“Every house needs foundations if it is going to stand. And where we can roam free …” These lyrics from musician Kirsty Macleod’s song ‘Foundations’ rings true with regard to taking care of our natural resources and products – as it is practised by the dairy farm, Sundale.

Stockfarm had the pleasure of learning more about the operation of this notable dairy farm, when we talked to the chief executive of Sundale Free Range Dairy, Pierre van Rensburg, Jack Willow, a supplier, and Lynette Howe of LaMont Marketing.

Pierre van Rensburg, CEO of Sundale Dairy (left) and Jack Willows of Burnside Farm.

Bigger than boutique

Sundale works closely with its supply farmers and could be viewed as a boutique dairy, but on a much larger scale. It started out as a family concern, owned and run by Neil and Sandi van Rensburg, supplying well-known brand, DairyBelle.

The business eventually grew to a point where they employed 480 people, making it a key player in the local economy and the time came for the new generation to take over. Their son, Pierre van Rensburg, currently holds the position of CEO, and his wife Sharna, that of CFO. Together, the family has driven accelerated growth through innovation.

The goodness of Jersey milk

The twelve farms that supply Sundale with its milk, all fall conveniently within an average radius of 50km from the facility at the East London Industrial Development Zone (ELIDZ).

Lynette highlights the fact that most of the cows on these farms are Jerseys, which gives the milk its distinct creaminess. “The breed is popular for the high butterfat content of its milk and the lower maintenance costs attending to its lower bodyweight. In addition, the milk produced when cows roam freely is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and beta-carotene.” The latter is the precursor of vitamin A that gives dairy products their natural rich creamy colour and texture. “It’s an ideal combination,” she notes.

Sundale has been working closely with its farmers on an organic conversion. Pierre believes that East London represents the natural home of South African dairy farmers, thanks to the mild weather and favourable environment. “The climate and natural grassy terrain allows us to let the cows roam freely throughout the year,” he says. “In places with a high occurrence of frost, such as Gauteng where there is no grass during their winter season, the cows need to be stable-fed.”

Jack Willow, owner of Burnside farm, the largest supplier to Sundale, comments on the dietary requirements of their herds. “The base diet consists of grass which is supplemented with lucerne on a total mixed ration (TMR) system. Excess grass is conserved in compressed bales and kept aside for times when there is a shortage of grass supply.

“The cows are taken to a paddock via a feed pod where they are fed, and everything they are fed is produced off the land. Dairy cows require additional nutrition and this should be supplemented according to the production of the animal. It is very important for dairy farmers to get the cows pregnant again 370 days into the calving period. Once you exceed this time limit, the financial viability is reduced. Milk production peaks at 70 days after calving.

“We like to see them roam free and take good care of our animals, so that you can enjoy your dairy free from guilt and full of all the goodness of nature.”

Focus on organic production

Sundale is not only the largest privately owned dairy in East London, but it has also won acclaim as the “greenest dairy in the Eastern Cape”. The free-range element was, in fact, intentionally incorporated into the official company name, and forms part of the carefully constructed strategy to produce dairy products that are produced ethically and in their purest form by way of traditional methods.

As users of between 200 000 to 300 000ℓ of water per day, primarily used to clean the factory and production lines, crates and vehicles, dairies are one of the largest consumers of water. “One of the most significant milestones that they have achieved,” Lynette relates, “is becoming the only dairy in the country that recycles all its water. Over the past 18 months, Sundale has invested in a number of capital growth projects which include the implementation of a water recycling plant.

“South Africa is a water-stressed country, and the deepening water crisis is becoming as pressing as the supply of electricity, if not more so,” says Pierre. “It is also crucial that we find more efficient ways in which to use this scarce resource. This is achieved by the long-term sustainability of operations by investing in treating our water so that it complies with South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) guidelines of portable water.”

Traditional cheesemaking

The latest development at the dairy is the addition of a cheese factory which enables them to produce 2 000kg of cheese per day. In keeping with their philosophy of producing whole foods in their purest form, they have installed specially designed equipment that allows them to produce the cheese via traditional methods.

It works as follows:

  • Applying a natural process to produce Gouda, where the cheese is placed in brine for two days so that the salt and moisture are naturally leached from the brine, keeping the cheese soft and making it a true sweetmilk cheese.
  • Their Cheddar is produced in the old method of ‘cheddaring’. The curd is cut and mixed in again and not compressed to expel the water, which is a method commonly used for mass production owing to decreased production times. The delicate flavour and colour of the cheeses are attributed to the milk from pasture-fed cows.

Their flagship product is a naturally yellow farm-style butter in traditional churns, produced for a quarter of a century. The butter has received the coveted seal of approval from Woolworths and is now available nationally. Sundale applies these same concepts to the processes implemented at the new cheese factory.

Sundale’s goal to produce in traditional methods, is something which was made possible through the design and development of machinery specifically built to meet their requirements. In Pierre’s words: “We are committed to producing whole foods with as little modifications as possible, so that our products reach end consumers in their natural form.”

Lynette believes that Sundale is set on a positive growth curve: “Also, the farmers that supply Sundale are secure in the knowledge that there is a viable future together.”

For further information, contact Lynette Howe on 083 443 8100, send an email to lynette@lamont.co.za or visit Sundale’s website at www.sundale.co.za. –Carin Venter, Stockfarm

Sundale in the news: 

Sundale increases producer price to help farmers

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