience he requires to make his mark on South Africa’s pork sector.