Size matters

Charl Senekal’s achievements over the past 30 years have made him a ‘super farmer’ – he’s got big ideas and the guts to follow them through. He told Robyn Joubert about his success with mechanisation and economy of scale.

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Charl Senekal is South Africa’s largest private sugar producer. Innovative thinking – and the guts to put his money where his mouth is – won him the Agricultural Writers’ Association of South Africa’s National Farmer of the Year award in 2002. With 3 500ha irrigated sugar cane in Mkuze and Pongola, his Senekal Suiker Trust produces 360 000t of sugar cane annually. And with the recent news that land claims on his land are likely to be degazetted, Charl plans to increase land under cane by 1 600ha and production by 200 000t/year.

Clearing 200ha bush nestling up against the Ubombo Mountain is already well underway. Sugar production contributes some 80% of farming turnover. Charl’s other business interests include a 25% share of the Umfolozi Mill, the cane hauling business Sentrans, 16 500ha bushveld under game, shares in the Pongola Game Reserve and a construction company.

Irrigation on a huge scale
With the Jozini dam a few kilometres away, and a water use licence to irrigate 6 000ha, irrigation forms the backbone of the sugar operation. This has preserved the bottomline at a time when drought is hitting rainfed canegrowers hard.“Drought hasn’t affected us much,” Charl says. “I farm with water and pipes.

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We irrigate night and day if necessary. But we have our own weather station on the farm and keep a close eye on the rain. If we can switch off the pumps for just one day, we save R30 000 in electricity.”Irrigation is by a computerised drip system, known as open hydroponic irrigation. Metered quantities of nutrients are released and dissolved in the water tanks before irrigation, which places the nutrients right into the root zone for maximum uptake.

At R25 000/ha, the initial irrigation infrastructure is expensive. Charl’s fertiliser bill averages about R2 100/ha per year, while a rainfed sugarcane farmer may spend in the region of R1 200/ha. “I spend more, but get twice the yield,” he explains. “Our cane stalks are probably 2,5 times higher than those on the North Coast.”

Nitrogen is the main fertiliser component. “We use 180kg/ha nitrogen annually while on the coast they only use 120kg/ha,” says Charl. “They have different growing conditions. While we irrigate frequently, they rely on rainfall, which is erratic and makes the take-up of nutrients erratic. Even if they put down more nitrogen, the plant won’t take it up.”Charl reckons he farms 30% cheaper than smaller farmers thanks to his economy of scale.

Because he buys inputs in such large quantities, companies want to do business with him, so he can negotiate cheaper prices. “We buy huge volumes,” he says. “We use 20 000â„“ of diesel daily. It isn’t cheap to farm the way I do.” The cutting edge of mechanisation. The farm is highly mechanised, improving efficiency and reducing labour costs.

“I use one labourer per 3ha,” he says. “Automating the irrigation system alone saves me 150 irrigation labourers, or R3 million a year.”A long inventory of machinery and earth moving equipment includes three cane harvesters (at R3 million apiece), four bulldozers, four excavators, dumpers, earthmoving tractors, and 450-horsepower eight-wheel tractors. “It’s serious stuff,” says Charl.

“I run a full earthmoving division on the farm.”His cane hauling company, Sentrans, owns 50 Nissan trucks plus trailers, which transport the Senekals’ cane and that of the neighbours. Although around R80 million is invested in these trucks, it’s cheaper than contracting out the job and the trucks pay for themselves in about four years.

Charl is about to erect a permanent GPS beacon on the mountain overlooking his sugar lands, as a reference for precision-guided earth leveling equipment and for precision farming in the future. “All the new equipment we buy is equipped for precision farming,” he says. “If I put down dripper lines or irrigation pipes under the surface and mark them on the GPS, we’d know exactly where they run if we need to lift them in five years’ time, and exactly what goes on under the surface.”

Charl recently imported a GPS-compatible cane planter, designed to plant in straight lines, from Australia. “We’ll start planting using GPS within the next four months. Within five years, all the lands will be precision-planted and harvested.”  “It all ties in with my desire to farm smarter. We want to be at the tip of the spear of all new innovations in agriculture. That’s where we can save money.”

Contact Charl Senekal on 034 413 1737 or e-mail [email protected].