Sweating every asset – Jeremia Mathebula

Jeremia Mathebula, Grain SA/Absa/John Deere Financial New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year in 2018, knows that to be competitive and profitable in a farming business means optimising all your resources. From only 10 cows in 2009 and a maize yield of less than 2t/ha in 2010, steady year-on-year growth has resulted in a successful enterprise of 600 Simbra cattle and 600ha of maize and soya beans outside Amersfoort in Mpumalanga. Jeremia talks to Peter Mashala about what keeps him motivated and focussed.

After 10 years of working in the forestry division of paper giant Mondi in Mpumalanga, Jeremiah Mathebula of the Iswepe area near Piet Retief wanted to farm as his father had done before him. “I inherited a passion for farming from my father, a communal smallholder farmer,” he says.

A B.Admin degree holder from the University of Johannesburg, Jeremiah grew up on the Ingwempisi Estate Farm, where he used to help his father plant maize on 1ha. “My dad also had 12 cattle, which he ran on communal land. He was my mentor – he taught me the farming basics like weeding, planting and basic animal husbandry,” he explains.

It was these lessons from the past and a passion for the land that drove him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. He began his agricultural career in 2009, when he bought 10 cows of his own that he kept on communal land. In the same year he was able to lease a 1 400ha farm, Klipplaatdrif, through the government’s Land Redistribution and Development Strategy (LRAD).

Cattle were initially the focus of his operation, but because he didn’t want the 300ha of arable land on the farm, 40ha of which was under irrigation, to go to waste, he started cropping. His first planting project was 40ha of maize, but he realised right away that he was too inexperienced. His first crop in 2010 yielded only 2.5t/ha. Jeremiah says he made novice mistakes, like not doing any soil tests or getting decent advice.

FIXING MISTAKES

Determined to improve his yield, Jeremia approached TWK Agri for production finance. Once TWK Agri was on board, other benefits followed, like mentorship and introductions to the Grain Farmer Development Association (GFADA). GFADA was formed by the Maize Trust, the Sorghum Trust, the Oil and Protein Seeds Development Trust, and the Winter Cereal Trust to unlock money for emerging grain farmers in an effort to speed up transformation and commercialisation. Jeremiah’s mentor was commercial farmer Tito Vorster, owner of Delft Simbra Stud in Piet Retief.

In 2011, with the help and service of TWK Agri and GFADA, soil tests indicated that his soils were acidic. “The soil tests revealed a pH level of under 3.5 rather than the desired 5. I needed to immediately start soil corrections,” explains Jeremiah.

That year, TWK Agri provided production finance to plant 200ha, and GFADA helped Jeremiah with soil correction, crop insurance and mentorship. He put down 2t of lime per hectare and the improvement was almost immediate: his yield doubled to 5t/ha.

With these impressive results, Jeremia continued his relationship with GFADA, putting down 2t of lime per hectare annually. The liming paid dividends and his yields increased steadily every year. In the 2017/2018 season, he harvested 7t/ha off 160ha of dryland maize and an impressive 12t/ha on irrigated land. Jeremiah says he wouldn’t have reached this milestone without the support he had from TWK Agri and GFADA.

Jeremiah currently uses minimum till to get the most out of the soil. This means he only rips the soil once every two years. “With the help of the technology available today, I also manage to save time and money as I’ve started slowly to incorporate precision farming practices, such as using GPS for planting,” he explains.

He says these measures not only allow him to work faster, but he can even work at night. “The GPS helps a lot, as it allows me to work accurately. I plant about 42 000 to 43 000 seeds per hectare. Saving time means saving money.”

Jeremia recently introduced soya beans for crop rotation purposes. He now plants about 60% of his land to maize and 40% to soya beans. He says both the harvested maize and stover is used for cattle feed. “Soya beans are a great crop. Not only do they fetch good prices, they also have great agronomic advantages when used as a rotation crop,” he explains. Because of its favourable carbon-nitrogen balance and ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, the crop has a positive effect on soil fertility and structure and increases the yields of the next crop.

“It leaves food in the soil as well as breaking the pest and disease cycle in the soil,” Jeremiah emphasises. Jeremiah says he would have planted soya beans earlier, if he had had the right machinery. However, through GFADA’s help, he managed to increase production and therefore his income.

This has allowed him to save money that he’d otherwise have spent on insurance and soil corrections – two very expensive inputs. So with the spare cash, Jeremia was able to buy the assets and equipment he needed to farm soya beans. “I now have the necessary equipment, including a combine harvester,” he says.

SUCCESS WITH SIMBRAS

While his crop production has taken off and plans are in place to reach 800ha in a few years, his livestock production has also grown significantly, from 10 cows in 2009 to 600 breeding cows today. Jeremiah says he was introduced to the Simbra breed by Tito. He’s learnt a lot from his mentor in terms of breeding values, selection, artificial insemination, and how to choose a bull.

“What also attracted me to Simbras was their proven qualities, such as hardiness, which makes it easy to farm with them anywhere in the country,” says Jeremia. According to him, the Simbra is a complete all-rounder, with highly fertile cows and bulls that produce high-performing weaners for feedlots. His bull-to-cow ratio is 1:25, to ensure that the bulls can comfortably mate with all the cows they need to. At breeding, he runs cows in groups of 50 with two bulls. Heifers are carefully prepared and fed so that they are in good condition to conceive.

“A heifer should at least be about 300kg for me to be satisfied that she can take the bull. We give the cattle extra supplements at least three times a week, a month or two before mating to make sure of this,” explains Jeremiah. He says the cattle also receive the standard protein lick in winter and a phosphate lick in summer. “Our area is lush during the summer because of all the rain, so we need to control ticks strictly too.”

FUTURE PLANS

Jeremia has since leased an additional 300ha near Morgenzon, bringing his total planting area to 600ha. He intends increasing this to 800ha, of which 200ha will be irrigated while 600ha will remain dryland. He plans to continue improving his yields and to get more land under irrigation. “I have the water rights to add another 160ha under irrigation. This could increase yields to 14t/ha, which is currently what commercial farmers in the area are producing,” Jeremia explains.

In his home town, Iswepe, he has a further 100ha of land where he plants timber. Jeremia is also very involved in community development, especially in assisting schools in rural communities. “With assistance from TWK Agri, we often donate computers and school shoes to schools in the surrounding area,” he concludes.

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