The Indian Ocean island of Réunion has a land area of 2 511km². This is taken up by a mix of coastal tourism attractions, towns, harbours, factories, farming operations and an active volcano. Unsurprisingly, competition for agricultural land in this far-flung part of France with its 840 000 permanent residents is intense. Most individual farming operations are conducted on plots smaller than 20ha, and many of these have been subdivided into even smaller parcels. As a result, farming enterprises are typically highly intensive and diversified.
The island’s climate is largely tropical, with a winter minimum of 20°C, a summer maximum of well over 30°C and an average annual rainfall of up to 10 000mm. High-potential volcanic soil helps to create the optimal conditions for a variety of field, fruit and vegetable crops. However, Réunion’s population also requires animal protein, which is where livestock farmers such as Roberto Begue enter the picture. A qualified land surveyor – all of Réunion’s farmers are required to have a tertiary qualification – Roberto has been farming for nearly 20 years.
He currently operates on three separate parcels of land, totalling 11ha, in partnership with his wife Laurence and fatherin- law Ary Mondon. Like all islanders who farm, Roberto receives substantial government subsidies from France. Without these, it is likely that most of Réunion’s farmers would fail financially. Roberto puts the money to good use. To spread production and financial risk, he and his partners run four separate livestock enterprises on their 11ha: a pork
production unit, a beef stud, a broiler production unit and, remarkably, a Boer Goat stud.
Because of Réunion’s links with France, the island’s farmers must adhere to the EU’s strict rules on the use of agricultural chemicals and other substances. “We also have to comply with increasingly stringent rules about animal welfare,” says Roberto.
Fresh genetics from France
The piggery has 80 landrace sows, artificially inseminated with semen from top Large White boars on Réunion. “When our pig farmers’ association needs fresh genetics, we import semen from France,” says Roberto. “The association holds regular study group meetings where we decide on the conformation of the pigs we produce for Réunion’s market. We want our slaughter pigs to be as uniform as possible.”
Every three weeks, all year round, the piggery markets 80 five-month-old slaughter pigs at 90kg to 110kg liveweight. The pigs are slaughtered at an abattoir in the town of St Pierre. The carcasses, fresh cuts and processed products are all sold and consumed on the island.
Local farmers meet half the demand
“At an average price of about €6/kg (R85/kg), pork is the most popular meat on Réunion,” says Eric Soundrom, an agricultural support manager with the island’s Chamber of Agriculture. Total annual pork consumption is about 20 000t. Half of this is produced on the island and the rest imported frozen from Europe. To accommodate changing EU animal welfare requirements, Roberto had to recently reduce his breeding sow herd from 120 to 80. “Pregnant sows now have to be in open pens until 10 days before farrowing,” he says.
“Only then can I put them into farrowing pens to protect the piglets,” he says. Roberto has found, however, that keeping pregnant sows in the open pens increases fighting and injuries. He also criticises EU regulations that stipulate that 20 of his sows have to be randomly selected every three months for blood tests for contagious or other important diseases. The tests are expensive, costing the equivalent of about R8 500 per group of sows.
He is thankful that his piggery has only had minor health problems and that overall production is good.The sows currently average 11 piglets per litter, while the island’s current top pig producer averages 12. Pig feed is produced in a mill in the town of St Paul from ingredients mostly imported from South America.
At about €450/t (R6 300/t), feed represents about half of the piggery’s total production costs. “Most of the piggery is automated, with one worker who works part of the day with the pigs and the rest elsewhere on the farm,” says Roberto. “Of our four livestock enterprises, the piggery generates the best return on investment.”
According to Eric, chicken is only slightly less popular than pork on Réunion. The annual demand is approximately 19 600t. Of this, 40% is produced by local farmers and the rest is imported from France and Brazil. “Fresh whole chickens sell for about €3/kg (R42,50/ kg),” says Eric. Poultry farmers such as Roberto earn about €1,50/ kg (about R21,27/ kg) for their broilers. Roberto has two 110m x 12m fully automated controlled-environment broiler houses, each holding 25 000 broilers. For bio-security reasons, each is situated on separate sections on the farm.
Roberto sources day-old Hubbard JA 757 broiler chicks from a hatchery in the town of L’Étang-Salé. The hatching eggs have to be air-freighted from France. “I grow broilers to a target slaughter weight of 1,7kg at 45 days,” says Roberto. “This is longer, and the birds are larger, than in many other countries. Réunion consumers prefer firmer and tastier chicken meat for our popular Creole curries. Slower- growing broilers also have fewer health problems such as heart failure.” With the broiler farms fairly widely dispersed, major health issues are rare.
However, EU regulations still have to be adhered to, including regular vaccinations against Newcastle disease, infectious bursal disease (gumboro disease) and coccidiosis. Roberto complains that regulations require Réunion’s poultry farmers to import all veterinary pharmaceuticals from the EU at great cost. The very same pharmaceuticals from South Africa can be one-sixth the price, he adds.
Roberto’s 35 Limousin and 20 Blonde d’Aquitaine breeding cows are registered in France. Pure Limousin or Limousin crosses make up about 60% of Réunion’s commercial beef cattle, as the breed adapts easily to the island’s conditions. Roberto started breeding Limousin bulls in 2010, importing his nucleus breeding herd from France. In 2012, he started breeding the Blonde d’Aquitaine, buying his nucleus breeding herd of one bull and four cows from a stud breeder on the island who had imported the embryos from France.
