As a former stockbroker with a four-year stint at Goldman Sachs in London behind him, Angus McIntosh has always been determined that his biodynamic farming enterprise had to make money and be sustainable.
“Apart from paying attention to my bottom line, I believe my farming enterprise should also be socially and environmentally profitable. Then it becomes sustainable,” Angus says.
His farming enterprise on the Spier wine estate near Stellenbosch consists of irrigated pastures that have been expanded in the last three months from 74ha to 126ha, a total of 3 500 free-ranging layer hens, 355 beef cattle and a 3ha Chenin blanc vineyard, from which he makes wine that will be co-branded with the famous Spier range.
Angus, who grew up on a cattle farm in KwaZulu-Natal, currently uses only 104ha of the pastures as grazing.
Despite the fact that he rents a relatively small piece of land comprising Hutton, Estcourt and “poor Maccassar beach soil”, Angus was convinced that he could turn circumstances to his favour.
After all, Spier is blessed with an average rainfall of 650mm per annum and access to an abundance of water from the Theewaterskloof Dam, the Western Cape’s largest storage dam.
“We have water at 5,5-bar pressure. There are no pumping costs. You just open the tap,” he says.
Having read several books that changed his ideas about farming, animal feed and the ideal way of eating, Angus realised that there was a way to transform the poor soils he was renting. He stresses that fertility is created on Spier, not bought or brought in.
Although he has not farmed conventionally and is unable to make comparisons, he believes that improving the soil in this way saves on production inputs.
Since he started farming in 2009, he has established pastures containing a mix of 18 different perennial grasses and legumes. He irrigates with overhead sprinklers.
Angus recently completed trials with eight cattle breeds to find the one that best suited his needs. His choice is Limousin, and he aims to achieve an optimal dressing out percentage once the animals reach slaughtering age.
He buys in weaners and follows an ultra-high-density grazing system in which a high concentration of cattle graze on an area as small as 1ha for a short period before being moved to the next one. The herd moves four times a day.
Angus’s system mimics the way large herds of game once moved from one area to another – returning to an area after a long time.
This system results in large quantities of manure being dropped on the pasture simultaneously, enhancing soil fertility. These principles are described in detail in Michael Pollan’s best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
“When I sowed for the first time, I was told that after four years I would be in a situation where I had to replant,” says Angus.
“But this isn’t so. Thanks to soil fertility, my pastures are pumping – without the use of any NPK.” This has not come without substantial investment, however.
The cost of seed has increased from R4 000/ ha in 2009 to R6 000/ha in 2014. The most recent overall cost for establishing pasture amounts to R60 000/ ha.
“Provided you’ve established the pastures well, they can be grazed in seven weeks,” he explains.
“Vegetables are the only produce that provide you with a quicker return. With my system, Spier’s pastures can be grazed seven times per year. The carrying capacity is four large stock units/ha.”
For two months at the start of winter, Angus feeds the cattle straw to ensure that they have sufficient dry matter intake. To address any deficiencies, he provides the cattle with a choice of mineral licks.
“The cow goes to the wagon and licks whichever mix she needs. Her body takes what is necessary and the rest, approximately 70%, comes out her back end, which makes it available to the pasture plants and soil.
“We have different minerals that we put into compartments on either side of the mineral wagon – Khoisan salt, bokashi, kelp and diatomaceous earth.”
Angus claims that he produces the purest grass-fed beef in the country as well as genuine free-range eggs.
“I allow my chickens to be chickens,” he says.
“I don’t produce eggs in battery houses or in barns with fenced-off areas.”
To supply the market consistently, he houses 3 500 layer hens (mainly Lohmann brown and Hy-line white) in 15 mobile units constructed on top of trailers and moved around the pastures.
This discourages the hens from making nests outside and encourages them to lay eggs in the egg mobiles.
The flooring consists of grid and mesh so that the manure can fall through. To prevent a build-up of parasites and excessive manure, he moves the mobiles daily.
