Futeng Mothiane farmed vegetables in Qwaqwa for years before he moved with his family to Kaalfontein Farm in the Free State’s Heilbron district in 2012. On Kaalfontein, Futeng had to make a rapid change from vegetables to livestock. He learnt new skills from the Sernick development programme and took a gamble that kickstarted the family’s sheep operation and set him and his son, Lengau, on a path to building generational wealth. Peter Mashala spoke to the Mothianes on their farm.
Father and son, Futeng and Lengau Mothiane started farming on Kaalfontein Farm outside Heilbron in the Free State in 2012. Futeng had left his family farm in Qwaqwa where he and his father had farmed vegetables since the 1980s.
Futeng, a second-generation farmer, grew up in a farming family in Clarens, a town that lies at the foot of the Maluti mountains in the eastern Free State. He ultimately left the family farm to start farming and create a legacy of his own with his son, Lengau.
According to Futeng a good succession plan is important for the continuity and sustainability of family-run businesses. This was not well executed in the case of his family. “I’m trying to correct this mistake with the next generation.”
He has been working with his son, Lengau, since 2012, grooming him to take over the farm when he retires. The plan, according to Futeng, is to grow the family business so that it can take care of the family for generations to come.
Futeng’s grandfather worked on farms and taught his son (Futeng’s father) all he knew about farming. “My father became a smallholder farmer in the communal areas of Clarence and sent me to college to study agriculture in Lesotho in 1976. I studied at the Thaba Khupa Economic Centre, which was a technical centre founded by various churches in Lesotho as part of the fight against poverty and unemployment in the country back then,” he explains.
He completed his studies in 1980 but only came back to South Africa in 1986. At the time the Qwaqwa government was making farms available to black people who wanted to farm. Futeng’s family was one of the 116 families who were awarded land in 1988.
“We got a 27ha farm where we produced vegetables, mainly cabbage, under irrigation and ran some livestock as well. When my dad retired, I managed the farm because my brother worked in Johannesburg until around 2012 when he took his pension and moved back home.”
By that time the farm was producing cabbage and other vegetables under centre pivots and employed about 100 permanent and seasonal workers. Because there was no succession plan in place conflicts soon arose between Futeng and his brother on management issues. “This was when I decided to leave.”
Futeng applied for land through the government’s land reform programme and was allocated Kaalfontein, a 445ha farm, outside Heilbron in 2012. “I work on Kaalfontein with my son while my daughter has a job in town.”
The farm is mainly for grazing but there is 150ha of dryland pasture which the previous owner planted. When he got to Kaalfontein, Futeng realised vegetables would not work there. “We moved here from Qwaqwa with about 50 mixed-breed cattle of no real quality.”
Starting from scratch on the new farm proved to be very difficult for Futeng and Lengau, who had just completed his studies as a solar power technician. “This was a hugely different operation compared to the one we were used to and running a bigger farm required more money,” explains Lengau. The men were dependent on the farm to make a living as neither of them had jobs.
In 2013, when Futeng’s daughter got married, the Mothianes took a gamble and used the lobola money to buy sheep. “Cattle had a longer production cycle, about 18 months minimum, so bringing in sheep, which have a shorter cycle, made sense. With sheep one can also speculate by buying from auctions and selling to the slaughter market, especially in the township,” says Lengau.
WINNING WITH LIVESTOCK
Lengau bought a flock of 10 Van Rooy ewes at an auction at Frankfort, about 100km from Kaalfontein. “I didn’t even have a car at the time and got there using public transport. Making it there wasn’t a problem, but returning home with 10 sheep was,” he laughs. 100km back to Heilbron but for a good samaritan who arranged transport for him when he saw Lengau on the road driving the sheep.
Van Rooy sheep are hardy with a large body frame, which makes them a good meat sheep, says Lengau. But over time the Mothianes changed to mutton merinos to improve their cash flow. He explains that mutton merinos are also large-framed sheep and they are well adapted to the area. But, most importantly for their operation they are dual purpose sheep that produce high-quality wool and meat. “They also produce heavy weaner lambs, which is a plus when selling at auctions for the slaughter market.”
