Working together: Success in family farming

Farming seems to come easily to Gopolang Tladinyane and his sons, Motlapele and Reaobaka, who are happily dedicated to their family team and to their farming business. Gopolang knows the value of early learning in agriculture and finance, and has made his boys profit-sharers in the business. The Tladinyanes ‘talk farming’ to Peter Mashala of African Farming.

It’s Friday and Gopolang Tladinyane’s eldest sons, Motlapele (16) and Reaobaka (13), have just arrived on the farm from boarding school. After dropping off their bags, changing and wolfing down a quick snack, they’re off to see what needs to be done before sundown. Rea, in Grade 8 at Hartbeespoort High School, is the mechanic and manages the small stock on the family farm in Sanddrift, about 20km north of Brits in North West.

He’s just checked whether there is anything urgent waiting to be fixed in the workshop. “Everything seems to be running smoothly; the tractors are in good working order, except one that needs the top gasket replaced. I can have it finished in no time, then I can focus on the livestock,” he reports.

Motlapele, in Grade 11 at Bekker High School in Magaliesburg, looks after the grain production. Helping with the spraying of the soya beans tops his to-do list. They finished planting sunflowers two months ago on 50ha in Bethanie, about 20km west of their farm, he says. These will be ready to harvest in June. “Right now we need to rake and bale the lucerne that’s been cut. The market is starting to peak as winter gets closer.”

A DREAM COMES TOGETHER

Motlapele and Rea farm with their father, Gopolang, a well-known Simmentaler and Simbra stud breeder. They grow dryland sunflowers on communal land they lease in Bethanie, whereas the home farm of 100ha in Sanddrift is dedicated to producing feed for the intensive livestock operation of 60 Simmentaler and Simbra breeding cows, 80 Meatmaster sheep and 100 Boer goats.

“We moved here in 2004. The boys have known the system from a young age and have always taken part in farm activities,” Gopolang says. He believes it was natural for them to start taking more responsibility as they grew in their self-appointed roles. “I just had to guide and teach them a few things.”

It’s a dream come true to have his boys join him on the farm, according to Gopolang. His third son, Baatile (5), is at Thornhill Primary School and always wants to go farming with his dad. His three sons were all born on the farm.

“Farming is a multigenerational business; you don’t get it right with the first generation. The next generation builds on what was left by the previous one,” Gopolang says. He, too, is from a farming family and learnt from his father, who farmed on communal land in Jericho, Gopolang’s birthplace. His dad still farms Brahman cattle.

“My maternal grandfather was also involved in farming at a commercial level in the 1950s. He started as a farm worker and ran his own animals on the farm. Later he bought about 60ha of land,” he says. However, apartheid laws meant that his grandfather could not expand, and so he moved to Botswana, where some of Gopolang’s relatives still farm near Lobatse. Gopolang says he remembers the day when he was in Grade 12 and saw a poster advertising farmland for sale.

“It was during the apartheid period, yet I was brave enough to walk into those offices for advice on how to buy a farm,” he says, smiling. “Nothing came of the visit, but it was those little things that made me realise I wanted to become a farmer.”

In 2007 that destiny was fulfilled when Gopolang, by then a qualified mechanical engineer working as a project manager at BMW SA in Rosslyn, bought the farm in Sandrift through a Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) grant and a Land Bank loan. He and his wife moved from Pretoria North with their two small children.

At that stage Gopolang had already started farming part time with his father and was running cattle. Eager to learn and solve problems, he visited other cattle farmers on weekends to get practical advice, which he would apply to his own herd. During this time he was introduced to Simmentalers and was highly impressed with the breed’s milk production. He bought his first Simmentaler stud cow in 1998 and two years later registered as a breeder with the Simmentaler and Simbra Breed Society.

BEEF ON PASTURE

The transition from farming communal land extensively to farming an intensive system was a challenge. “Irrigation farms are highmaintenance,” Gopolang admits. Fortunately he got on very well with the previous owner of the farm, who introduced him to the local farmers. On their advice, Gopolang was soon planting irrigated pastures, repairing fences and renovating the house.

At the time he had 10 Simbra heifers. Using the balance of his LRAD grant, he bought 10 Simmentaler heifers from Callie Lee, a respected stud breeder who farmed further north. Callie later became his mentor. Gopolang’s Simmentaler and Simbra herd grew from 20 breeding cows in 2009 to an 80-cow unit run on an intensive system by 2015.