Every 16 weeks, he gets new point-of-lay (18-week-old) hens. During the day, the hens move freely, but at night are kept inside to perch safely out of reach of predators such as lynx and genet.
The mobiles are perching structures, and are equipped with nest boxes, water dispensers and ad lib feeding bowls. The nest boxes are closed towards the evening after the day’s third collection of eggs. Average production is 3 000 eggs per day.
The mobiles are divided into three separate groups to prevent the spread of poultry diseases. Angus plans to have a total of 4 000 layers and intends introducing two more egg mobiles.
He is also about to conduct trials with Amberlink layers. Angus relies on animal nutritionist Hannes van der Westhuizen from Paarl, for help with the correct feed for the hens. He describes Hannes as a huge help to the poultry industry.
“Our layer rations are 85% non-GMO. It includes 68% non-GM maize as well as various kinds of pro-biotics. The 15% which contains genetically-modified organisms is due to the inclusion of locally produced soya beans.”
The layers are culled at 74 weeks. They are initially moved to the farm’s olive orchards and eventually sold live.
Value-adding and marketing
For Angus, successful farming consists of 50% sound production practices and 50% proper marketing.
“My clients require consistent supply. If they cannot have my products all the time, they’re not interested in them,” he says. He established a small butchery on the farm to supply top hotels, restaurants and a few retailers with prime cuts of beef and value-added products. These include hamburger patties, biltong and droëwors, mince and dog treats.
He employs a highly skilled butcher. To supply clients who want guaranteed grass-fed beef, he has formed a partnership called Cape Veld Beef with the Durr family of the Western Cape Livestock Agency (WLA).
Angus’s free-range eggs are probably the most expensive in the country; the producer price is R2,71/ egg. He sells his large eggs to restaurants and the rest in mixed sizes to several smaller retailers in and around Cape Town.
The very small and large eggs as well as those that are cracked, are combined and sold in 1l plastic bottles as ready-mixed scrambled eggs.
The eggs and beef products are also available in the deli on the estate, while Angus also runs a delivery service for households around Cape Town and for clients from Johannesburg who use Cape Town International Airport.
Angus has adopted a personalised marketing strategy and markets his business and products under his own name – ‘Farmer Angus’. He is also using the fact that his biodynamic pastures and practices contribute to carbon sequestration as a marketing tool, and anticipates that this could fetch a premium in future.
Staff, soil and Profits
Angus adds that as his farming activities progressed, he realised that environmental profitability (improving soil fertility) and social profitability (a steadily improving standard of living for his staff) were crucial to success.
He employs 45 permanent workers. A firm believer in economies of scale, Angus plans his production accordingly. He derives 45% of his income from Farmer Angus beef products, 45% from the free-range eggs and 10% from his two Chenin blanc wines.
“From a vintage, I make only 600 bottles of Chenin blanc and 2 000 bottles of Straw wine, but the margins are awesome. And I use my cattle to fertilise the dryland vineyards. I don’t spray any systemics on them,” he explains.
Production costs are cheaper with his biodynamic mindset. It costs him R20/ kg to buy weaner calves, including transportation, castration, immunisation, branding and supplying them with feed for the first few days. He immunises his herd only for BVD (bovine viral diarrhoea).
“I get a carcass weight of 240kg, for which I fetch an average of R55/ kg for all the cuts, compared with a producer price of R30/ kg for beef at the moment in SA,” he says.
He slaughters three cattle a week and does not intend expanding to more than five per week, so his production is relatively low, but he fetches high margins. Angus pays R55 for a point-of-lay hen.
After a laying period of 54 weeks, during which he achieves an average laying figure of 75%, he sells them live for R20 each.
Last year, he was awarded Eat Out magazine’s award for Best Free Range/Organic Producer for a second time.
Visit www.farmerangus.co.za for more information.