Young stud manager strives to be an icon

Jessica Phathela is the stud manager for Ntaba Nyoni Cattle, and is responsible for the care, breeding and administration of five herds. She aspires to be a role model for other women in the sector.

Young stud manager strives to be an icon
On Ntaba Nyoni, Jessica Phathela manages five studs of different breeds, including Bonsmara.
Photo: Janine Ryan

The Ntaba Nyoni Cattle ranch is situated in a beautiful area of Mpumalanga, near the small town of Badplaas (officially eManzana). But, as refreshing as the scenery might be, running a successful cattle operation in the area takes particular expertise.

“If you can farm in the harsh conditions of Badplaas, you can farm anywhere,” says Jessica Phathela, Ntaba Nyoni Cattle’s stud manager.

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At just 29 years old, Phathela oversees the management of five studs of different breeds on the farm, namely Ankole, Boran, Bonsmara, Nguni and Wagyu. The farm also runs two commercial herds of Borans and Bonsmaras.

Managing these five studs of different breeds, temperaments and attributes would be a difficult task for anyone to achieve, as each requires specialised attention and skills, but Phathela takes it all in her stride.

Phathela grew up in the small village of Madombidzha, Limpopo. She refers to her uncle Siphugu as the family’s trailblazer: his decision to study agriculture at the University of Venda and his involvement in the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation inspired her and some of her cousins to join the agriculture industry, too. Thus, in 2013, Phathela embarked on a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences at the University of Venda.

While studying, she volunteered at Limpopo Dairy, where she helped raise calves and treat cows with mastitis.

In 2018, she began working at Phala Phala Wildlife farm near Bela-Bela in Limpopo and, after only a short while, she was recruited to work at Ntaba Nyoni Cattle.

“[My boss, who owns Phala Phala Wildlife and Ntabi Nyoni], told me that he had heard of my fondness for cattle and that I would love to work with them. That’s when I was moved to the Ntaba Nyoni Cattle ranch,” she says.

Cattle breeds
“My favourite breed is the Boran, as it is hardy and easy to handle,” says Phathela, adding that she also likes Bonsmaras, as they produce calves with heavy weaning weights.

However, she says that because of their susceptibility to tick-borne diseases, they have to be dipped more frequently than other breeds in summer.

Phathela says that despite their intimidating appearance, Ankole cattle are skittish and likely to run away if someone gets too close.

She adds that Bonsmaras also require constant monitoring and recording, due to the strict record-keeping regulations of the Bonsmara Cattle Breeders’ Society of South Africa.

The exotic Wagyu is an expensive breed to maintain. It grows slowly and gets sick easily,” she says. “But the returns on Wagyus are high, so we’ll keep farming them.”

The farm’s Nguni stud was recently registered with the Nguni Cattle Breeders’ Society.

“It is our intention to raise a substantial Nguni stud herd that will be able to bring the best out of our people’s indigenous cattle,” she says, adding that there are breeders who’d like to crossbreed Nguni and Ankole.

“At Ntaba Nyoni Cattle, [however], we want to focus on pure breeds.”

While Ankole breeders are primarily building up their stock at the moment, Phathela says people are attracted to this breed because of the low cholesterol content of its meat.

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However, buying Ankole meat is very expensive. Therefore, a number of breeders hope to cross Nguni and Ankole cattle in order to meet consumers’ demand for leaner protein that’s also cheaper.

Phathela says Ankole are low-maintenance animals that adapt quickly to any environment and do well across all production regions of South Africa. They also show great resistance to ticks and diseases, and require only minimal dipping.

Like the animals in the other studs on the farm, the Ankole are divided into camps, but roam and graze on the mountains of the Ntaba Nyoni Cattle Ranch.

Despite their intimidating appearance, with one of Ntaba Nyoni’s previous bulls boasting 50-inch horns, Phathela says the Ankole are rather skittish. “You should approach them by talking to them and walking amongst them,” she adds.

She also says that while the Ankole calves are small, they grow quickly.

Phathela explains that the market for Ankole cattle is growing. “We only sell Ankole at auctions, as the market is growing, and supply and demand determine the price.”

In an auction held in Pretoria last year, one of Ntaba Nyoni’s Ankole cows sold for R2 million.

Growing pasture
Phathela says winters in Badplaas are long, cold and dry. Thus, they grow pasture for grazing on Ntaba Nyoni, and this includes Smuts finger grass (Digitaria eriantha),

Eragrostis and Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana). They also grow maize for silage, mix their own feed, and produce their own pellets. In this way, she says, they have complete control over the operation, from mating and calving, to weaning and feedlotting.

Ntaba Nyoni only recently started producing grass for baling, and is still in the process of expanding the hectares planted to pasture.

