The Overvaal Bonsmara Group: working together, separately

Triple the benefits at a third of the cost. This is the bottom line behind the success of the Overvaal Bonsmara Group. Three North West farmers joined forces four years ago to share costs of genetics, auctions and marketing. Susan Botes found that – yes – teamwork between individual farmers is possible, but finding the right partners is the key.
Issue Date: 12 October 2007

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North West dust settles over
the Tigane Bonsmara cows.

Triple the benefits at a third of the cost. This is the bottom line behind the success of the Overvaal Bonsmara Group. Three North West farmers joined forces four years ago to share costs of genetics, auctions and marketing. Susan Botes found that – yes – teamwork between individual farmers is possible, but finding the right partners is the key.

About five years ago, part-time farmer and full-time surgeon, Dr Kotie Pienaar, diagnosed a serious problem on his farm – input costs were too high and returns too low. His prescription? Group formation. “This was a financial decision, not an emotional one,” Kotie explains. “My input costs had soared to staggering heights and had to be lowered.” Thus the Overvaal Bonsmara was born.

It’s becoming more common for individual farmers to work together, relieving the financial burdens of marketing, logistics and the cost of good genetics. “problem was finding farmers about the same age, with more or less the same ideas,” Kotie says. He approached a number of farmers, and today the group consists of three Bonsmara stud farmers within 50km of one another: Kotie of Theres Bonsmaras, Herman Wilkens of Wilbonei Bonsmaras and Hendrik Beyers of Tigane Bonsmaras. Kotie firmly believes their success stems from their belief in working together without interfering with each other, as the venture will flop the moment this happens. “None of us has a say in the others’ herds,” he says.

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Each is still responsible for his own marketing campaign, reinforced by the combined marketing of the Overvaal Bonsmara Group. Through this they retain their individuality within the greater brand name. Each contributes his own individual strength to form an incredibly strong bond. “For example, if you see how passionate Kotie is, you can’t help but be inspired,” explains Herman, who says the enjoyment of working together as a group is wonderful. All three agree that their success is rooted in two factors: hard work and great genetics. The bull’s share of genetics A bull is a six-year investment. Hendrik explains that each farmer in the group will buy a bull with good genetics. Although the others will eventually use it, it remains the property of the farmer who bought it. The first year each will use his own bull and after about 18 months they’ll rotate their bulls.

All three are relatively new stud farmers and it’s crucial for them to build up strong herds. Kotie says a bull has a huge impact on a herd and can improve it quickly. “A cow takes about two years to fit into your herd,” he says, adding that the value of a good cow shouldn’t be underestimated, as it’s the dam in which a good bull is bred. However, one bull can give you 60 calves per season, while a cow will only give one a year.

Auction and marketing: a three-way split
Going once, going twice, going three times for a cheaper auction. Well, maybe not cheaper as a whole, but definitely more cost effective – the cost of the day stays the same no matter how many sellers participate. When the group organises an auction together, all expenses are split three ways. At their auction this year, on 3 October at Hartbeesfontein, the members offered 45 top bulls. Hendrik believes it would be difficult for one stud to put together 45 bulls for a single auction, but three can easily do it. Kotie says prospective buyers can also be assured of quality animals, as none of the breeders would like his cattle to look inferior. “It’s not that there’s outright competition between us, but nobody wants to look bad next to the others,” he explains. Herman, who has already held a few auctions on his own, definitely feels the group is worth its weight in gold. “The cost per bull is so high when you hold your own production auction that it’s hardly worth the trouble,” he says. For a group, the marketing costs are also much smaller per farmer, for a bigger client base. The group also shares expenses for their annual information day. The last one was held on 15 September at the Hartbeesfontein auction pens and roughly 60 farmers attended with their families. Kotie stresses that, as stud breeders, the three members want to give something back to the farming community. “We need to thank them for having faith in us and buying our animals,” he says. Hendrik says the group always tries to present the information at the auction pens because it simplifies demonstrations.

A phase D testing trio
Until this year the members conducted their Phase D tests together. Due to feasibility issues they instead decided to conduct the tests simultaneously, each on his own land, but as far as possible under the same circumstances. Hendrik says reasons include the fact that young bulls need to adapt if moved between locations, and that they run the risk of contracting diseases in the process. The Overvaal Bonsmara Group is very strict about quality control in Phase D testing, and about the selection process conducted by the Bonsmara Cattle Breeders’ Society after completion of the tests. When a calf is not approved, it is immediately slaughtered, Kotie says. As all animals are evaluated twice, quality is guaranteed. Phase D evaluation ensures animals are functional and well adapted. “The Bonsmara system guarantees this,” stresses Kotie. The group believes in breeding animals that comply with the Bonsmara Cattle Breeders’ Society’s standards. Once this is achieved, both Kotie and Hendrik prefer to select animals with darker pigmentation. “Although an active selection attempt, it isn’t a main breeding aim,” Kotie explains. “Selection should be purposeful – darker pigmentation is functional as well as cosmetic. It’s visually more appealing and protects the animal from the sun. The hooves are also tougher.” This trait is crucial as Kotie and Hendrik farm in more rocky areas. It also protects against foot rot. Last year a few Australians visited Kotie’s farm and were very impressed with his darker-pigmented animals. They wanted to buy some of his cows, but he decided not to sell them. “If they wanted a specific animal, there must be a reason for it and therefore I’m keeping it,” Kotie explains. “I keep the best females for my own herd.” “In the end we want to give buyers well adapted, pure-bred animals,” Hendrik adds.