THE VALUE OF FARMER NETWORKS
As the family shifted to livestock farming, Futeng was introduced to the Sernick Group and attended one of the Sernick farmers’ days at Edenville. This is where their luck started to change. They met Patrick Sekwatlakwatla who runs the Sernick Emerging Farmers programme, a development initiative that operates in partnership with the Jobs Fund. “We started participating in the programme to help us improve as cattle farmers,” says Futeng.
Lengau also enrolled in other Sernick training programmes, including a youth programme in animal husbandry where he learnt to vaccinate, de-horn and brand. He learnt about infra-structural development and maintenance and how to maintain and repair windmills.
“My solar power technician skills came in handy at Sernick because the company rolled out a programme for solar-powered boreholes to all its tier-3 farmers,” explains Lengau.
He registered his own company, Horizon Southern Group in 2019, and became a contractor for some of Sernick’s projects to install solar pumps, erect fences, and fix and maintain windmills. “I was also providing services to other farmers who wanted help with de-horning, branding and vaccinating.”
Apart from attending courses and gaining knowledge at Sernick, Lengau used the opportunity to gain hands-on experience. The cash flow from the contracting work helped the Mothianes improve their production by bringing in some quality genes for their livestock.
They have now grown their operation to 150 breeding mutton merino ewes and 80 Bons- mara-Brahman type cows. “We use good quality Bonsmara bulls on the cows and in the process we hope to convert our herd to pure Bonsmaras,” says Lengau.
He says what they learned from Sernick has been invaluable to their development. They have been able to apply good farming practices and have developed management systems in terms of breeding, animal health, record keeping and managing their finances. “We’ve improved our calving rate which is now above 80% and have a lambing rate of over 100%,” he says.
The Mothianes have a single breeding season that starts in December and runs until the end of February. “We don’t have the infrastructure or Lengau says he would have had to walk the animal numbers to have two seasons,” Lengau points out.
The bulls rest for nine months, which gives them enough time to get back into condition for the next season. He adds that the animals mostly survive on the veld and are not heavily supplemented.
“We do give them summer and winter licks, but at lesser quantities and continuously. If you have to feed out too much lick it could be a sign that your grazing is deficient,” says Lengau. He believes licks should be used as boosters and not to replace nutrients found in natural grazing.
“We use phosphate licks for the summer period when the grass is green and phosphate content is low, and then give licks high in protein and energy with some urea in winter. Lengau says urea encourages cattle to eat roughage in the form of winter grass, while energy and protein help to maintain body condition.
“We always have salt in the licks to manage feed intake and ensure that animals have access to enough drinking water. We only give additional feed to pregnant or lactating cows.”
The Mothianes use a rotational grazing system of 10 camps and animals are moved monthly. “We move them to give the camps a chance to recover and to avoid veld degradation and we are strict about sticking to the recommended stocking rate,” Lengau explains.
The long rest periods are for the recovery of the grazing in case of droughts and they allow palatable species to grow, flower and seed. Dominant grass species on the farm are: Themeda triandra (red grass) and Digitaria eriantha (Smuts finger grass). “We also use the planted pasture area to cut and bale grass for our fodder bank.”
The Mothianes follow a herd and flock health plan developed by Sernick that includes vaccination, deworming and dipping. “There are specific products that are used for calves and older cows. The label direction for dosage and route of administration is strictly followed.”
In the future, Lengau wants to plant more pastures and start producing maize and soya beans on the 150ha of arable land. He says to survive as livestock farmers, they need to improve the grazing potential to help increase their carrying capacity and to produce grain for sale and as extra feed.
Futeng says they are also looking at buying more land to grow the business. “We are reaching our ceiling on this farm. For us to grow and ensure sustainability for this generation and for those to come, we need more land.”