So far he has been impressed by the Blonde d’Aquitaine’s length and beefiness, but says it is still too early to judge whether it is worth continuing with the breed.
No set season
In both the Limousin and Blonde d’Aquitaine herds, Roberto puts selected bulls from other breeders on Réunion onto most of his breeding cows. He has no set breeding season, and allows a bull to serve a cow when she is in heat. He uses AI on about 5% of his cows per year to test new genetics. “The beef herd averages a 90% calving and an 85% weaning rate at six to seven months old and a weight of between 250kg and 300kg,” he says.
Réunion consumes about 5 600t of beef annually. The island produces about 1 800t and the balance is imported from Germany and Botswana. At the time of Farmer’s Weekly’s visit, the average retail beef price was between €15/kg and €20/kg (R210/kg to R280/ kg), with beef fillet selling for €30/kg (R420).
Although the disease threat is relatively low on Réunion, the EU requires cattle to be vaccinated against diseases such as infectious bovine rhinotracheitis. Of more concern is the threat of tick-borne bovine piroplasmosis (redwater). No easy-to-use vaccine is readily available against this commercially important disease.
The Boer Goat
Roberto’s favourite enterprise is his Boer Goat stud and commercial flock, which he has had for 10 years. This hardy and meaty breed is surprisingly popular on Réunion. Apparently, there are around 220 commercial Boer Goat farmers on the island, each with about 30 breeding ewes, with many more farmers owning two or three goats each. With 65 breeding ewes, Roberto has one of the larger Boer Goat flocks on Réunion.
“Goat meat is popular on the island, particularly among the Tamil community, which makes up about 20% of the population,” he explains. Boer Goats have been on Réunion since 1976, when a local agricultural college imported 80 animals from Somerset East in South Africa. “The breed’s popularity grew quickly after that,” adds Roberto.
Unfortunately, EU regulations present a problem for the island’s Boer Goat farmers. Since the 1990s, the EU has banned the import of any animal genetics from South Africa due to the fear that serious diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and Rift Valley fever could reach the EU and its territories. Thus, while Roberto and many other Réunion goat farmers regard SA Boer Goat genetics as the best in the world, they are forced to import Boer Goat genetics from Germany, Switzerland and Australia.
“The German and Swiss Boer Goat genetics are not particularly popular here due to our tropical conditions. The goats also tend to have thinner hindquarters,” says Roberto. Bringing in semen and embryos from Australia is very expensive. In addition, transplanting Australian Boer Goat embryos into the island’s ewes is often unsuccessful.
Due to limited land, Roberto tends to feed his goats indoors on concentrate and fresh or stored roughage. While this is more expensive than the extensive grazing available in other parts of the world, he benefits from easier flock management, better reproduction and growth, and protection from the feral dog packs roaming the island. Roberto uses natural mating in his goat flock, with stud rams covering the ewes in heat. He usually replaces a ram every two years to avoid inbreeding.
“The Boer Goat ewes typically average 1,8 lambs per breeding cycle, way above the island’s average of 1,5,” he says proudly. “Lambs are weaned at four months, with ewes weaning an average of 1,6 lambs per season, compared with the island’s average of 1,3.” Roberto sells between 50 and 55 weaned rams per year to the island’s slaughter market, retaining about 20% of his maiden ewes as replacement breeding stock. The remaining maiden ewes, together with some better quality young weaned rams, are sold to other Boer Goat farmers on the island.
A fellow Boer Goat enthusiast with his own small flock, Eric says goat meat retails for around €25/kg (R350) in Réunion’s shops, while a 20kg to 25kg weaner slaughter ram sells for about €250 (R3 500). Some 60% of the island’s goat meat is imported frozen from Australia and New Zealand. “About 90% of the Boer Goat weaner rams are sold to the Tamil community for slaughter during religious ceremonies,” continues Eric.
“Buyers grow them out to about one year old before slaughtering them. Slaughter goats must be in perfect condition with no visible physical defects that would disqualify them from being used in the Tamil ceremonies.”
Help from SA
Health challenges in Roberto’s Boer Goat flock include coccidiosis and internal parasites. There is no vet on the island who specialises in treating goats, so farmers learn all they can from Internet searches and study groups. Roberto and Eric praise the SA Boer Goat Breeders’ Association for the assistance and production knowledge it shares with the island’s Boer Goat farmers. They single out SA Boer Goat judges Kobus Lötter, Sakkie Nell and Vaatjie Nell for their help. Boer Goat farmers and experts from Réunion and South Africa often visit one another to share ideas.
“On our limited land, a diversified livestock farming operation spreads the material and financial risk for my family,” says Roberto. “It also allows us to take full advantage of Réunion’s strong demand for different types of meat.”
Email Eric Soundrom at [email protected] or Roberto Begue at [email protected]. Please note: due to currency fluctuations, the rand equivalents of the prices cited are intended merely as guidelines. Lloyd Phillips’s flights were sponsored by SA Canegrowers. He was hosted on the island courtesy of the EU and LEGTA St Paul.