Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
• Robert Mphuthi farms on Quarrykop and is run under the umbrella of the Mphuthi Family Trust.
• Within a few years Robert started to see the value of superior bulls in the improvement and performance of Quarrykop’s cows.
• A valuable lesson learned early on was the value of advisors.
• The current average weaning weight is between 180 and 220kg, although Robert aims to increase this to between 220 and 240kg.
• For a cattle farmer to break through the barrier from emerging to full-scale commercial, one should have at least 600 cows.
Robert Mphuthi farms on Quarrykop, some 10km outside of Senekal on the N5 towards Paul Roux in the Free State. The farm is run under the umbrella of the Mphuthi Family Trust. A truck driver by trade, he has been involved in farming for many years now, he says.
“I started working on the farm Panorama in the Senekal area shortly after I completed my schooling. The owner, the late Nick du Toit, taught me a lot about farming, as well as other skills. He taught me how to weld, drive a tractor, use implements, and how to best look after cattle. He had a dairy, so I learned quite a bit about dairy production as well. Actually, most of what I know I learned from him.”
Robert’s first cattle were two Holstein bull calves, which he raised on the same communal land on which he lived. Once they were fully grown, he sold them, and used the proceeds to buy two heifers. This, he says, is how he started.
“At the time I was a long-distance truck driver with Unitrans in Johannesburg. While working for them, I saved money to buy more cows. I was fortunate in that both my mother and brother were able to look after the cattle while I was in Gauteng. After ten years at Unitrans, I resigned and came back home. In 2001 I got a job at Engen Petroleum in Bethlehem, which made it much easier for me to manage the cattle.”
During that time, he applied for a government farm and in 2006 received Quarrykop, which comprised of 302ha.
Improvements that pay off
“One day Patrick Sekwatlakwatla from the Sernick Group came to visit me and gave me very good advice on how to improve the cattle operation. He advised that I cull some of the cows and buy good bulls from the proceeds. I also started to attend some of the short courses Sernick hosted, which proved to be of great value.”
Within a few years Robert started to see the value of superior bulls in the improvement and performance of Quarrykop’s cows. The weaners were noticeably heavier and the replacement heifers were simply in a better class than before.
“Apart from this visible improvement in my genetics, I also saw the value of doing the right things at the right time. Giving the correct lick, for example, made a huge difference to my conception rates. Similarly, once I started a good vaccination programme, herd health improved dramatically.”
In addition to the cattle on Quarrykop, Robert and a partner are also involved in crop farming under the banner of Hodimo Farming in the Arlington area. This venture proved to be a huge learning curve for him.
The value of expert advice
A valuable lesson that Robert learned early on was the value of advisors. “There are many excellent advisors out there willing to lend a helping hand, and one should never be scared to ask for advice.”
The first he mentions is Patrick. Then there are the specialists from the fertiliser company Omnia in their crop farming venture, as well as Standard Bank Agribusiness’s business division. Dr Johan van Zyl from the University of the Free State also contributes valuable advice.
Quality through improved genetics
As Quarrykop is not a big farm, Robert is restricted in terms of the number of cows that can be kept. Until he can increase the number of hectares to run the cow herd on, the only way he can maximise the farming enterprise’s profit is by improving the quality of the animals. To this end, Robert is planning to start an artificial insemination (AI) programme on his best cows in order to accelerate genetic progress.
“My plan is to select 20 to 30 of the best cows in the herd and buy the best semen I can afford. This means I will be able to afford even better genetics than what I’m using now. I buy my bulls from Sernick and are very happy with the quality of bull I get from them. But through AI, I would be able to utilise even better genetics.”
Weaning weights and recordkeeping
The most important trait, after fertility, he is looking for at the moment is weaning weights. Although sold on the Bonsmara, Robert feels that crossbreeding, which utilises hybrid vigour, is something that should be explored.
The current average weaning weight is between 180 and 220kg, although Robert aims to increase this to between 220 and 240kg. However, when the price is right, he is not averse to letting the lighter calves go, which reduces the risk.
In terms of refining management, the next item on the agenda is to start weighing more accurately. He has acquired a scale and is planning to build a facility to make the handling of the cattle more effective.
“Although I’m keeping records, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Intercalving periods, for example, is something that has a direct influence on the profitability of the herd, and I should pay more attention to that.”
Harnessing economies of scale
For a cattle farmer to break through the barrier from emerging to full-scale commercial, says Robert, one should have at least 600 cows. At that number economies of scale come into play. To get there, however, he would need substantially more land. As buying more land is impossible, Robert plans on increasing the number of hectares by renting more land as the number of cows in the herd increases.
Leaving behind a proud legacy
His vision, says Robert, is very simple. At age 57 his active days are numbered. If he wants to leave a legacy for his children and create a stable platform from which they can continue, he must increase the size of the land farmed to around 1 000ha within the next seven to ten years. In addition, he aims to have the processes and procedures in place to successfully run a large farming operation so that his children can take over and take the business further.
The country is currently in a bad state, and it would be easy to become sinical and say that there is no future for the next generation. The world is changing fast, however, and every generation lives in a different world than their parents. For Robert, the core values parents instil in their children will come through, no matter what the world looks like. It is for this reason that he has great hope for the future.
“I’m taking great pains to show my children the right way. This does not only go for farming, but for life in general. One of my sons is showing great interest in the farm. So, in a lot of what I’m doing, I have at the back of my mind the fact that I’m building a legacy. Perhaps three or four generations from now, my great-great-grandchildren will reap the rewards of my hard work.
“I often look at other third- or fourth-generation farmers and hope that, just like them, I could be the pioneer on whose shoulders future Mphuthi generations can build and improve.” – Izak Hofmeyr, Stockfarm
For more information, send an email to Robert Mphuthi at firstname.lastname@example.org.