A group of farmers show how they’ve made a commercial success with pig farming on a small leased farm in Limpopo without taking out huge loans, inheriting land or buying expensive equipment. The driving force behind this success story are a former Zimbabwean cattle farmer who lost his 12 000 ha farm and a Johannesburg businesswoman who decided to give up city life.
At first glance it looks like a difficult existence. Is it even possible to farm successfully with just a couple of Dexter cattle, a bunch of pigs and some free-range chickens? Especially if you have only 40 ha on which to farm in the Radium area, near Hammanskraal.
However, Hendrik O’Neill and Sally Nicoll, in partnership with their farm labourers, are making great strides in their mission to farm in the simplest way possible. It all started just over two years ago when Hendrik realized that he could no longer continue in Zimbabwe. He had already lost his 12 000 ha cattle farm and couldn’t make enough money from his butcher’s shop in Harare to survive.
He and four farm workers moved to South Africa. They rented a 20 ha smallholding in the Radium district. The idea was to buy some heifers and export them to Zimbabwean farmers, and the first consignment was successfully delivered. However, they couldn’t buy enough heifers for this venture to be viable for Hendrik.
“We decided to speculate with cattle and tried to increase their value by feeding them, but that didn’t work either,” recalls Hendrik. “We even lost the money that friends had invested in our plan. It was a low point for us. Things couldn’t have gotten any worse.”
Suddenly he and his workers were on an equal footing. They were all in dire straits and equally desperate for a solution. “Our small piece of land was so depleted, we were at a loss as to what to do with it. We were accustomed to thousands of hectares and here we were sitting on 20 ha for which we urgently needed to pay rent. We were in a battle for survival.
They put their heads together and decided to buy pigs. They had had experience in high density grazing and each one of them had at some point in time encountered holistic management systems. For example, one of the workers, Solomon Munyenga, had worked on the farm belonging to Allan Savory, the father of holistic management in Zimbabwe.
A PLAN WITH PIGS
“We had only nine pigs to begin with and had to let go of any preconceived ideas we may have had about these animals. For example, most people believe that pigs are foul-smelling and that they should be kept in pens.”
Hendrik and his team rigged up small, movable camps with electric wire in which the pigs could be kept and easily moved each day. The pigs’ activity immediately improved the soil – the soil was turned over and fertilized at the same time. Because they grazed only a small piece of ground intensively each day, once they were finished, they had trampled the plant matter in such a way that it formed a protective layer of grass and organic matter on the soil surface. This helped to retain moisture in the soil.
Hendrik and his team are still using this method of grazing the pigs in small camps rigged up with electric wire and moved every day. The camps are simple: two wires about 20cm apart, the highest one barely a half metre high. He now has two camps for each herd of almost 300 pigs.
The pigs are moved to a new camp every morning. The previous day’s camp is then broken down and a new camp set up on the other side on a fresh piece of ground.
“We initially built square shelters for the pigs, but quickly realized that it takes too many people to help carry them. We then began to build circular shelters so that one man was capable of rolling them to the new camp,” says Anderson Mutasa, one of the workers.
He and his colleagues also built a simple frame structure with old water pipes and fitted push taps from which the pigs can drink. “Pigs are very clever. We showed one pig how to push the tap for water and all the other pigs followed suit,” says Anderson.
‘We then began to build circular shelters so that one man was capable of rolling them to the new camp’
One day he noticed how one of the pigs was holding the tap open without drinking, but rather waiting until there was a puddle of water on the ground for a mud bath. He realized then that the pigs also needed to be kept cool. The original drinking structure was then converted into a shower using cheap microjets. Now the pigs can cool off in the shower to their heart’s content.
The soil was so depleted initially that the camp scarcely had enough grazing for the first nine pigs, but now, after two years, it easily supports 1 000 pigs on 40 ha. These days the pigs share the land with a herd of 20 Dexters and about 800 Boschvelder chickens.
The grass grows lush and sunflower, sorghum and maize are sprouting up all over the place. “The pigs work the soil and we sow the seed by hand so that there are plants available as feed when they graze there again in a year,” says Anderson.
The pig farm generates about 6 litters of 8 piglets per litter each week. Raising them only requires labour and management.