A family business
Family is crucial to the success of all three farmers, and the Overvaal Bonsmara Group. “Our wives and children all helped out at the recent information day,” Hendrik says proudly. It is crucial to him that his family should share in the farming, and that the other members share this view. The wives aren’t merely extra helpers – each is in charge of her own area. Herman’s wife Karine heads the group’s marketing on national level. Elmarie, Hendrik’s wife, organises functions and catering. “She’s wonderful at catering on a large scale,” comments Kotie. And Kotie’s wife Theresa has a keen eye for administration and handles the group’s finances. Contact Kotie Pienaar on (018) 468 7266, Herman Wilkens on (018) 264 3769 and Hendrik Beyers on (018) 431 2033. |fw

One group, three separate farmers

Their slogan reads: Drie van die Bestes (Three of the Best), but who are the farmers of the Overvaal Bonsmara Group?

Kotie and Theresa Pienaar, Theres Bonsmaras
Dr Kotie Pienaar, a surgeon at Wilmed Park Private Hospital, Klerksdorp, started breeding Bonsmaras about 13 years ago. Today he owns the farm Wolvehuis, at Regina on the banks of the Vaal. Kotie and Theresa have a son, Andri (16). As a part-time farmer Kotie is very proud of having been a regional finalist in the Absa-ARC’s Herd of the Year Award. “This shows that I can compete with full-time farmers in terms of herds,” he says. It also says a farmer must know how to manage his herd. As Kotie’s farm is situated on the river, he needs to manage his differently. There’s no a shortage of water, but Kotie faces other problems such as ticks and midges. But he believes once you’ve learned to farm near water, there’s no turning back. Kotie’s passion for farming stems from the influence of his veterinarian father. He loves the interaction within the farming community. “On Saturday I’m a farmer, not a doctor,” he says. He chose Bonsmaras because their scientific basis appealed to him. “This discipline helps to eliminate weaknesses from the breed,” he says. He currently has about 230 cows, kept partly on about 5ha irrigated grazing. “This is much better than golf – it’s something Theresa can do with me,” comments Kotie wryly.

Hendrik and Elmarie Beyers, Tigane Bonsmaras
Hendrik used to be a big commercial livestock farmer. His farm Goedvooruitzicht has been in the Beyers family since 1906. He took over from his father, who farmed with Afrikaners, and decided to upgrade his animals to Bonsmara in 1979. To reach his goal Hendrik brought in Sussex bulls, and later Simmentalers for good milk production, out of his father-in-law’s stud. Since 1985 he has used Bonsmara bulls. He didn’t skimp on genetic quality and believes this is the reason for his success as a stud farmer. In 2000 he registered his stud as Tigane Bonsmaras, after a name for Hartbeesfontein. Currently about 800 cows graze the land. This, in combination with constant grazing in the past, causes management headaches, which Hendrik tries to combat with modern technology. Fluctuating rainfall doesn’t make management easier. This year Hendrik had only had about 300mm, while he’s used to about 550mm to 600mm. Although Hendrik normally culls cows that don’t calve every season, he’s taking these very dry conditions into consideration this year. He tries to maintain a feed bank with about three months’ worth of feed, but the past season’s conditions made that difficult.

Herman and Karine Wilkens, Wilbonei Bonsmaras
Wilbonei Bonsmara Stud, the home of Herman, Karine, Linda (11) and Nika (8) Wilkens, is situated on the farm Opraap about 42km from Klerksdorp. Like Hendrik, Herman comes from a family farming background. Until two years ago his dad, Herman Sr, was in charge of the farm. Previously a mixed farm with chicken, seed and dairy operations, the enterprise became a stud in 1987 when Herman joined his dad. Before joining the Overvaal Bonsmara Group, Herman had already held three production auctions, which he financed alone. Besides his Bonsmara stud, Herman also produces smuts finger grass seed. Fittingly most of his fodder is smuts finger pasture, also used as winter foggage. He doesn’t cut and bale but buys in hay to create a feed bank, leasing 300ha for this purpose this season. In summer the animals are run on natural veld. The annual rainfall is around 640mm. The Wilbonei herd consists of about 400 stud and 100 commercial cows. Herman believes a farmer needs the right advisers from the start. “Decide what type of animal you want to produce, and get the facts before simply buying stock from the first stud to have an auction,” is his advice.