Farming 101: Learn all about a livestock operation

Livestock farming is one of the core agricultural industries in the country, with beef, poultry, pork and sheep farming amongst the most popular. While most of these animals are farmed across the country, not all environments and areas suit all animals. Animal health and productivity often depend on how well the animal can survive in the environment.

Dr Tlhologelo Kekane, technical vet for ruminants at MSD health, says that the success of livestock farmers lies in how healthy their animals are. She adds that unhealthy animals are not productive, which is why it is important that livestock animals stay healthy.

Dr Tlhologelo Kekane, technical vet for ruminants at MSD health. Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi

“A farmer’s profitability is in healthy animals. So remember, if an animal is unhealthy, it’ll take all its energy towards getting healthy again and it won’t actually be in production. So it means that it won’t give you a calf, if it’s a feedlot animal it won’t grow, if it’s a chicken it won’t lay an egg. For an animal to be in production, we need to make sure that its bodily systems are maintained then whatever excess energy is has, it takes towards production,” Kekane explains.

Aspects to consider

Ensuring that your animals are healthy starts even before you obtain those animals.

Sagwadi Tshabalala, an animal science graduate from the University of the Free State, explains that aspiring livestock owners measure the animals they want to farm with against what it is they want to do, as well as their own goals. She underlines the following as important points to consider when starting a livestock business:

  • Animal breed
  • animal productivity
  • Suitability of the environment
  • Animal management, including feed
  • Exposure to disease

Tshabalala says that these aspects work hand in hand, and that farmers need to consider each of these in order to limit their operational risk and maximise production.

Sagwadi Ruth Tshabalala, an animal science graduate from the University of the Free State, and quality assurance manager at a piggery. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Animal breeds

Deciding on the right breed is crucial to the success of your operation. Not every breed is suitable for every environment, and to actually succeed, you would need to choose a breed that gives you the best production rate and a high quality product, whether it is meat, dairy or something else.

To grow your herd, the animals you choose need to not only adapt to your environment, but they need to be of sufficient quality so that their genetics uphold your herd generations later.

Phakade Khanyile, a cattle farmer from Amersfoort in Mpumalanga, encourages new farmers to do their research in the area they have decided to farm in.

“Farming in KZN is very different from farming in Limpopo, which is different from farming in the Western Cape. Our country is very vast and has different environments, so you have to see what other people in that environment that you are wanting to farm in, are doing.”

Khanyile farms with Nguni cattle. Before he started, he went around to other successful farmers in his area to see how they do things. Nguni cattle are indigenous to Southern Africa and are thus known to be hardy animals that tend to be resistant to the country’s extreme temperatures.

He explains that the success of other livestock farmers in your area is a good indicator of which breed to choose for your own operation. “It’s not by accident that they are farming with whatever they are farming within that area. There’s normally a financial or production reason as to why they’re farming with whatever breed of cattle.”

Phakade Khanyile, a cattle farmer from Amersfoort in Mpumalanga. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

animal productivity

The productivity of your animals is mostly based on their breed, the environment you are farming in, and how you manage your animals. The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) defines cattle productivity as “calving rate and interval, age at first calving, reproductive life of cows, seasonality of calving, mortality, herd structure, milk production, growth, and live weight”. The definition can also be applied to other livestock, albeit with the species-appropriate terms, as these influence the bottom line of your operation.

Very important amongst these factors is the reproduction rate of your animals. Livestock farmers need to minimise, as much as they can, the mortality rate of their animals during this important season.

Other aspects around reproduction that require consideration, are the ease in which your animals give birth (which is often determined by its breeding), the management they would require during the reproductive season, and how often the animals are able to reproduce.

Suitability of the environment

Marguerite van Niekerk, a lecturer at Elsenburg Agriculture Institute in the Western Cape, says that there are no ideal breeds of livestock animals. Each breed performs optimally when they are in an area they were bred for.

Marguerite van Niekerk, a lecturer at Elsenburg Agriculture Institute. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Using Nguni cattle as an example, she explains that these animals may not be suited for feedlots but could be considered for a farm with lots of grass for grazing.

“If you are selling your wieners to the feedlot, you want to make sure your feedlot will buy in Nguni because some feedlots do not want to buy them [due to] the poor feed conversion. They would rather take in something like an Angus or the British breeds. But if you’re an extensive farmer and you’ve got plenty of grass, your local indigenous breeds like Nguni or Bonsmaras or your Africana day will obviously do better.”

Farmers also need to consider, besides the animal’s breed, how much they are willing or able to spend in infrastructure to ensure the animals flourish, and what natural resources they have available to aid their operation, like veld and a reliable water supply.

The animal’s environment and its breeding, may also contribute to how resistant it is to disease and to pests, which makes buying animals from a different region riskier. Animal breeds in one region may develop a resistance or be bred to develop resistance to disease or pests that are common in that area. Those same diseases or pests could be fatal to an animal imported from another region.

Van Niekerk uses tick resistance as an example. “Tick resistance is a huge factor. Some breeds will be better adapted to tick infestation than others.”

She also explains that feed management should play a role in deciding what and where you will be farming. “Veld is your cheapest way of finishing off [cattle] compared to feeding in a feedlot, so that will also play a role in which breed that you want to choose.”

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