Regenerative farming: When agriculture and tech connect

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Ultra-high-density (UHD) grazing of 30 minutes per block tramples vegetation and allows nutrient recycling, turning the sheep into a ‘biodigesting fertiliser producing machine’.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Crowned as the Eastern Cape’s Agri SA Toyota Young Farmer of the Year in 2015, Paul Collett of Speelmanskop Farming in Cradock aspires to progressively build an environment with biologically balanced soil, radiant crops, productive livestock and fulfilled people.

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The formidable team of Paul Collett (left) and Jaco de Villiers (right).

Paul completed his MSc in Aquaculture at Rhodes University before returning to the farm. Following in the footsteps of his father, David Collett, who dedicated his 42-year farming career to restoring natural ecosystems and hydrating the landscape through strategic fencing and dam building, Paul has taken regenerative irrigation farming to the next level since taking the lead in the business in 2013.

“I like to encourage young farmers to participate in processes such as the Young Farmer competition, as it forces them to conduct an in-depth evaluation of their business,” says Paul during Stockfarm’s visit to the Karoo farm with its abundant veld and fast-growing pastures.

“Project evaluation leads to a thorough self-evaluation. I have learned about my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I was forced to work out policies and develop systems, spreadsheets and algorithms. The real reward of participation comes from going through the valuable process of an in-depth business analysis, not from winning the prize that’s at stake.”

Emphasis on genetic make-up

Thanks to this introspection process, Paul realised that, although a passable livestock producer himself, he was more inclined to crop farming and that Speelmanskop needed a natural stockman to make effective use of resources.

Paul consigned the management of the livestock section to Jaco de Villiers who, at the time, was employed by a well-known Bonsmara stud breeder in Limpopo. “I noticed that Jaco had a seriously good eye for livestock, having done as well as he did and by helping to develop that stud to excellence. I knew he would be able to help build our business successfully,” says Paul.

Jaco has 14 years’ experience in livestock production and has been managing the Speelmanskop Angora goats, Dohne Merino sheep and Red Angus cattle for the past four years, with a focus on building their genetic make-up. He says Paul had a theoretical plan about the livestock and of what he wanted. “He had created a ‘best management practices manual’ specifically for Speelmanskop, which has been a tremendous help to me in understanding his objectives, policies and historical knowledge, especially in the beginning.”

This manual is a living document and the record of information on the best management practices for Speelmanskop will be available in the event of sickness, retirement or death so that the farm can continue to build on past successes instead of reinventing the wheel with each management change.

A division of responsibilities

Paul manages the irrigated pastures, feed production and cash crops, as well as the finances, marketing and business aspects. Jaco’s responsibilities include the nutrition and health of livestock, as well as grazing management – Paul’s role in this regard is basically only as a director in his enterprises.

Paul believes the business is big enough for both to each take responsibility for their own divisions and manage it according to their respective strengths. Concerning strategic decision-making, they usually converse to develop solutions in the best interest of the business.

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Cool season ‘snack paddocks’ among the pecan trees help to lengthen the grazing cycle, ensuring optimal timing of prime grazing.

They have faith in regenerative agriculture and utilise resources as sustainably as possible. Paul explains how they build irrigated pasture soil by managing the sheep in big groups so as to employ high-density grazing – sheep spend no more than 72 hours on any specific pasture within one growth cycle of 21 to 50 days. Through this, they have increased the carrying capacity to 58 sheep/ha during the summer months.

“The nutritional status of the pastures is improved by increasing species diversity, harvesting carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis on various levels and thereby improving soil balance. By using cover crops, we have increased our sheep’s out-of-season conception by over 200%.”

A particular segment that assists them in measuring improvements on the farm is the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag system that produces huge amounts of data. Jaco is convinced that the method of managing this information is key to its successful implementation in a business. “We are still determining the type of on-farm data we produce which will enable us to build a model to continuously benchmark our livestock against our own standards.”

In addition to the RFID system, they use technology such as AgriWebb, an agricultural and livestock farm management software programme that allows one to keep record of every aspect of the livestock business via a cell phone. The management software allows them to monitor grazing at various levels, such as evaluating growth trends, dry matter production, pasture growth rate, days since grazed, treatments of individual animals and reporting.

“We see it as a rapid field of growth in the business as it helps us to develop algorithms that will improve genetics, management and production. With platforms such as this one, we are able to collate important information to develop our on-farm trends.”

Measuring progress

Additional benefits of the technology include that you can follow individual animals’ progress in the feedlot, as well as make strategic decisions regarding feed options and the marketing strategy. It allows for full traceability of all animals on the farm. One can also keep track of growth and treatments to develop early warning triggers such as for parasite infestations and nutritional shortages, quantify the production of marketable produce such as fibre or offspring, and establish trends and relationships between weight and fertility.

The software programme helps Jaco to keep a daily tally in addition to his traditional Excel-based stock counts list that he updates weekly, including the number of animals in the various camps on the farm. The feed inventory permits him to notify Paul timeously about the type of feed mixes that will be needed, while also providing information on the amount of feed each animal receives daily.

Distinction through partnerships

Paul and Jaco are involved in various informal partnerships with other producers in the area, such as their Angora partnership with William Copeman from the farm Rooiberg. Rooiberg is more suited to the kidding process and rearing of young goats, while the ewes are brought back to the veld at Speelmanskop once their kids are weaned. The kids usually remain on Rooiberg until they are big enough not to fall prey to predators.

Both farms are able to keep meticulous records of input costs and livestock movements between the farms. “This is a win-win situation for the goats, eliminating the shortcomings on both farms,” says Paul. “All decisions are based on what is best for the goats. Rule number two is that we accept each other’s mistakes and don’t point fingers at each other’s management styles.”

They are all in favour of shared knowledge to help improve agriculture, particularly on the regenerative and technological front, as well as keeping up to speed with international trends on topics such as carbon building and international best practices on the wool and mohair front.

“We do not keep trade secrets to ourselves. Our competitive advantage is in making the best use of resources and opportunities on our farm, not in the knowledge itself,” reflects Paul. “We believe that success follows happiness and money follows success, meaning that all we need to focus on is enjoying farming and what it entails.” – Carin Venter, Stockfarm

For more information, contact
Paul Collett at paul@speelmanskop.co.za,
or Jaco de Villiers at jaco@speelmanskop.co.za.

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