How to keep your farm secure while you’re away on holiday

Are you going away over the festive season? Three leaders in agriculture and security explain how common sense, technology, and good relationships with neighbours can help protect your possessions.

How to keep your farm secure while you’re away on holiday
Neighbourhood watches have proved their worth as a crime deterrent. And the more people who join, the better the results.
Photo: Denene Erasmus

If you’re considering going away over the holidays, you may want to think again. Dr Florence Nherera-Chokuda, head of farmer support and development at the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation, explains that theft of stock and other assets usually escalates from October until December, with high meat and food prices supporting this trend.

“Rather invite your family and friends to celebrate Christmas on the farm, and then take a break a week or two later in January, once things have settled. If you have no choice, try not to stay away for more than five days,” she suggests.

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Major-General Chris van Zyl, general manager of TAU SA, agrees: “You preferably don’t want to be away from the farm over Christmas, as stock-theft syndicates won’t take a break, and people tend to steal more for the pot during this time.

“Over the years, we’ve also found that stock theft tends to peak when there’s a full moon, over weekends, and at the start and end of the month.”

Whenever you decide to go on leave, though, there are several key preventative measures you should take: don’t make it obvious you are away and your house is empty; secure the premises; harness the goodwill and local knowledge of the community; and get insurance that covers you against loss.

Signs of life
Carel Hauptfleisch, CEO of Drongo Early Warning Technologies, stresses that nothing is as great a deterrent to thieves as signs of life. It therefore makes sense to inform a trusted neighbour, a friend or family member of your plans, give them a set of keys and ask them to check up on the house once in a while.

“Suggest that they take a coffee break at your place or help themselves to a couple of beers from your fridge. You would, in any case, need to ask someone to feed your dogs,” says Hauptfleish.

Where possible, neighbours or friends should be encouraged to park their vehicles (or those of their visitors) in your driveway to create the impression that somebody is on the farm. Other strategies include leaving curtains a quarter of the way open in some windows, and keeping the TV and a few lights on.

Better yet, suggests Van Zyl, is to get a house-sitter such as the farm manager, a neighbour’s child or another family member.

“Preferably, for safety reasons, more than one person should stay on the farm. Also, ensure that you know and trust these people.”

The neighbourhood watch
If you make use of an armed response company, provide it with your date of departure and return, as well as the contact details of the person who will be in charge of the farm while you’re gone. Request additional patrols if these are on offer.

“Test the alarm, make sure it works before you go away, and show the house-sitters or the person left in charge how to use and activate the system. Give them the contact details of the armed response company,” says Hauptfleish.

If you have a neighbourhood watch in your area, inform the people who run it of your plans.

Nherera-Chokuda says that neighbourhood watches are gaining popularity in rural areas, as neighbours have a shared interest in crime prevention and can identify and respond to threats much quicker than third parties due to their close proximity to one another.

“Join the neighbourhood watch if you haven’t done so already, and strengthen it by actively participating in its activities. Having members of a community look out for one another is much better than being reliant on yourself, or a third party who is miles away,” she says.

The community and employees
Farm employees are important members of the community and should also be roped
in to enhance farm safety and security.

Van Zyl says that this should start long before a farmer goes on holiday, through the appointment of trustworthy employees with a good track record and references.

“Focus on building relationships and strengthening trust over time, and don’t employ new people just before you go on leave. If you look after your workers, they’ll look after you.”

Thieves generally steal cash and items that are easy to resell, such as TVs, computers and electric appliances. Van Zyl therefore advises that extra care be taken when deciding whom to employ to work in the home. To reduce the risk of theft, he suggests that valuables be stored out of sight, and guns locked away in a neighbour’s or friend’s safe.

Hauptfleisch adds that everything of value in and around the house should be packed away: “If someone peeps through a window from the outside, there should be very little to see.”

Security technology
Burglar bars, alarm systems, security gates, automated lighting, electric fencing and video cameras all have value as deterrents. Van Zyl emphasises that most thieves are opportunists, looking for a quick and easy way in and out.

“These [methods are] not a complete guarantee against a break-in, but will make a criminal think twice before targeting you by increasing the effort needed to break in and the risk of being caught.”

Livestock and equipment can also be fitted with GPS trackers to monitor their movement via cell phone or tablet. Livestock devices are generally programmed to alert farmers when the animals engage in ‘abnormal’ behaviour, such as starting to run, and newer software can also be programmed to alert farmers when the animals move out of a predefined area, called a geofence.

“The technology enables you to watch the movements of your livestock via your smartphone while sitting at the beach, far from the farm,” says Van Zyl.

The technology, unfortunately, is too expensive to fit on more than a few animals, he cautions.

“And if the alarm goes off and livestock is stolen, you may be 1 000km away from the farm at a time when the situation needs your quick intervention.”

Nherera-Chokuda says that dogs can serve as another valuable safeguarding tool.

“Dogs sound the alarm when something is wrong and could be used as shepherds to protect your livestock. They should, nevertheless, be well trained to play these roles.”

Livestock and crops
Fences and gates should be well maintained, not only to manage the movement of livestock, but also to create a barrier between the farm and trespassers. In addition, gates need to be kept closed and locked, a precaution that Hauptfleish says seems obvious, but is neglected by many people.

“It doesn’t pay to have the fanciest, most secure locks if the gates are left open!”
In addition, livestock should, as far as possible, be kept in camps that are a good distance from roads, especially overnight.

“If sheep are grazing near a busy road where the fence is broken, it’s so much easier for someone to stop and load them onto a bakkie,” says Nherera-Chokuda.

Counting and marking animals
Van Zyl advises that livestock should be counted regularly (at least once a week) and ideally more often over Christmas to help identify theft as soon as it happens.

“When people steal for the pot, one individual animal may be taken per day, making it more difficult to identify theft by merely looking at the flock.”

Livestock also need to be clearly marked, as prescribed by law, to help with the identification of ownership when animals are stolen.

“Court cases are lost when people cannot identify and prove that the recovered animals belong to them,” says Van Zyl.

He adds that over the past few years, theft of higher-value fruit has increased greatly.

To curb this problem, he advises farmers to plant orchards away from main roads and invest in fencing and security.

“It’s really difficult to do something about crop theft unless the thief is caught red-handed, because it’s near impossible to match fruit with the legitimate owner once it has left the farm.”

Insurance
The last consideration is insurance. Hauptfleish suggests that farmers should “go temporarily crazy with short-term insurance, as you’re under increased risk over this time”.

“You can get cheap additional short-term insurance, whether the assets are at home or are brought with you, and cancel it once you return.

“And if you’re driving far, it might also make sense to join the AA ,” he advises.

Email Dr Florence Nherera-Chokuda at [email protected], Major-General Chris van Zyl
at [email protected], or Carel Hauptfleish at [email protected].