Attention to detail – that’s the secret!

Schalk Stapelberg, Grain SA’s top grain farmer for 2008, distinguished himself by the efficiency with which he manages his diverse 2 820ha four-farm maize, soya bean and dairy enterprise. His secret is computer programmes he either modifies or writes himself, that sift the vital data he needs to make clear decisions. Lloyd Phillips reports.
Issue date : 21 November 2008

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Grain farming is one of the biggest contributors to South Africa’s food security, with thousands of farmers with operations of all sizes growing grain crops on millions of hectares of arable land. To be named National Grain Producer of the Year 2008 by SA, a farmer must really be outstanding. Grain and dairy farmer Stapelberg of Klein Vrystaat Boerdery (KVB) near Piet Retief in Mpumalanga was a deserving choice in the large-scale commercial category.

SA showered praise on Schalk for the way he manages his maize and soya enterprise, but the judges were most impressed with his record-keeping and information management practices, and the way he keeps a close eye on day-to-day activities. A ny facts and figures Schalk, an engineer by training, doesn’t have in his head, he can quickly track down on his computer, using commercially available programmes modified for his needs, or programmes he has developed himself.

A lot to control “KVB consists of four farms spread out within a 60km radius of Piet Retief,” Schalk explains. “The total area is 2 820ha, of which over 1 000ha is under maize and soya beans. About 400ha is silage maize and over 34ha is irrigated ryegrass for my Holsteins. rest is natural veld leased to my brother as grazing for his commercial beef herd.” KVB’s annual rainfall averages around 750mm to 800mm, and Schalk describes the soil as predominantly high potential deep red soil with an average clay percentage of about 25%. This makes it ideal for maize, soya grain, and silage maize production. Of KVB’s plantings last year, 60%, or around 4 400t were to white maize; 20% or about 1 200t to yellow maize; and 20%, at an average yield of 2,9t/ha, to soya beans. Some 20% of Schalk’s yellow maize grain is used in the Holstein’s dairy ration, while 50% is exported in whole grain form to Swaziland, only 80km away from KVB’s main Vaalkop farm. Schalk markets the remaining 30% to South African buyers throughout the year.

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All KVB’s white maize grain is processed through the mill in Piet Retief, owned in a 50/50 partnership by Schalk and his father, and sold in Mpumalanga and KZN. Schalk’s soya beans are marketed through the local branch of cooperative TWK. “Dealing with all the day-to-day business of a mixed enterprise can be very challenging,” Schalk says. “I don’t want to be confined to my office processing paperwork, because I love to be out on the farm. Farmers mustn’t let themselves become bogged down in an information overload. They must be critical collectors of the information they believe is directly relevant to their business’s success, and discard any information that isn’t. “It took me a long time to refine my systems for doing this, but they’ve proven worthwhile and effective in the end.” Schalk feels attention to detail is critical, and that while good financial management is important, a holistic management approach is vital.

This is where detailed record-keeping becomes indispensable. “I firmly believe the more detailed information I have access to, the better I can make informed decisions. I receive information on a daily basis in many forms, filter it and record what I feel is important so I can use it whenever I want to in the future. I have computer spreadsheets to record historical and current data which I use for detailed year-on-year, field-on-field, or yield-on-yield analysis. These let me identify problems and maintain or improve any aspects that benefit the enterprise.” The data includes soil analysis results, crop yield, individual land characteristics and performance, weather patterns, irrigation application, maize and soya cultivars, land preparation activities, and crop treatment methods.

KVB is made up of many small lands averaging about 25ha each, so Schalk collects numerous soil samples and just as many soil analysis results. Without the computer spreadsheets allowing him easy, practical access to this information, he’d be swamped. Schalk’s spreadsheets also let him keep field-level data close on hand, and view result comparisons on graphs, simplifying the often-technical comparison of soil nutrient test results.

Putting data to work Schalk continues, “Weather has the greatest impact on my crop yields. While new crop varieties may allow some yield improvements, the weather still impacts on production. “Often it’s not the amount of rainfall that’s a factor, but its distribution throughout the growing season. My computer’s rainfall charts give me an idea of the previous and current seasons’ rainfall patterns. If I have a good rainfall distribution, but crop yields are below average, I can use my programmes to determine where else the problem might be. I may have to choose better crop varieties, improve soil moisture retention, or even change my planting dates.” Schalk is currently converting from conventional tillage to no-till to enhance soil moisture retention and reduce the impact of erratic rainfall. He can use his collected data to compare crop production on tilled and untilled land. He only began implementing no-till on portions of KVB two years ago, so he still needs more information for comprehensive comparisons.

He admits conversion offers challenges, but he won’t rest until all his crop lands are under no-till. The financial management software Schalk developed uses only the important information to provide him and his bookkeepers with usable data. The programme can give a costing history on individual tractors and implements, a year-to-year financial comparison, and a year-to-date comparison. Schalk adds that having this information at his fingertips is very useful when compiling VAT reports.

The big picture Schalk explains that commodity organisations like Grain SA are valuable sources of information for farmers, and members should take an active role. Rather than underestimate the value of these organisations, farmers should appreciate the inputs they have in issues such as land reform, market promotion, research and development and calculating input costs. Not only do these organisations support established commercial farmers, but they’re key to developing and uplifting SA’s emerging farmers.

“I’m positive about the future of agriculture in South Africa,” says Schalk. “Historically, as a result of farmers’ efforts, food security was never a problem for this country. It’s important that all our farmers get the recognition and support they deserve for their efforts to maintain a sustainable food supply. “Farmers must remain positive, join commodity organisations for support, and never make emotional decisions. Use hard, clear facts to make the most informed decisions possible, because farming is a complex business and must be managed according to sound business principles.” Schalk thanked Grain SA for recognising his efforts to be the best grain producer he can be, and also wanted to thank Syngenta for supporting the National Grain Producer of the Year competition. Contact Schalk Stapelberg on (017) 826 0977 or 082 561 0739, or e-mail [email protected]. |fw