Leonard Mavhugu, a dairyman from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, talks to africanfarming.com about managing large herds and releasing the potential of farm personnel.
It’s two hours before dawn. Dairy farmer Leonard Mavhugu is on the move, driving through the darkness to Amadlelo Agri’s dairy at Fort Hare, outside the town of Alice, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.
At 38, Leonard, a senior production manager at Amadlelo Agri, with a staff of about 100 people, is responsible for close to 4 000 cows in milk (and their 4 000 followers) on 1 000ha of pasture. He is one of a handful of dairy farmers in southern Africa capable of competently overseeing a dairy operation this big.
The drought, a hike on feed prices, tight feed supplies and the low milk price has made it a difficult year for most dairy farmers. Add to this the challenge of calving down, then breeding 4 000 cows in three different operations, Leonard Mavhugu probably doesn’t have the easiest job in the world.
Still, he seems outwardly unruffled as he moves from a management meeting to a pasture training session, and drives from one farm to another. Leonard doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, but there is no hanging around. He has all the energy and stamina of a man entering his prime, but energy alone is not enough for a job like this.
His on-farm experience in pasture-based dairying is extensive. He’s driven, focused and knowledgeable; he’s humble and always prepared to help, but he’s got a job to do and he’s going to do it with everything he’s got.
Training and background
An animal production graduate from TUT (Tshwane University of Technology) in Pretoria, Leonard’s first job was at a TMR (total mixed ration) dairy in Johannesburg, where, he says, he learnt much about stockmanship. At 26, he was recruited by Jeff Every, CEO of transformational dairy business, Amadlelo Agri. Jeff was scouting for talented, young, black people to staff commercial dairy projects in the Eastern Cape.
Cliffie Biggs, dairy farmer from the Tsitsikamma, a well-known dairy region in SA, was Leonard’s first mentor.
“Cliffie introduced me to the dairy farming community of the Eastern Cape,” says Leonard. “He helped me in so many ways, taking it on himself to see that I was integrated and accepted by the community.”
After that, he spent a year with Rob Ballantyne (another Tsitsikamma dairy farmer), learning about grass and pasture management. “Rob is a real master, and a tough one, when it comes to pasture management. And he knows how to put it across.” A visitor to the Amadlelo dairies may hear Rob Ballantyne’s name a few times, as young black dairymen speak with pride about doing time on pasture with Rob.
A year after getting the job, Leonard went to the site of Amadlelo’s first dairy project, the Fort Hare Dairy Trust, which was set up to milk 1 000 cows.
“It was a greenfields project – there was nothing there – I was shocked – Jeff (Every) told me to get started. Clearing land, planting, building the dairy, fencing, erecting the pivots… it all had to be done. I was 27 and scared, but I thought if Jeff believed in me I’d better do it.”
For the next eight years Leonard managed Fort Hare dairy, now an established commercial project with 900 CIM (cows in milk) off a 200ha milking platform. During this time, Leonard began to teach other young farmers, taken in as interns, about productive pasture management.
In 2014, he moved to Keiskamma Hoek, to head up a 2 000 CIM dairy project. Keiskamma Hoek is an old South African government irrigation scheme where 35 landowners each hold title, or part title, to 12ha of land. The landowners are shareholders in the dairy business.
A great sweep of land running up to the Amathole mountains, the project at Keiskamma Hoek has two dairies, one (number 1) for spring calvers and the other (number 2) for autumn calvers. Keiskamma calves down 1 200 cows in spring and 800 in autumn.
Both parlours have rotaries with computerised (Afikim) herd management systems. The combined milking platform is 483ha of pasture, and there is a further 270ha of pasture for heifers.
This May, Leonard was appointed production manager of the Fort Hare, Keiskamma Hoek and Middeldrift dairies, a promotion which put him into the 4 000 CIM league.
Middeldrift, the third dairy farm in Leonard’s stable is a 650 CIM operation with a milking platform of 164ha of pasture, managed by Jeanet Rekhotso, a protegeé of Leonard’s, who has been with Amadlelo for eight years.
The learning experience
“The learning curve is the most difficult part of farming,” says Leonard, as we set out on a pasture walk at Fort Hare.
To illustrate this, he talks about how a farmer learns the value of capital investment.
“You can’t save by cutting capital costs. If I don’t put down the fertiliser I will save on my cost/ha but I will lose everywhere else.” This kind of learning, says Leonard, can’t really be taught at college or university, but is learnt through a process of experience.
Acquiring skill in the science of pasture management is another example of practical experiential learning. It can be fairly tricky to master, and the pasture student must spend time on the grass, measuring, walking, getting to know the pasture and its changes.
“The most important thing in pasture management is to calibrate the eyes,” says Leonard. “The eyes come in after many hours on the pasture.”
When Leonard is training students he has to work longer hours, but he finds it rewarding because teaching is close to his heart.
“Leonard has a teaching gift,” says Jeff.
Leonard allocates pasture and works out rotations with his interns, and pushes them to find practical solutions to problems.
