In 2016, while on maternity leave with her second son, Jo-andra Cloete decided to start farming broilers to boost her income.
“I have no patience, so I knew that vegetables, sheep and cattle would never work for me. Broilers, on the other hand, have a quick turnaround time, which is especially helpful when you’re cash-strapped,” she says.
Moreover, nobody was farming chickens in the community of Mfuleni, near Blackheath in Cape Town, where she launched her venture.
Having no farming experience, Cloete conducted her own research to learn more about broiler production, and also found an animal feed nutritionist who assisted her in formulating her own broiler feed.
In fact, the nutritionist became one of the main contributors to Cloete’s success; he not only supplied valuable production support and advice, but linked her up with experienced broiler farmers when she experienced problems that fell outside his field of expertise.
Cloete started out raising 300 broiler chicks, which she sold to traders and consumers in Mfuleni when they were six weeks old and weighed between 2,5kg and 3kg.
“Broilers are generally sold to retailers by the time they are four weeks old, but the live market wants a bigger bird. This results in higher feeding costs and production risks, but the price more than makes up for this,” says Cloete.
Her business, which she has since named Our Poultry Place Farm, started off so well that she decided not to return to her permanent job.
“I was making good money, and having my own business gave me the flexibility to better balance my work and family life.”
When highly pathogenic avian influenza broke out in 2017, Cloete identified a new opportunity on the market.
“A shortage of fertilised eggs made it difficult for small producers to source broiler chicks, so I decided to become a supplier of day-old broiler chicks to small and emerging farmers in the Western Cape,” she explains.
She also started mentoring farmers and supplying feed and other poultry products. According to her, the greatest obstacles for new entrants and small-scale producers are their lack of knowledge and the fact that they cannot afford veterinarian services or production consultants.
Cloete adds that being a supplier, she has a vested interest in her clients’ success.
“I go out of my way to ensure that their dream to farm poultry doesn’t turn into their worst nightmare.”
By supplying chicks, feed, poultry equipment, medicine and sanitising products, she lowers the input costs for the farmers in her network, as they can source all their production needs in one place. The chicks are vaccinated at the hatchers and the feed is pre-formulated for optimal heath and growth.
In addition, farmers in Cloete’s network can meet unexpectedly large orders by sourcing additional birds from one another.
Cloete’s business grew to such an extent that she had to move to larger premises in Joostenberg Vlakte, on the outskirts of Cape Town, in July 2019.
“I’m now mentoring more than 100 farmers, and supplying the market with 8 000 to 12 000 day-old chicks a week, and 4 000 to 6 000 broilers over a six-week cycle,” she says.
She now uses Facebook to market her business and in June 2020 launched a website that enables clients to order birds and poultry products online. She cautions, however, that Google is not always ideal for farmers wanting to learn about broiler production.
“Farmers should rather seek advice from people with actual production experience under similar climatic and production conditions.”
One of Cloete’s greatest challenges is that she rents the land on which she farms.
“I don’t want to invest in expensive fixed structures if the land doesn’t belong to me,” she says.
“I have a yearly renewable lease agreement. What if something happens and the landlord decides to end the contract prematurely?”
The cold winter temperatures of the Western Cape present another challenge.
“Some farmers overcome this by taking a break over winter, but I can’t afford to do so, as broiler production is my bread and butter,” she says.
She gets through winter by opening and closing blankets, plastic sheets and other material over the windows of the broiler house to control air movement and interior temperature. She also uses gas brooders to keep the chicks warm, as they lose heat faster than adult birds. The brooders are used for about two weeks, depending on the age of the birds and outside temperature.
To keep the birds warm on cold nights and days, Cloete sometimes make wood fires in metal bins spaced throughout the house.
“You have to observe the birds closely. If they’re huddling together, they’re probably getting cold,” she says.
A wood fire has to be used cautiously, however, as the fumes can cause respiratory problems in the birds, especially the smaller ones.
Gas, on the other hand, is often in short supply in winter when it is needed the most, which means travelling huge distances and wasting time looking for alternative suppliers.
Cloete takes biosecurity seriously and has a number of measures in place to keep her birds healthy. She has fitted wire mesh over the broiler house windows to prevent the birds from making contact with disease-carrying agents, which can vary from wild birds to household pets. It also protects against predation.
In addition, no buyers are allowed near the house; the broiler chicks and full-grown
birds are collected and paid for at the store front about 25m away.
Cloete uses sawdust bedding as insulation to keep the broilers warm and comfortable. The sawdust does not receive any wood treatment before she receives it, as this can negatively affect poultry.
The bedding is cleaned every two to three days to keep it dry and loose, and prevent the build-up of ammonia.
“High levels of ammonia can cause respiratory problems, and wet bedding can cause feet problems, chafing and lesions, which in turn will have a negative impact on carcass quality and bird growth,” she says.
Cloete also takes care to use the right stocking rate, as this helps prevent the bedding from getting too wet from chicken litter, and has fitted good-quality drinkers to prevent spillage.
The production areas are thoroughly cleaned and sanitised once the broilers leave the house, and the floor is covered with fresh sawdust just before the new chicks arrive. The litter is sold to other farms or donated to communities running their own food gardens.
Cloete plans to host a five-day broiler course on her site later this year, and participants will have the opportunity to gain first-hand production experience.
“The beauty about poultry farming is that the barriers to entry are really low, so you can make a living and improve your household food security even if you didn’t finish school,” she says.
“As a member of the Agricultural Society of Stellenbosch, I want to empower, educate and train women and youth who are interested in the poultry industry, ready to put in the work, and want to start farming with what they have.”
While farmers can start a broiler business in their backyards, Cloete advises that they rather use a space that is big enough to allow for rapid expansion. The production area should also have access to sufficient water that is “suitable for humans”, she adds.
At the start of the year, Cloete enrolled for a business management course to help her along her journey. “Many entrepreneurs have great ideas and start a business, but then it folds within a year. The course is equipping me with skills that will allow me to fulfil my potential,” she says.
Email Jo-Andra Cloete at [email protected].