“We’ve had to reduce the herd to 60 cows since to make more land available for fodder production,” he explains. With good pasture management and a decent fodder flow plan, he says, it is possible to carry more than 60 animals on 100ha. The approved stocking rate is 1 large stock unit (LSU) to about 10ha in a low-rainfall area, but Gopolang says the stocking rate can be increased on pasture.

“There are almost 100 cattle, if we include the 20 heifers and 10 young bulls that we normally have on the farm at any given point. This is why I have 35ha of planted pasture under irrigation.” Gopolang’s friend, James Wallis, a retired Extension Officer who worked at the Brits Department of Agriculture and has a degree in pasture management, helped him plan the fodder flow. He rotates soya beans and maize on about 15ha; 10ha is permanently planted to lucerne; and about 10ha is planted to oats in winter.

They plant maize in August and harvest it in November to make silage, Gopolang says. “The silage is ready just before winter begins and we start feeding it out to the cattle from May, depending on the veld condition.” He rates maize silage highly for increasing growth, maintaining the condition of the cows and boosting their milk production. When used strategically at different times of the year, Gopolang adds, maize silage is a valuable feed in a pasture-based system like his, and he can maintain his stocking rate.

“Immediately after harvesting the maize in November, we plant soya beans, which we harvest in May. These we sell at the Brits Coop, and we feed out soya-bean hay with silage. In winter we put the cattle onto planted oats, which is especially good for freshly calved cows,” says Gopolang.

According to him, a hectare of winter oats can sustain five animals from June to September. After the early rains, between September and October, he moves the animals onto the veld so that he can plant summer pastures. There are two breeding seasons: the summer calving period is between October and February, and winter calving is between June and July. The herd achieves an average weaning weight of between 230kg and 240kg, according to Gopolang. “Providing licks in winter and summer is a must,” he adds.

FLOCK MANAGEMENT

Rea proudly explains how his department works. “Our sheep and goats are mainly on the same grazing system as the cattle.” He says his father has allocated each of his sons shares in the sheep flock. “We have 20 sheep each, including Dad.” Even though they all have a share in the flock, Rea explains, it’s his responsibility to look after the sheep and goats.

“I make sure their body condition is good and that they are in good health. We record lambing ewes and their lambs, and tag them using coloured tags to assign ownership. My colour is blue.” The goats and sheep are vaccinated with One-Shot Ultra 7 to prevent blackleg, gas gangrene and pneumonic pasteurellosis,
among others. Rea says they also use Glanvac 3, which protects against cheesy gland, pulpy kidney and tetanus. They have one breeding season, with the lambing season starting in September.

“We vaccinate in August, about two to four weeks before lambing, so that lambs can get immunity through the colostrum,” Rea explains. Lambs are weaned at three to four months. “Young rams are fattened and sold, whereas the young ewes are kept so we can build the flock. I sold about 10 of my own young rams last year and used some of the money for a go-cart. The rest I saved,” he says.

Motlapele has been driving the sunflower project and, although they had a disappointing yield last season, he’s looking forward to better yields this season. “We planted late; the winter got us and we had poor yields of about 200kg/ha. But this season we planted on time, so we’re hoping for a good harvest,” says Motlapele. He says this will be their last year in Bethanie, as they plan to move the grain production to communal land in Jericho.

“We are de-bushing at least 100ha there, which we will plant this season. We’d like to increase the planting to 200ha in the following season so that we can grow four crops in rotation on 50ha each. The sugar graze will be used for silage and lablab as fodder, to help us increase sheep numbers,” Motlapele explains. He and his brothers have shares of 5ha each in the sunflower operation.

“I’m responsible for the production, but we share the proceeds from the 15ha equally,” says Motlapele. He also does contract work for other small-scale farmers, especially in surrounding communal areas.

“This season I’ve worked about 300ha as a contractor, ripping, disking and planting. I’d love to expand the grain operation, first by using available communal land and then maybe in future getting a private farm with more arable land,” Motlapele concludes. Focused on the present but planning for a big future, this dream farming team seems ready to take on the challenges of agriculture and win all the way.

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