The Gagelas’ unique livestock operation

In 2009, the Gagela family expanded their livestock initiative from the communal areas of the Eastern Cape to include a commercial farm near Dordrecht. Mike Burgess reports on the family’s unique agricultural journey, driven by the late George Gagela.

The Gagelas’ unique livestock operation
The Gagela family run a breeding herd of 50 Beefmaster-type cattle on Rockberry.
Photo: Mike Burgess
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“He loved farming a lot,” says Luyanda Gagela (42) about his late father, George. “He always had tractors, cattle and sheep.”

George started farming part-time in the communal areas of the Lupapasi region of the Eastern Cape’s former Transkei while still a policeman.

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By the 2000s he had retired from law enforcement and was able to focus on his communal farming enterprise consisting of a flock of 50 sheep and about 20 crossbred beef cattle.

Not to be outdone, his wife Nomsa, then still a full-time teacher, tended to chickens, lambs and pigs around the homestead.

From left: Luyanda Gagela, his mother Nomsa, and his brother, Mawande.
’There is money here on the farm,‘ says Nomsa. ’You must just use your mind and have energy and you will find it.‘ Photos: Mike Burgess

However, farming in the communal areas was challenging, with limited grazing resources shared by a multitude of farmers.

“Although my parents were doing well, they were still struggling,” recalls Luyanda. “You cannot mind your business in the communal areas; there are a lot of disturbances.”

So the elderly Gagela couple, both born in the early 1940s, began looking to source a commercial farm through the state’s Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development land reform programme.

Eventually, in 2009, they were awarded the 280ha Rockberry farm, 6km outside of the town of Dordrecht.

George goes to Rockberry

George immediately transferred a significant portion of the family livestock from the communal areas of Lupapasi to Rockberry and established some more lucerne on the property.

Most of the time he remained on Rockberry during the week and returned to Lupapasi over the weekends, where he still ran some livestock.

Nomsa retired from teaching in 2007, but the Gagela couple were stretched with the increasing responsibilities on Rockberry, almost 60km from Lupapasi.

According to Luyanda, who was at the time working in Gauteng, although he could sense the strain his parents were under, he also knew that the hard work gave them purpose.

“During holidays we [the children living in Gauteng and Cape Town] could see our parents struggling, but they also still liked to be in charge,” he recalls.

The late George Gagela, who became a full-time farmer after retiring as a policeman.

But then tragedy struck when George was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, and Luyanda, who was at the time working as a welder at the Exxaro Grootegeluk Coal Mine near Lephalale, returned to support his parents in the Eastern Cape.

By late 2019, George had passed away, leaving a gaping void in the Gagela farming operations.

The Gagela family then decided that Luyanda would remain in the Eastern Cape to manage the livestock initiatives.

Furthermore, his younger brother, Mawande (32), a fitter and turner in Cape Town, decided to join Luyanda back home.

And just like that the two Gagela brothers were at the helm of their father’s life’s work, a responsibility they did not take lightly considering the expectations of the broader extended family.

“They are expecting a lot from us, and they are very much worried when we have problems,” says Luyanda.

“We are all very concerned with what happens here, as we all want to see it become something.”

Livestock and management

The Gagela family still run eight cattle and 161 sheep in Lupapasi and manage a breeding herd of 50 Beefmaster-type cattle and 73 Dohne Merino ewes on Rockberry.

The commercial farm also has a total of 13ha of dryland lucerne (the majority of which has a high grass content), and 3ha of oats around the homestead that is used to support livestock through winter.

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Their breeding herd of cows and heifers is split into two single-sire herds. Heifers, at the age of two years, receive a smaller-framed bull to minimise calving issues.

Both Beefmaster bulls currently being used were sourced via the state’s livestock improvement scheme.

Bulls are introduced to breeding females from November to April, and last season the herd achieved a calving rate of 78%.

Calves are weaned at six to seven months and bull calves are marketed at an age of nine to 11 months at an average weight of 250kg.

All heifers are kept as replacements, and bull calves and store cows are sold to Andrew’s Abattoir in Elliot.

For their Merino flock the Gagelas have sourced genetics from across the Dordrecht district, but they make special mention of Hencil Dohnes from Barkly East, a stud from which they prefer to source their rams.

In recent years the Gagelas have started breeding rams that are sold to communal sheep farmers. “There is a real demand for good genetics in the villages near Lupapasi. They like our sheep,” says Luyanda.

All young ewes are retained in the flock while ram lambs that are not selected for the breeding programme are sold into traditional markets for R2 000 each.

The Gagelas‘ Dohne Merinos are kraaled every night as thieves and predators are a major concern.

Sheep are shorn in September, and six-and-a-half bales of wool are harvested from sheep at Lupapasi and Rockberry collectively.

The livestock get rock salt all year and a protein lick in winter.

Cattle receive a pour-on dip three times in summer to combat tickborne diseases. Standard inoculation and dosing programmes are adhered to with a specific focus on deworming young livestock to ensure the best growth.

Challenges

Luyanda and Mawande recall that taking control of the family farming operation on Rockberry in 2020 was defined by a lack of practical know-how, a reality compounded by the loss of their father and his lifetime of experience.

Mawande, for example, recalls the challenges their bailer presented them on arrival at Rockberry. “When we got to the farm, we didn’t even know how to put twine in the bailer. We had to go and ask,” he admits.

Also, soon after arriving on Rockberry, Luyanda let the cattle into the lucerne and they promptly bloated. “I didn’t know that would happen. I went to my neighbours and had to beg for help.”

Although the Gagela brothers have come a long way since those early days, they feel they would benefit from some kind of mentoring programme.

READ Empowerment through education

“We still need support in terms of knowledge and guidance,” says Luyanda. “We’ve had no proper training.”

Then there is the reality of ever-increasing input costs. “One of the major challenges we face is the cost of diesel. It cost us R10 000 in diesel in 2020 to cut and bale our lucerne,” says Mawande.

“It costs us double that now; every year we must reach deeper into our pockets.”

The Gagela brothers are however thankful for the support of the Eastern Cape Department of Land Reform and Agrarian Reform that has helped alleviate the pressure on Rockberry Farm’s financial resources by, for example, funding the building of a steel shed and providing water supply infrastructure in 2016.

Also, according to the Gagela brothers, recent unpredictable weather patterns have been catastrophic for grazing resources.

“This time, rain only arrived in late December and then there was no rain for most of January and February,” says Mawande. “It’s very challenging for us, as we are worried about a lack of grass for winter.”

Furthermore, Rockberry Farm’s proximity to Dordrecht makes the entire property vulnerable to runaway fires.

“If you see smoke, you start running around,” says Luyanda. “You start wondering if it can reach Rockberry.”

But at the heart of the Gagelas’ livestock farming challenges is access to land as they believe the property is overstocked.

“The more numbers you have, the more stress you have,” says Luyanda. “Renting land is impossible as everybody is looking for land, but we are going to go to government and knock for land.”

Phone Luyanda Gagela on 076 869 9486.