A trip halfway across the globe and the teachings of two renowned entrepreneurs set Duncan Moalosi Serapelwane on a path back to farming – one he vowed as a child he’d never walk. Today this former teacher is a Bonsmara stud farmer and, as he tells Peter Mashala, he has found meaning in making a name for himself as an elite breeder of these iconic red South African cattle.
It took a trip to Thailand for Duncan Serapelwane to rediscover his love of farming. “I was raised by a farmer but I learnt to despise farming as a child,” he recalls. “While my friends were out playing, I was working on the farm. Sometimes we’d drive out to the farm with my dad’s old car and we’d get stuck in the middle of nowhere. We’d spend the whole day trying to fix it. I just couldn’t understand why people said there was money in farming. That wasn’t my experience!” laughs Duncan, now a respected black Bonsmara stud breeder.
Duncan runs two herds. One is a commercial herd on 625ha in Morokweng, 136km outside Vryburg in the North West. It is prime cattle country, known as the Texas of South Africa. He also has 2 850ha in the Kgalagadi, where he runs his stud, Moalosi Bonsmara, comprising 300 cows and five bulls.
According to Duncan, he inherited his entrepreneurial knack from his father, Kgosietsile Godfrey Serapelwane. Kgosietsile, who had no education, quit his job as a welder in 1973 and started building donkey carts and farming, managing to put all six his children through college.
“I completed high school and my teaching diploma in Kuruman, where I later settled,” recalls Duncan. “I had decided on Kuruman to get as far away from farming as possible!” He taught for only seven months before joining the consumer council of the former Bophuthatswana government in Kuruman for four years. After the advent of democracy in 1994, he started working as an insurance broker and won an award for best broker, with that trip to Thailand as the prize. “There I saw how hard Thai people worked,” he says. “I was hugely impressed and inspired.”
Back home, his manager introduced him to the work of Les Brown, a US entrepreneur, motivational speaker and author. “I also started reading books by another American entrepreneur and author, Robert Kiyosaki. These gentlemen have one thing in common: they had little education but are exceptional businesspeople,” explains Duncan. “I kept thinking of my Thailand experience, and Brown and Kiyosaki reminded me of how my dad had started his businesses.”
That year, Duncan quit his job and opened four tuck shops as well as public-phone services around Kuruman. The businesses did well, turning a monthly profit of more than R40 000. “But my wife at the time was worried about job security,” he says. To keep the peace, he again took a job as an insurance broker. He didn’t last a year.
“Farmers were coming in fortnightly, making deposits of R300 000. Salaries of civil servants didn’t even last the month. Farmers were withdrawing cash to buy bakkies or equipment, while civil servants were in debt,” Duncan recalls, shaking his head.
A MEANS TO AN END
In June 2002 Duncan quit his job once more, this time to start farming. To raise funds, he started supplying and installing window glass in Morokweng. “I knew nothing about the glass business but I saw a need,” he says. Luckily his close friend Reverend Koketso Phoku knew the industry and guided him.
“I used my Standard Bank overdraft to buy my first glass stock for R7 000.” Although he was making good profits by then, he also started a brick-making concern to grow his farming business faster. “I was buying cattle with my profits and kept them at my dad’s farm, Van Vuuren, not far from here.”
Morokweng’s high unemployment rate meant that Duncan was often paid with livestock, especially goats and sheep.
In 2003 he borrowed R15 000 from the Land Bank to buy five cows. He had the loan paid off by 2004 and lent another R350 000 to buy more cattle and a new bakkie. By 2007, Duncan’s herd stood at 60 Bonsmara type breeding cows – and his knowledge of breeding just kept growing.
“I realised the difference between simply owning cattle and running a profitable beef production business. I was continually improving my herd with quality Bonsmara bulls from top breeders.”
This interaction with breeders taught him even more. “That’s how I learnt about stud breeding and the opportunities in the business. I was buying all my bulls from white commercial farmers. Black farmers were just not playing in this space.”
Bulls are crucial, he believes. “They might only make up about 3% of a herd, but they’re responsible for every calf born on the farm, except where AI is done. One bull can produce 40 or more calves per year. That’s huge,” Duncan emphasises.
