Holistic farming for minimum input & high profit

A limited budget didn’t stop Gerrit Nieuwoudt from turning a degraded stock farm in the Molopo area of the North West into a commercial success.
Issue date : 06 March 2009

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A limited budget didn’t stop Gerrit Nieuwoudt from turning a degraded stock farm in the Molopo area of the North West into a commercial success.

A limited budget didn’t stop Gerrit Nieuwoudt from turning a degraded stock farm in the Molopo area of the North West into a commercial success. He planned his veld and herd management carefully and in doing so, improved his herd and land utilisation. After 11 years his strategy of working hand-in-hand with nature has paid off. Annelie Coleman spoke to him.

Gerrit Nieuwoudt comes from a farming background, but for many years never had the opportunity to farm. “During a career as a police officer I always dabbled in farming,” says Gerrit. “I’m fascinated by nature and the way ecosystem components interact and complement each other. Should the opportunity arise, I’d farm with nature.”
This opportunity presented itself 11 years ago when the 2 250ha farm Tweeling, near Leniesdeel north of Vryburg, came onto the market. At the time Gerrit had decided on voluntary retrenchment from the police. “I used the money from my retrenchment package and a loan to buy the farm, leaving me with no money for development,” he recalls. “It forced me to employ a management system requiring as few inputs as possible to realise the highest income.”

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Holistic management principles
Gerrit’s cousin Joubert Swanepoel introduced him to holistic management. “I researched the philosophy behind it and visited a number of practitioners to investigate its benefits,” he explains. “Then I enrolled for a course offered by Dick Richardson from Vryburg. It consisted of three modules: introduction to holistic management for rangeland, forests and watersheds in arid and semi-arid regions, holistic grazing planning and biological monitoring; and financial planning.”
Farming holistically was also a matter of financial survival. “I began to manage my herd of veld-adapted commercial animals in rhythm with natural cycles. It also made financial sense and I had to apply strict financial discipline. I leased a portion of my farm to other farmers and started farming totally on my own in 2004.”

Well-adapted cattle
Gerrit runs a mixed herd of commercial cattle with mostly Nguni-type cows. “Over the years, I built the herd, selecting on veld without or with very little supplementary feed. It doesn’t matter what a cow looks like as long as she’s productive and thrives under Kalahari conditions,” he says.

“I work without labourers to save money and can’t afford cattle needing a lot of my time. My cattle are hardy and highly productive, selected for natural resistance against disease and parasites. We use no chemicals for internal or external parasite management and animals with poor parasite resistance are culled.” His herd was last treated for ticks some 10 years ago and has never been treated for internal parasites.

Gerrit raises his cattle as naturally as possible and never administers growth stimulants. “I don’t give urea, although I supply a phosphate lick. Some cows have never tasted maize or maize meal. I’m less concerned about the weight of individual weaners than the number and combined weight of the calf crop.”
Gerrit selects for cows that can deliver a second or third calf at age four, giving him enough replacement heifers with a good marketable surplus. He currently markets between 110 and 120 weaners per year, with others at a later age.
He uses Nguni and Veldmaster bulls – Veldmasters add weight, but Gerrit says this is not his first priority. Adaptability and ability to thrive under harsh veld conditions are vital. He initially used Beefmaster bulls, but systematically switched to Nguni and Veldmasters.

“I bred several of my own Nguni bulls and bought others from well-known breeders Ben Fyfer and Gawie du Plessis, as well as Veldmaster bulls bred by Joubert Swanepoel,” Gerrit says.

Meticulous record-keeping
 “A key factor is keeping meticulous records of the cows according to a basic points system, by which I can evaluate the herd’s efficiency. The cows compete against each other, particularly as far as production is concerned. Information on the ear tags includes the year of birth, as well as the animal’s register number. Only animals kept for breeding purposes are registered. The register includes weight, calving dates, ICP, description of the calves and the weaner weight as a percentage of the dam’s weight. At this stage, all the records are still on paper, but I’ve started computerising them, although I’m still a bit intimidated by the technology!”

Gerrit aims for an ICP of 360 days. “The longer the ICP, the fewer the points awarded. A cow with an ICP of 420 days or more scores zero. As a cow seldom weans a calf at 50% her weight, the percentage is doubled to a point out of 100, bringing it in line with the ICP point. These points are added, then divided by two to give a year point. I calculate this for every cow in the herd, enabling me to evaluate the return on investment.”

Herd composition
The herd consisted of 250 cows, 44 24-month-old in-calf heifers, 80 heifers of 14 months put to the bull, 50 culled heifers destined for market, 48 calves near weaning, 190 suckling calves of one to two months and eight bulls. “This is a total on-the-hoof weight of 160 000kg on veld, calculated at a medium frame of 400kg per animal,” he explains. “Keep in mind young animals are lighter. Suckling calves aren’t part of the equation as they’re not grazing yet.” The current carrying capacity on Tweeling is better than 7ha/mature livestock unit (MLU). Gerrit runs two breeding seasons on Tweeling, with early summer as the main calving season.

More than 80% of calves are born between October and December, the others from April to June. All females and bulls are run as a large herd in winter and selected heifers are put to bulls in summer at 14 months. “I achieve a first-time 50% to 60% calving rate with these heifers, depending on the year and rainfall. Those not calving are given a second chance. Up to 60% of the heifers calve before 28 months then again by 36 months. Heifers not calving by 28 months are culled.”

Strong selection resulted in a low calf-mortality rate of 2% between birth and weaning for the past two years, compared to 5% when Gerrit first started. Another contributing factor is the herd is relatively young, built from scratch by a significant number of the current breeding cows born on Tweeling. “I select for strong maternal instinct and cows not successfully weaning calves are removed from the herd,” says Gerrit. “I don’t calculate the mean age of my herd, but it’s a young herd.”

A one-man band
The farm’s infrastructure was designed to ensure easy flow between the main handling pens and camps. Gerrit obtained plans for a so-called “One Man Cattle Yard” from Australia. The design enables him to handle the cattle alone. Labour-intensive tasks such as branding and castration are reserved for the times when his sons Danie and Pieter are home.

“We do a lot of work, such as cattle inspection and moving herds on horseback. We drive the cattle to the nearby Leniesdeel auction pens where I market most of my stock. It’s easy to work with cattle if you know individual animals, their quirks and habits. It’s also very cost effective.”

The future
Gerrit says he would like to expand the business to accommodate his family and one of his sons. “My dream is to see the third generation Nieuwoudts settle on Tweeling in 20 years’ time, leaving me a soft retirement job looking after cattle.”
“All farmers should consider the route we’ve taken. I particularly recommend this management system for beginners and emerging farmers who have the goal of becoming commercial cattlemen.”
Contact Gerrit Nieuwoudt on 082 823 4920.
This article was adapted and abbreviated from a more extensive article. For the full version contact Auriel Mitchley on (011) 889 0796 or e-mail [email protected]    |fw