Top maize farmer ups profit with minimum till

Top Free State maize producers Johan (Snr) and Johan (Jnr) van Huyssteen counteracted increasing grain input costs by phasing out wheat and sunflower crops in favour of maize. This made for 50% of lands lying fallow, a marked cut in production costs and minimum till practices. Annelie Coleman reports.

Top maize farmer ups profit with minimum till
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Van Huyssteen Farming was one of the finalists in the 2012 Grain SA Commercial Grain Producer of the Year competition. Johan and Elize van Huyssteen have been farming with their son Johan (Jnr) for the past 10 years. Their farm, Bloekom, in the Virginia district in the Free State was bought in the late 1870’s by Johan Snr’s great-grandfather, Hendrik Petrus van Huyssteen and Johan Snr and Johan Jnr are the fourth and fifth generation of the family on Bloekom respectively.

The farm consists mainly of deep and sandy Avalon soil, and receives an average annual rainfall of 550mm. It includes a small portion of sweetveld grazing and vlei land. The Van Huyssteens maintain an average maize yield of 6t/ha, compared to the district’s average of 4t/ha. “We took the drastic step to stop wheat and sunflower production about six years ago. This followed an in-depth analysis of our business model and the economic realities of commercial grain production.’’

Johan Jnr, his mother Elize and father Johan Snr in front of the self-propelled crop sprayer they recently acquired. Photo by Annelie Coleman

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Their mission is to produce grain sustainably and profitably. It made economic sense to phase out the two commodities and concentrate solely on maize production. ‘‘We’ve successfully lowered our direct input costs through minimum till, considerably fewer implements and a smaller work force. It now takes an average yield of less than 4t/ha to cover our input costs at a producer price of R2 000/t of maize. It also made it possible for us to leave half of our lands fallow every season,” Johan Snr explains.

Soil management
The lands are ripped (500mm) once in winter to prevent soil compaction. This is followed by aeration with a nitrogen application after planting. The Van Huyssteens are currently looking into the possibility of decreasing the depth to 350mm. Tilling is kept to the minimum. Johan argues that at least 25mm of the soil moisture is lost with every ploughing. “We farm in an extensive region with regular drought. Moisture preservation is of the essence.

For instance, we harvested more than 5t/ ha last season when we only received 350mm of rain. So far there has been virtually no difference in the moisture content of the lands that have not been tilled very deep after harvesting and our lands that have been left undisturbed,” says Johan Snr. They use a selection of Roundup Ready maize cultivars, mostly stacked gene varieties. Maize stover is left on the lands to prevent wind erosion and preserve moisture.

They intend planting at a density of 22 000 plants per hectare for the 2012/2013 season. That is 10 000 more than the average plant density before minimum till was implemented. Differentiated lime applications according to grid sampling since 2002 have contributed to the marked yield increase. The lands that are harvested in winter and left fallow for the next planting season receive at least five applications of a glyphosate-based herbicide.

Elize van Huyssteen is the administrative manager, and also markets a wide range of jams and preserves under the Elizamour brand.

The costs work out at about R100/ ha per application and 1l of diesel per hectare. The Van Huyssteens recently acquired a John Deere self-propelled crop sprayer. This speeds up the process considerably and prevents spillage. “The main weeds we have to deal with are couch grass (Cynodon dactylon), large flowered devil’s thorn (Tribulus zeyheri), and three-cornered jack (Emex australis),” Johan Jnr continues.

They are continually looking for ways to minimise costs without impacting on production. That is why they only use liquid fertiliser. Johan Jnr, a qualified draughtsman who holds an N5 qualification in mechanical engineering, modified the planters to accommodate the liquid fertiliser. “It made economic sense,” he says.

“For instance, we do not need to hire a forklift to offload the granulated fertiliser. Fertiliser is applied at planting and as top-dressing in January. We assess our fertiliser needs from season to season. Sap analysis is done during the production season to determine the nutrient needs of the maize and the programme is adjusted accordingly, if need be.”

Careful marketing
Grain marketing is approached with caution on Bloekom. “Marketing is probably the most difficult aspect of grain production. There are so many variables in marketing. It is virtually impossible to predict the markets,” says Johan Snr. “We have found a specific strategy that works for us, but, as with any other tactic, it needs to be reviewed and evaluated constantly. We currently follow a three-pronged approach. One-third of the maize is sold directly from the farm and one-third is sold to a specific buyer with provision for a minimum and maximum price. The other third is stored on the farm and a nearby Senwes silo to be marketed later. By using our own silo we save on storage costs and we can market maize in our own time.”

Van Huyssteen Farming also includes a small cattle component – mainly Bonsmara-type females and a Limousin bull. Weaners are marketed out of hand. The cattle are run on the veld. This prevents soil compaction on the fallow lands and limits the spread of weeds. Their enterprise also includes common game such as nyala, waterbuck, eland and gemsbok. The plan is to eventually sell live game and to venture into breeding rare game such as sable antelope.

Father and son attribute their success to the grace of God. “We work and plan our business as if we are managing His business. The secret to success is to do an ordinary job extraordinarily well. Don’t measure success in terms of monetary accomplishments. It should be measured in terms of dedication, motivation and staying power.”

Passion with no cure
Bloekom is John Deere country. Even the dog is named JD. “Not Jack Daniels, but John Deere,” Johan Snr jokes. “To be a John Deere fan is similar to being a Blue Bull fanatic. It is something inexplicable, but it runs in one’s blood. It becomes a consuming passion and there is no cure for it.” The family are avid collectors of John Deere, military and aviation memorabilia.

Not even the bathroom can escape the obsession with John Deere!

The office on Bloekom is packed with hundreds of model tractors too. The family currently owns eight veteran John Deeres of which a 1928 Model D is the oldest. They found the tractors and remnants of tractors all over the country and even on rubbish dumps. Some of the tractors were restored on the farm and others were sent to a specialist restoration company.

Contact Van Huyssteen Farming at [email protected] or Johan van Huysteen Snr on 083 262 3057.