By late 2007, Duncan had decided to do stud breeding. He had befriended Wessel van Wyk of Bogermie Boerdery, a wellknown Bonsmara stud breeder in Vryburg. Determined, Duncan secured another R500 000 loan from the Land Bank and bought his first stud animals and a new bakkie, after swopping his old bakkie for a few of his father’s animals. From his own herd, the Bonsmara Breeders’ Society inspectors selected about 25 cows for his new stud herd. Duncan sold his first bull for R18 000 in 2010 at the Bonsmara auction in Vryburg. Some fellow farmers had the view that it was the cheapest on auction because Duncan is black.
“It became a race issue. Some insisted white farmers refused to make higher bids for a black farmer’s animals. I decided to stay positive. If my bull didn’t go back to the kraal, I was happy,” he says. “It was my first sale and that was enough for me – I was moving forward.
“It’s like in golf: as a beginner, you’re just glad your ball goes in the direction of the hole, even if it’s only five metres. As long as it doesn’t go backwards,” laughs Duncan. At the next auction a bull of his fetched R28 000, followed by two bulls sold at the third auction. “All signs of great progress!”
Duncan says he ignores people playing the race card. “In this business, I’ve learnt that there are bad white people and bad black people. I’ve been helped by all types of farmers, most of them white.” For example, he met the renowned stud breeder Arthur de Villiers of Arcadia Bonsmara from Vrede in the Free State at a breeders’ meeting.
“He didn’t know who I was but, after I asked for help, he without hesitation lent me and my friend two of his top bulls to use for four seasons. Free of charge!”
FOCUSED BREEDING GOALS
A stud breeder’s only goal should be to satisfy the needs of commercial beef farmers, says Duncan – “and that’s to breed animals that make money!” Therefore breeding goals should always be shaped by what the market wants.
As a commercial beef producer himself, Duncan uses his Bonsmara bulls in his commercial herd. “With my bulls I’m sure of a good weaner every time,” he says.
Bonsmara weaners are also popular with feedlots, and Duncan maintains it is because the breed is so economical in feedlots.
“They deliver well-graded carcasses, have high dressing-out percentages, even fat deposition, good marbling and excellent muscle-to-bone ratio.”
As a farmer in the tough Kgalagadi, Duncan believes one of the great advantages of the Bonsmara is its ability to thrive in harsh conditions.
“Here it is dry, sandy and very, very hot. When Arthur sold that bull he had lent me for more than R100 000 on auction, one of its biggest selling points was the fact that it had worked and survived so well here in the Kgalagadi,” he smiles.
Duncan is a firm believer in breeding medium-framed animals. “And they must be strong, especially in their hooves.” Mediumsized heifers also become fertile cows.
“I cull all heifers with an extremely long or short neck, or those with a muscular look. They end up being larger framed cattle that tend to be infertile,” he says. Larger animals also consume too much grass, thus reducing the farm’s carrying capacity. “For every 10 large-framed cows, you’re able to run at least 14 medium-framed cows.”
GRASS BEFORE CATTLE
Duncan is convinced a good cattle farmer is a good grass farmer first and foremost.
“The poorer the quality of your grass, the bigger your problems, like with fertility,” he explains. He uses a four-camp rotational system, but during good rainy seasons only two camps are used while the other two are rested. The condition of both the veld and the animals are assessed regularly.
“When the animals’ condition drops or they spend all day grazing and coming back to the kraal late, we switch the camps. Resting two camps for a whole season, when possible, also improves grass quality – at the Kgalagadi farm it’s natural mixed sweet veld. Animals have access to summer licks throughout the year. He’s stopped giving winter licks, he says.
“I only use summer licks. Animals battled to keep their condition on winter licks. I believe this is because of insufficient phosphorus in the grass, and that’s what’s missing in the winter licks.” Winter licks contain urea, which stimulates the cattle’s appetites. As a result, they fill their stomachs with grass but do not get the minerals they need to maintain their condition.
Duncan has a winter and summer calving season. In summer the calving starts from the end of September to December. The winter season, which is short, is in June and July, with the calving starting from March to April. “I run two breeding seasons because I want to ensure the farm has enough calves in summer when the prices are higher. But I also need a good crop of weaners in winter for good cash flow,” he points out.
And cash flow, as all great entrepreneurs know, is where it all starts and ends.