“Once they see the results, they are surprised, then thrilled that they can actually do it. People like direction; once they’ve got it, there is generally no limit to what they can do.”
Leonard interacts directly with his trainees and then retreats to watch their progress.
“I teach and pull back, teach again and pull back. Then I go behind to check. If it’s right, fine; if not then we do it again. I don’t teach shortcuts because I don’t believe in them. A teacher has to make sure his students learn the right thing from the beginning; it’s much more difficult when you have to teach people to change.”
Winter, says Leonard, is a good time to look at a farming operation, because the bones of the farm are exposed; the problems are laid bare.
“If feed is short on the pasture in winter, I will top up with concentrates, because it’s critical that I keep my rotation intact. The pasture is my standing fodder bank; I need it to meet cow demand at calving when [the cow] demand exceeds grass growth.”
Leonard holds back on the grass in late winter, to build farm cover for the cows coming into milk.
“It’s so important to keep anticipating; slow the rotation if necessary, buy in feed if you have to. Of course I can speed up the rotation, but then I will run into problems later when I’m calving down 600 cows [at the Fort Hare dairy] in two weeks. After the 10 September when grass growth usually outstrips cow demand, grass is cut and stored. Stored feed is the farmer’s safety net against shortages.”
Calving down in July, August, September does bring with it some cow condition loss.
“I don’t like it,” Leonard says, “but I don’t really start worrying as long as the grass is growing and the cows are on a rising plane of nutrition. They should be back in condition and ready to breed and conceive in October, November and December.”
Getting the balance right
Pasture-based dairying involves constant engagement with the relationship between grass, milk and cows; it’s a balancing act that requires skill and experience to pull of successfully.
“No matter what I am told, I am sure of two things; the dung does not lie, the grass does not lie. It makes checking up relatively easy,” says Leonard.
Pastures are measured with a plate meter (plated) once a week, so that the farmer knows the production (in kilograms of dry matter per hectare) and growth of his grass.
On a dragline irrigated Kikuyu pasture, oversown with ryegrass and clover, Leonard shows his students how to check on composition in a stand of grass.
“There is Kikuyu here where we’ve come in a bit late and lost some production, but the stand is well-balanced with about 40% of clover. It’s best to check the grass from the bottom up. I want the cows to eat down to 4cm, which is about eight clicks on the rising plate meter.”
The pasture manager must maintain the pasture for optimum production; not grazing down too hard which will knock back grass production, nor grazing too lightly which will waste grass. A grass plant will not produce another leaf before the previous leaf is fully grown, and the new leaf is always longer than the previous leaf.
People – the greatest asset
Leonard firmly believes in the value of taking responsibility for getting a job done. He encourages a sense of ownership, which he says promotes responsible people who can make decisions; positive interaction and ownership create a culture of innovation, he says.
“Innovation is what gives businesses an edge. I don’t run a dictatorial system; I want the guys to take pride in their work. The job has to be done, and if it’s your job – do it. When it’s properly done, I think recognition is appropriate.”
Leonard says the reason people battle to delegate, is because they are afraid of losing control. But, as the overseer of a number of farms, he must be able to trust and respect his managers, and have confidence in their ability.
“So, I manage the managers, and they must manage their systems.” Managers needs the skills and the competence to do the job, Leonard explains. “You must have the right tools for the right people; a combination of inadequate equipment and an untrained man is a system set up to fail.”
He is not a great fan of incentives and bonuses that reward individual effort, because he sees the team as the primary unit. The opposite of reward feels like punishment, says Leonard, so if an individual worker is incentivised financially for something like calf survival, withdrawal of the bonus because of a death, seems like ‘a slap on the wrist’.
“But the calf may have died through no fault of the calf rearer, who will definitely feel that he or she has been unfairly treated. Of course, I will recognise the success of the team. If we’ve had a good season, then it’s absolutely okay to pay out something extra to the team, when the season is over.”
He is passionate about instilling pride in his people. “Everyone wants that pride, the recognition of a job well done. Working without recognition is like poison – sooner or later it seeps through the system destroying the morale of your staff.
“Especially when you take over a system where the people are demoralised, you have to change the culture. Start by getting the guys to take ownership; immediately they are helping you.”
Leonard admits that he was a lot more arrogant until he shifted his paradigm and changed his leadership style. He describes it as, “a kind of maturity, knowing that you don’t have to be hard on people to get the best out of them.”
Amadlelo sends managers to events like the Large Herds Conference, either in South Africa or in New Zealand. Managers go to New Zealand for extended periods of up to a year.
“It exposes them to a different environment which is good for them,” says Leonard, “and it teaches them to think, which is what you want for innovation.”
At the end of a long day, Leonard is once again driving through the darkness; he talks about his faith, he talks about uplifting people and the joy of teaching, he talks about endless possibilities, and he talks about the white commercial farmers of the Eastern Cape and how their unstinting generosity with time, money and emotional support has contributed to him being where he is today.