Ticks and diseases
According to Phathela, the Ntaba Nyoni ranch has every tick species: “We breed cattle here, but we also breed ticks!”

Because of this, developing tick-resistant animals is vital for the farm’s long-term sustainability. She says the animals they produce on the farm show immunity to most tick-borne diseases due to the fact that they are raised with such high tick loads.

However, buying in cattle can be problematic, as the animals often don’t have the required immunity. “When bringing in animals, we have to take special care to make sure they are well protected against the ticks,” she explains.

The biggest disease challenge the farm has faced in the recent past is three-day stiff sickness. Bulls are tested annually for trichomoniasis, and animals brought onto the farm are tested for brucellosis, amongst other diseases.

Breeding
The ranch runs two breeding seasons: one in summer, from November to February, and one in winter, from May to July. Should any female animals not conceive the first time around, they are given a second chance, after various tests are conducted to determine the possible reasons for this. If they fail to conceive yet again, they are removed from the herd.

There are 25 camps of between 30ha and 50ha each. The animals are separated into groups, depending on the production stage of the female animals; keeping the animals separate makes it easier to weigh and measure them. The bulls are kept separate from the female animals until breeding season starts.

“Most people say you shouldn’t put in more than one bull for every 30 female animals, as the bulls will fight and forget about servicing the cows and heifers. I’ve found, however, that if one bull isn’t performing well, putting in one or two more of equal stature and value motivates at least one of the bulls to start mating.”

Phathela says the primary focus of cattle management is to “increase the number of calves each year that are conceived, born, weaned and sold”. That’s why they also use artificial insemination and embryo flushing on the farm.

Weaners are kept separately from the female animal herds and the bulls. Weaner bulls are examined at 24 months old by inspectors from the various breeders’ societies; those that pass are included in the herd. Female animals that aren’t selected for the studs are moved to the commercial herds, and even they are serviced by the stud bulls.

Phathela works long hours. After spending an afternoon with her on the farm, it is clear that she is very perceptive, pointing out buck and zebra on the farm that are barely visible to the naked eye. She also keenly interacts with the cattle, and knows them all by name. In most instances, she is even able to name the sire and grandsire of the animal in question, without having to consult her records.

“I usually only go to sleep after midnight. Most of the day is spent dealing with the animals, which means I have to do the books in the evening.

“We also sometimes have crises at night, such as when cows are having difficulties with calving. In this case, there is no ‘on the job/off the job’; you have to go out and deal with the problem,” she says.

The future of farming
Phathela is currently working towards Ntaba Nyoni’s fifth production sale, which will take place on 5 March at the Phala Phala Wildlife farm. She’ll be taking animals she has bred from three of the farm’s studs, namely the Bonsmara, Ankole and Boran.

Phathela says farming cattle is becoming more difficult, and that farming in general requires “tailor-made solutions”. She adds that, as a woman, it is particularly difficult to be taken seriously in the sector. “The industry is still a male-dominated one, and it needs more women.”

She goes on to say that making a success of farming is all about having a passion for it, regardless of your gender.

“When I first entered the industry, I encountered a fair bit of resistance from a number of male farmers. To make it as a female farmer, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and do much more than what is expected of men. Once you are able to jump in and you aren’t standing on the sidelines, you’ll be taken seriously. While some men were resistant to my progress, I was fortunate that my boss saw potential in me and empowered me to manage his cattle.”

Despite these challenges, Phathela was recently elected the youngest-ever member of the Ankole Cattle Breeders’ Society of South Africa. She says women need to step in decisively and solve issues in the sector, or on the farm, as and when they arise.

She adds that education is important for long-term success in agriculture, and that the one piece of advice she’d give to aspiring women farmers is to obtain an education in agriculture.

“Farming is like any other business in this world; you need to keep improving yourself by enrolling for a certificate in agriculture, at the very least. There are more risks involved in agriculture [than other sectors], and you need to be sure that you want to make farming your career [before embarking on the journey]. When done right, farming can be rewarding.”

Speaking about her future on the farm, Phathela says she sees herself having more responsibility. Nevertheless, she aspires to something particularly difficult: she wants Ntaba Nyoni Cattle’s three main cattle stud breeds, namely the Ankole, Boran and Bonsmara, to be one of the five top-performing studs in the country. On a personal level, she hopes to have finished two master’s degrees in the next five years.

“I want to be the epitome of black excellence in the cattle industry; I want young women to look to me as a role model. Most importantly, over the next five years, I want to write at least two books for university students who want to learn more about stud breeding.”

And that’s not all: Phathela also has high hopes for agriculture in general, and would like to see black women, in particular, play a greater role in agriculture going forward, especially in the livestock sector.

Email Jessica Phathela at [email protected].