South Africa’s Mrs Crocodile Dundee

Rodene Lambrecht says crocodile farming is not for the faint-hearted; it’s a high-risk, tough and export-driven industry, but good management, patience and endurance is helping her get ahead. Wilma den Hartigh visited Rodene’s farm near Hartbeesfontein in North West after her recent crowning as Department of Agriculture and Absa’s 2006 Female Farmer of the Year: Top Producer for Export Markets.


Caption: After two years of extensive research on the ins and outs of crocodile farming, Rodene Lambrecht took the plunge and embarked on her farming venture.

 

ALTHOUGH IT MAY SEEM UNLIKELY that anyone would relish the opportunity to farm with crocodiles, Rodene Lambrecht of Krokkedene Krokodil Plaas in Hartbeesfontein, North West, says she can’t imagine doing anything else. “It will never be an animal that you can cuddle, but to make a success of your business you must love what you are farming,” she says.
Initially Rodene didn’t want to enter the Female Farmer of the Year competition. “I had to list all my previous awards and I hadn’t won any. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance,” Rodene says.

They bought the crocodiles as a practical solution to deal with chicken mortalities in her husband’s poultry farming business. The crocodiles were solely meant to consume the dead chickens, but has now turned into a growing business. “Now my husband doesn’t have enough [chickens] and we have to get extra feed from farmers in the area,” she says.

After two years of research and consultation Rodene started her business three years ago with six Nile crocodiles. Today she has 1 700 crocodiles under tunnel conditions. “I went to a lot of trouble to research crocodiles and people I consulted were very helpful. But you learn most from trial and error. You actually have to do it yourself to learn.”

Costs and risks

Rodene believes good financial management is the backbone of any successful business. “There is risk involved in breeding with crocodiles and although the risk associated with smaller operations is lower, it should still be avoided,” Rodene says. The initial capital outlay to start the business and build infrastructure is extensive. “Remember crocodile farming is a long-term investment and you have to wait a long time for returns,” she says. However, her monthly running costs for feed and labour are quite low. “In winter, costs are usually higher than in summer because of heating,” Rodene says. Feed costs vary as crocodiles eat less in winter. During this time hatchlings are fed two to three times a week and adults once every three weeks. Due to the nature of the business Rodene finds it difficult to employ people. Crocodile farming is a physically intensive business, but her labour requirements are not that high. “I only need three people for the size of my business.” Although expanding her business is on the cards, she is not in a hurry. “I don’t want to have such a big operation that I can’t keep tabs on everything. Good management is very important.”

Rearing hatchlings into crocodiles

Rodene has had to contend with many challenges since starting her business. A major difficulty was climate control. Crocodiles are hardy animals, but are very sensitive to cold. “North West is actually too cold to breed crocodiles,” Rodene says. “I struggled to get the correct enclosures and heating for my crocodiles to survive the winter. This was a big challenge for me.”

For the first year hatchlings are housed in tunnels and thereafter they’re moved outside. All the cages have under-floor heating to create an optimal environment for the crocodiles. Temperatures must remain constant during the day and night as this stimulates their appetite and is essential for growth. Ideal floor temperature is 32ºC. Hatchlings are housed in a dark enclosure from birth to one year of age. This environment simulates conditions in the wild, which improves their performance and gives them a better chance of survival. “One of the biggest challenges of crocodile farming is rearing newborn crocodiles to one year of age. They are very sensitive and the mortality rate is high,” Rodene says.

Although she buys hatchlings from other large-scale crocodile breeders, she would like to breed her own in future. It would be more cost-effective in the long term. “Hatchlings are sold for approximately R130 each. I think I’ll be able to breed my own next year,” she says.

It’s difficult to find breeders who are willing to sell their females as it takes eight to 10 years for a female to reach sexual maturity. “I have many more males than females and would rather buy adult females,” she says.
During the first year hatchlings are fed daily with ground chicken or a beef and meal mixture.

Disease prevention

It’s crucial to maintain exemplary cage hygiene to prevent any diseases that could affect the animal or the condition and appearance of the skin. Nile crocodile skins are in great demand for the leather trade and have to be virtually scratch-free to obtain a good price.

“If there are scratches on the skin, it can easily be downgraded to second- and third-grade skins,” Rodene says. The cage floors are washed and disinfected daily to prevent bacterial diseases that can affect skin quality. “In the first year crocodiles struggle with diseases. After this period crocodiles have developed antibodies, which contribute to their hardiness.” Crocodiles don’t need regular inoculations, but antibiotics and supplements are mixed into the feed if necessary.

Export markets

Rodene markets the meat and skins, but her main income is generated from exporting skins to Singapore. “I sell my skins there because Singapore has the biggest crocodile tannery in the world. But entering the SA market is very difficult.
“In future I would rather breed to supply game farms with crocodiles, but this market is small and difficult to succeed in. When exporting you must learn to spot opportunities,” she advises.

Crocodile meat is sold on the local and eastern markets. Her business is not set up to slaughter or process meat on the farm, but as her enterprise grows she would like to establish abattoir facilities on the farm.

“This will be more economically viable because I wouldn’t have to pay transport and abattoir fees. If you’re new to the market it’s easier to sell meat to an abattoir that has existing market contacts.”

Women in farming

The female farmer ¬competition has given Rodene extensive exposure. “I’m glad I entered because it’s great to be recognised for the work you do. It has opened many doors for me,” she says.

Rodene feels it’s harder for women to succeed in farming, let alone enter the export market when they farm successfully. “Women have been told farming is not for them and their place is in the home to raise children. Any woman who wants to farm must ignore negative criticism. To succeed you must believe in yourself,” she says. Even though Rodene is enthusiastic about her business, she has a healthy fear for these predators. “I’ve never been attacked or bitten and I’m not scared of them, but I am careful.”

For more information contact Rodene Lambrecht on 083 446 6114. |fw