FROM CITY SLICKER TO FARM LIFE
Sally got involved shortly after Hendrik started pig farming. “In the city, I thought I had everything my heart desired. My business was successful and I enjoyed city life.”
That all changed when she chanced upon a TED talk by Allan Savory while researching Dr. Tim Noakes’ high fat-low carb diet. “It changed my life. I wanted to become involved. I wanted to help prevent the desertification of our planet,” says Sally.
She visited Allan’s Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe and saw how rural communities were improving their environment with proper land management and realized that was true wealth. “They have food security, water throughout the year and strong communities. I discussed this with Allan and he referred me to Hendrik.”
‘There are lots of people who want healthy, affordable meat’
She walked away from her city life and in May 2016 joined the farm full time. She is involved with the marketing, and the niche butcher shops where she previously bought meat in Johannesburg are now her clients. “We supply 100% hormone-free meat from pigs that graze naturally. It is organic, free-range meat.”
Sally says that their biggest challenge is to meet the extremely high local demand. About 70% of their pork is sold locally in 300g packs at a cost of R10 each.
“Most of our clients live in Hammanskraal. They can only afford small packs of meat but are not fussy about the cuts. Processing and packaging is thus easy.”
Carcasses from the local abattoir are soon snapped up. “There are lots of people who want healthy, affordable meat. We don’t get a chance to build up our herd and our soil has improved to such an extent that we can’t graze it properly with 1 000 pigs.”
MORE THAN JUST PIGS
Sally and Hendrik have in the meantime rented the adjacent plot and can now graze and cultivate an extra 40 ha. The soil’s capacity improves all the time and they have realized that the pigs don’t utilize enough of the grazing in their camps. For this reason, Hendrik has now also diversified with cattle.
“The Dexters are small enough to handle easily and are also a good dual-purpose breed, with a good milk and meat yield for the amount of grass they eat.”
Like the pigs, the Dexters also graze a small camp which is moved daily. To milk them, a mobile milking stall was built and the cows are milked right there on the lands in the morning before they are moved to the next grazing camp. This rich milk is utilized by Hendrik, Sally and the team of workers.
The pigs are then moved to the camp where the cattle grazed the day before. The chickens forage with the pigs and cattle, and peck the seeds that the other animals loosen. They also eat insects and keep the pigs and cows free of parasites. The chickens also keep flies under control. Hendrik decided to bring in chickens after noticing how many crows walked around in in the veld with the pigs.
The farm now supplies 200 chickens a week which customers purchase live direct from the farm.
The cattle, pigs and chickens work and fertilize the soil so well that Hendrik and his team can plant vegetables immediately after the pigs have been moved to a new camp. They were recently able to sink a borehole which enables them to irrigate the vegetable gardens via drip irrigation.
The farm provides fresh meat, eggs, milk and vegetables for the six people and their families living and working there. Vegetables that are not consumed or sold are fed to the pigs.
Hendrik says production must be measured by yield per hectare under management each season and then reflected in the improved performance of the ecosystem and improved reliability of the land and its ability to quickly recover. It must also be seen against the background of the low risk factor of the farming enterprise and the skills learnt by the workers in the process.
By measuring the productivity of the farm in this manner, the output of his various enterprises is still on the increase. “This year, despite the worst drought in South Africa’s history, we doubled our pig numbers and added 20 Dexters. We also have more grass than last year.”
ANYONE CAN DO THIS
Their approach is a good method for someone who doesn’t have access to lots of land or money to begin farming says Anderson. “We only had to buy the electric wire.”
“Because we don’t have high production costs, the system isn’t dependant on large scale financing. Land ownership is thus not a prerequisite for success. It’s all about land management, not land ownership says Sally. The risks for small-scale farmers is minimal.
ENQUIRIES: Hendrik O’Neill email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISTAKE YOU HAVE MADE?
To underestimate the value of ultra high-density grazing.
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED?
To farm simply and not get caught in a cycle of factory farming with high costs and large debt, a high turnover and very little job satisfaction.
WHAT TECHNOLOGY DO YOU SEE AS INDISPENSIBLE ON THE FARM?
An easy to move electric fencing system.