Mavis and Pienaar Mtlokwa farm on Java between Kestell and Harrismith. They run a dairy, beef cattle and egg production operation. They also cultivate their own maize on the 463ha farm.
Pienaar’s father, Jan, bought Java in 1989, and father and son managed the farm together until Jan passed away in 2013. “It was my father-in-law who taught us most of what we know about farming,” says Mavis, who joined the business in 1996 when she married Pienaar. “When he passed away it was not only a big shock, but also a tremendous loss.”
The couple inherited Jan’s debt – a sizeable R240 000 – which had to be paid immediately. Although losing the farm was a real possibility, they decided to do everything in their power to prevent that from happening. The Mtlokwas sold all the livestock, except for twelve dairy cows, which Pienaar kept milking. They leased Java for three years and settled the debt.
Mavis also went back to teaching at a local school. They were able to survive on her teacher’s salary while they gradually rebuilt their dairy herd.
Building strong partnerships
“In 2016 we were able to start farming full time again. Milk SA had been supporting us since 2014 and played a significant role. For instance, they facilitated the hand-over of ten dairy cows, which made it possible for me to return to farming full time. They also empowered us through training courses,” says Mavis.
“I also attended farmers’ days and training courses hosted by Sernick. This resulted in a deal with Sernick in 2019. The company placed 35 cows and their calves, along with a bull, with us. The agreement was that we must supply them with 14 weaner calves each year. We now have 19 heifers that will be mated next year, and we will hopefully be able to match this year’s 100% conception rate.”
In addition to the expanding beef cattle herd, the Mtlokwas currently run 50 dairy cattle and sell their milk to Nestlé in Harrismith. “Nestlé is another entity that deserves huge recognition for their support. Their training and guidance in respect of milk hygiene have been invaluable,” Mavis explains.
“While Nestlé buys our milk and provides us with technical support, Sernick does the same in terms of our beef operation. They supplied our cows, supply our licks and buy our weaner calves at a very fair price,” says Pienaar. “In addition, they have given us tremendous support, both in terms of training and physical infrastructure development. They came to repair our reservoir and installed a network of pipes to transfer water to the various drinking troughs around the house.”
On-farm feed production
Mavis and Pienaar both agree that the secret to farming is to produce as much of one’s own feed as possible. Consequently, they match their silage production to the requirements of their dairy cows for the particular year. The rest of the maize they harvest goes towards the meal they use for their dairy herd.
The beef cattle graze natural veld during summer and utilise the maize stubble in winter. In addition, winter and summer licks are purchased from Sernick Animal Feeds.
Future dreams of expansion
The Mtlokwas are very clear about where they want their farming enterprise to be five years from now. “We want to increase our beef cattle herd to at least 150 cows, which is probably the limit the farm can accommodate. We also want to milk 150 dairy cows, but for us to do that we need to revamp our milking parlour. At the moment we have a four-point parlour, which is inadequate for milking 150 cows twice a day.
“To increase the number of milking points implies a huge capital investment, and we will have to be very prudent in terms of money matters in order to service such a financial burden. How exactly we do not know yet, but there is no doubt that we will have to take the plunge at some point,” says Mavis.
Although the dairy branch is not that profitable compared to the entire farming operation, it is invaluable in terms of cash flow. The money they receive for the milk every month makes it possible to pay salaries and electricity, as well as buy medicine and feed.
Doing what needs to be done
Pienaar and Mavis do not have specific roles when it comes to their farming enterprise; they both do whatever needs to be done at that particular moment. Mavis, though, handles all the recordkeeping in the milking parlour.
They also employ six farm workers, two of whom have been sent on training courses. This, they feel, is something that should take place regularly, for the better a worker’s training, the more value they can add to the farm’s productivity.
Diversity is the key to success
While the dairy and beef cattle operations are the main focus, the Mtlokwas also have an egg production unit consisting of 115 layers – the eggs are sold locally on the informal market.
“The nice thing about the eggs,” explains Mavis, “is that the work is relatively easy. The 110 eggs we get on average every day are packed in containers of 30 each and sold for R50. As the buyers come directly to the farm, we have very few inputs apart from feeding the hens and collecting the eggs. Our eggs are very popular because, according to our customers, they are farm fresh and taste great. If our customers are satisfied, then we are very happy!”
As a diversification strategy, Mavis obtained two sheep ewes and a ram a few years ago. The sheep numbers have since increased to 13 and the plan is to expand the flock substantially as there is a thriving market for live sheep in the area.
“We try to look at each segment of our operation as fulfilling a specific role. The dairy, for example, provides the monthly cashflow and the eggs support this. The beef cattle herd is a long-term investment, while the maize we cultivate supplies the feed that supports our livestock branch.
“Everything we do must align with our philosophy that each segment needs to play a specific role to make the entire operation more robust and less vulnerable.”
For Pienaar and Mavis, improving the performance of each branch is crucial, as this drives efficiency throughout. The dairy cows currently produce 15ℓ per day on average and the butterfat content is 3,58%. They aim to increase the average milk yield per cow to between 18 and 20ℓ by incorporating better genetics. Increasing the milk solids by introducing more Jerseys into the herd is also on the cards.
“We are trying to improve all the time, both in terms of our own knowledge and skills, as well as overall productivity. Five years from now we not only want to be bigger, but we also want to be better,” says Mavis. – Izak Hofmeyr, Stockfarm
For more information, contact Mavis Mtlokwa on 076 220 6527.