Business partners Brian Magor and Brett Pattie of Midlands Imperial Investments are always on the lookout for opportunities. And hardy, indigenous Nguni cattle have proven the ideal way to make idle land profitable. As owners of an ever-expanding commercial forestry enterprise, Brian and Brett produce industrial pine saw timber for their sawmills and pallet plant. But with about 5 000ha of timberland in the Natal Midlands and Southern Drakensberg, a lot of land was lying fallow.
“Only about 50% to 60% of the land is planted to pine trees. The rest is bottomlands, vleis, verges and watercourses – so we had the grazing, we just had to find a use for it,” explains Brett. “The benefits of the Ngunis are a cleaner and neater farm, with less risk of fire in the winter. Plus they bring in a secondary income.”
The herd is also increasing in value as the partners build a name for their stud. “As a timber farmer, having cattle is an absolute boon,” says Brian. “They don’t require a lot of management, but you become passionate about them.” The cattle also help with firebreaks. “We use them to keep the grass short between the trees,” says Brett. “They’re like walking lawnmowers. They trample over the brush lines and compact them, helping to break down the fuel load.”
Today the Nguni herd accounts for about 5% of farm income. “We’ve been expanding the herd for five years and will increase it further as a management tool for timber,” says Brian.
Bringing in Ngunis
Brett’s fascination with the Nguni breed began in 1992, when he acquired his herd nucleus from renowned Nguni breeder Dr Doug Crowe. But it was only in 2004 that he persuaded Brian to introduce the cattle onto their timber farm on Swythernby in the Kamberg. Next they acquired Marius Viljoen’s herd, with a great gene pool.
“The Kamberg herd has stayed intact except for a few additional cows from Gerrie van der Walt, Andre Nel, and John Du Preez,” says Brett. “After seeing the benefits of quality animals, we set about acquiring animals from breeders and bloodlines all over the country.”
They’ve built their herd up to about 1 300 head ranging on 10 farms in the Natal Midlands and southern Drakensberg, grazing on mountain sourveld and kikuyu lands. About half the herd is registered and run in single-sire herds with 40 to 50 cows per registered bull. The commercial or unregistered animals are run in either single- or multi-sire herds.
About 10% of the best bull calves are retained, and the top 5% are sold to the Nguni stud market. The bulls run with the cows year round so conception takes place naturally. Calving occurs mainly in September/October, although some out of season calving takes place in winter.
The partners selected the Nguni breed because of its low management requirements. “It’s hardy and tick resistant,” explains Brian. “The cows calve unassisted and gain weight quickly. And because they’re low-intensity feeders and a bit smaller, Ngunis need less land to remain healthy and strong.”
Brian and Brett follow the philosophy of “the least work” when making management decisions. For example, they don’t poll their cattle, or use an intensive dipping regimen.
“After the initial tick treatment of calves and newly bought animals, we do virtually no further dips,” explains Brett. “On some of our farms, we haven’t dipped for three years. We practise very selective dipping and only a knapsack spray is applied to the underside of heavily infested cattle to prevent udder damage.
“Our farms carry all the tick-borne challenges, like redwater, hartwater and gallsickness, plus a number of toxic plants. As a result the cattle adapt well to all other areas in South Africa.” In summer, the cattle are given a phosphate lick, and in winter a protein lick. “In summer we have a wonderful food basket, but it all falls apart in winter,” says Brett.
“If we don’t help them, conception rates will fall. But we’re careful not to over-domesticate and pamper them.”
Herders at work
Due to the limited fencing on a forestry estate, herders look after the herds on a daily basis. The herds are generally nomadic, but in some instances are kraaled at night or kept in fixed camps, as when they’re calving. “The herders develop a wonderful feel for the cattle, and name them according to their characters or patterns,” says Brian. “Over time they get to know their charges intimately.
Watching herders with cattle grazing in the shadows of a mature pine forest has long fuelled my passion for these remarkable beasts.”
Contact Brian Magor on 082 372 6348 or e-mail [email protected]. Call Brett Peattie on 082 775 544 or e-mail [email protected].