ARC’s top emerging beef farmer beats the odds

Tembeka Mbeshu, the 2016 Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) Emerging Beef Farmer of the Year for the Eastern Cape, runs a herd of about 30 predominantly Bonsmara-type cows in the Elliot district. Mike Burgess visited her to learn how her beef enterprise has helped provide her children with an education.

ARC’s top emerging beef farmer beats the odds
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“I sat in this house crying, I did not know what to do,’’ recalls Tembeka Mbeshu (44) of the farm, Eensaam, near Elliot in the Eastern Cape. After the death of her husband Joseph in 2012, Tembeka became solely responsible for the farming operation.

“Suddenly I had to do everything myself.’’

However, Tembeka committed herself to not only farm the 265ha farm to secure the future of her son (Masande) and two daughters (Lilitha and Nosisa), but also to reach her goal of one day becoming a fully-fledged commercial beef farmer.

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“I will never run away from the farm; I have big dreams,’’ she says.

Rising out of poverty
After losing her mother to cancer in 1987, Tembeka lived with her father, Jack Ngada, a former farmworker in the Ugie district. In the early 1980s, Jack had moved to the former Transkei’s Engcobo area to pursue communal farming. Tembeka says that poverty was the norm during her childhood; a fact maybe best reflected in her stuttering school career.

Tembeka Mbeshu (44) farms with Bonsmara-type cattle near Elliot in the Eastern Cape.

Although she passed Std 7 in 1989, Tembeka was forced to leave school in 1990 to work in a shop in a rural village near Engcobo. However, in 1991 she returned to school in Mthatha, and by 1993 wrote matric as a mother, but unfortunately failed.

She eventually passed matric in her early twenties, thanks largely to the motivation and support of Joseph, whom she first met in 1991. Her plans to continue her studies at a teachers’ training college also came to nought as a result of unsuitable subject choices.

That was the end of the road for Tembeka as far as formal education was concerned, and in 1996 she married Joseph, a businessman with interests in the local retail and taxi industries.

In the same year, Joseph was able to lease the farm Eensaam. The Mbeshu family moved their livestock (seven Nguni-type cattle and about 50 Merino sheep) onto the isolated farm and settled in a small building that offered very basic comforts. By 1998, Joseph abandoned the small stock enterprise on Eensaam due to theft and predation, and focused on expanding the beef herd.

Building the beef herd
In 2003, the Mbeshus acquired Eensaam through the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) land reform programme, and the family was eventually able to move into the main homestead, which had no electricity.

In about 2004, Joseph acquired seven Bonsmara heifers, and in 2010, the family were able to add 30 Bonsmara cows and a bull to their herd through the AsgiSA EC’s Sakhisizwe Livestock Beef Programme. Unfortunately, 10 cows died soon after arrival on Eensaam, as they had been purchased from different provinces and were poorly adapted to the conditions in the region.

Joseph was also afflicted by a weak heart, and, in apparent preparation for tragedy, began teaching Tembeka various skills that many would have taken for granted. For example, Joseph taught his young wife to drive and practice changing the tyres on his bakkie.

“He was very strong and he made me strong,’’ recalls Tembeka. “He said I must learn because one day he would leave me because he was old.’’ That day came on 29 April 2012, when Joseph died on the way to hospital.

Today, Tembeka’s beef cattle herd consists of Bonsmara, Nguni and Simbra-type animals. She is currently using a Simbra bull purchased in 2015 from local farmer, Kobus du Randt. The cattle are run exclusively on the veld, and receive a protein/salt lick in winter and a phosphate/ salt lick in summer. No extra feed is grown on the property.

Cattle are treated with a pour-on dip (about once a month in summer) and are subjected to a standard dosing and inoculation programme. All cattle are tagged and branded, and the farm has a strong fountain and stream, but no dams or boreholes.

She produces about 15 weaners a year, citing her lack of extra feed as the main reason for the 50% weaning rate. At eight months, most weaners are sent to the Ikhiphu feedlot near Elliot, which is run by the local community, and a R700 fee/animal is payable upfront to cover feed and inoculation costs.

Tembeka then receives payment from the feedlot when the cattle are marketed, mostly to local abattoirs. Nevertheless, Tembeka says the informal market in the former Transkei is lucrative, specifically for fattened cull cows that are slaughtered as part of traditional ceremonies.

“It is good money, because they pay you more than R8 000 for an old cow. ‘’

Over the years Tembeka says she has learnt that beef farming poses significant challenges. For example, she does not have the resources or machinery to plant crops to support the animals in winter.

In 2013, which was exceptionally dry, she lost 15 cattle due to a lack of feed, and today purchases lucerne bales at R100 each to support her cattle in winter. “It is expensive, but I do it because I have no choice,’’ she says.

Another major challenge is stock theft. Although she has not suffered serious losses from theft in the past few years, Tembeka recalls a devastating incident in 2007.

“They took seven in-calf heifers – I was crying,’’ she recalls. “We did not find them.”

Fires and lightning, which recently claimed four heifers, also pose a threat to her small cattle herd.

Diversifying to improve cash flow

A major challenge for Tembeka is ensuring regular cash flow as weaner production cycles only provide a cash injection once a year, while the sale of cattle (including heifers) can be irregular. Tembeka has therefore been forced to look at alternative income streams, including small-scale vegetable and broiler production, as well as the growing-out of pigs.

Her vegetable garden not only offers her an important source of food for the household, but the fresh produce, especially cabbages, can also be marketed.

Her small broiler production unit, now partially destroyed by a veld fire, was built with a R200 000 grant from the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development, and is able to produce 200 broilers per six-week cycle when in full production. During the past few years, Tembeka has also grown out pigs, which she sells for use in traditional ceremonies.

For example, she sold four pigs for R3 000 each in March, and is currently feeding another five young pigs.

Tembeka admits that all endeavours on Eensaam are aimed at ensuring a quality education and a bright future for her children. Her daughters currently attend a rural school nearby, while her son is completing a post-graduate degree in environmental health at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Cape Town.

Of all the photos in her home, she seems most proud of the one showing a happy Mbeshu family in Cape Town in April 2016, after Masande’s BTech graduation ceremony. Her advice to other farmers is to have patience, passion and determination, which she considers the key ingredients

to a successful farming enterprise. “If you want to farm, you need to be patient, because it is not easy. Also, you must like what you do, and know what you want, or you will go nowhere.”

Phone Tembeka Mbeshu on 073 825 6795

Digital editor for South Africa's oldest and most read farming magazine.