A life of farming – African Farming

Thabo Dithakgwe of Nasi Ditha Farming started farming at 13 with the donation of a pregnant heifer from his father. Today he inspires many, young and old, as a shining example that success in farming comes through hard work and determination. Peter Mashala visited him on his farm near Tosca outside Vryburg in the North West. 

Thabo Dithakgwe, from Morokweng village in the Vryburg area, identifies himself as “the youngest farmer” on social media. It’s the informal trademark he’s carried since he started farming when he was 13. Now 21, Thabo is a commercial livestock farmer who runs 200 cattle, Boer goats and sheep on Ottawa Farm (2 500ha) outside Tosca, between Vryburg and Mahikeng, in the North West province.

Thabo registered and received his brand mark from the Department of Agriculture in 2015 when he was only 14 after his dad Pushoetsile Dithakgwe, gave him his first pregnant heifer. 

Operating as Nasi Ditha Farming Pty Ltd Thabo named his business after his grandfather who, he says, played a pivotal role in him becoming a farmer. Thabo says he learnt everything he knows from his late grandfather, Nasi Dithakgwe, and from his dad. The two men set him on a path to becoming a successful livestock farmer with a bright future in the farming industry.

“My dad, a school principal, always trusted my abilities. He gave me the freedom to grow at my own pace, and when I was ready for responsibility while still young, he trusted me enough to give it to me,” he recalls.

A history of farming

Thabo grew up in a family of farmers. “My aunts, uncles and grandparents all farmed. I often visited my grandparents’ farm as a toddler,” says Thabo. His family, a land restitution beneficiary, successfully claimed the Constable Farm in Pomfret, outside Morokweng, under the Barolong Boo Maiketso Communal Property Association, granted in 2015.

This was when Thabo started farming part-time with his dad and uncle. Once he had written matric, he enrolled at the Potchefstroom College of Agriculture where he studied for a diploma in agricultural management. The family appointed him as farm manager on the communal farm to manage the family herd, which included animals belonging to his aunts and uncles. “It was a great advantage because I had a place to work where I could apply what I had learned,” explains Thabo. 

Although Thabo had the formal education, he quickly identified the need for an experienced mentor who would advise him and help him developing the necessary skills. He was fortunate to find well-known Bonsmara cattle breeder, Christopher Melamu of Lamus Bonsmaras, from Reivelo near Vryburg. “Working for Christopher was a great opportunity to integrate work with learning while earning some money.

At first, I was a general worker keeping records, sampling soil for testing and managing the grazing,” says Thabo. Because the Pomfret farm wasn’t a commercial entity yet, Thabo worked for Christopher until he was promoted to full-time farm manager. As he continued to grow his own business and his herd numbers, the limited size of the Constable farm was becoming a restriction.

“It was getting a bit cramped, and I wanted some room to expand and show that I was really serious,” he says. He then applied for his own land through the PLAS programme and was awarded Ottowa Farm in 2020. “This farm is about 10 000ha and has been subdivided into four equal parts to be shared with three other farmers,” explains Thabo. 

Breeding Bonsmaras

Thabo moved with his herd of 90 cattle to the new farm in 2020. Since then he has grown the herd to 200 Bonsmara-type animals. He is working on transforming his mixed-breed herd into a Bosmara herd. Working with Christopher turned him into a Bonsmara lover, he explains.

“This is one of the best breeds that anyone can farm in South Africa,” he comments. According to Thabo, Bonsmaras are functionally sound and highly adaptable animals, which make them suitable for his sandy semi-desert area much like the Kgalagadi. He adds that the cows have good mothering abilities and temperaments. “They are a number one breed in the country, so I get good prices for my weaners at the auction,” he says. 

Thabo sees himself as very fortunate to have been granted such a big farm with its abundant sweetveld grazing. “The previous farmer had just de-bushed an area on my portion of the farm, which gave me more grazing and more carrying capacity,” explains Thabo. The carrying capacity of this sweetveld region is 1 LSU on 10 ha. 

He rotates the grazing through his camps. “In summer I move the cattle every week and in winter I move them every two weeks,” he says. He keeps the pregnant animals closer to his house in smaller camps so that he can check them every day and keep the newborn calves safe and protected from predators. 

“This also makes it easier to assist with difficult births,” he adds. He has had challenges with some of his heifers suffering dystocia (prolonged or difficult labour). The heifers had problems delivering calves that were too big for them and Thabo lost some first calvers and their calves. “I learned later that it was because I used a big bull on all my heifers. I’ve since acquired a smaller heifer bull,” he explains.

In summer Thabo vaccinates his animals with Covexin®10, a multiclostridial vaccine for diseases such as haemorrhagic enteritis, black quarter, tetanus and sudden death syndrome. He also vaccinates against botulism and anthrax. “We control the ticks in summer by dipping at least twice a month and we treat internal parasites with Ivomec,” says Thabo.

Towards winter he vaccinates against Pasteurella and feeds out a P8 winter supplement with urea from Tau Feeds. He also injects vitamin A for bone formation, growth, energy metabolism, skin and hoof tissue maintenance, and vision. Thabo feeds his bulls and cows production licks to prepare them for the mating season. 

The biggest challenge for him as a young farmer who started farming early has been access to funding. “I struggled a lot when it came to finding the money to invest in growing the herd, developing infrastructure and buying inputs,” he explains. He had to rely mainly on his parents to take loans on his behalf. “I was too young to get loans myself – I had no financial background and no property to use as surety,” he explains.

But he says his ability to network and make contacts and friends in the industry has helped him. Recently a commercial farmer friend and business partner made a loan arrangement with Thabo. “He loaned me 100 Bonsmara heifers, which I’ll repay over a few years by returning a certain percentage of male weaners into his feedlot,” he explains.

Niche market for Boer goats

Thabo belongs to the Ghaapseberg Boergoat Group’s study group, which helps him by marketing his Boer goats. He is building a flock which he eventually wants to register as a stud. “I have dreams of becoming a Boer goat stud breeder and exporting live breeding stock and meat to countries such as the UAE,” he says. He recently participated in the Ghaapseberg Boer Goat Group’s production sale in Vryburg where he got record prices of R4 500 each for five six-month-old animals. 

“I don’t compromise on quality when it comes to my goats. When you produce a quality animal, people are willing to pay for it,” he says. Thabo believes that Boer goats are a good breed with high fertility and easy maintenance. In his semi-arid area he has enough grazing and browse material from acacia trees and local veld shrubs, which the goats utilise. 

“The conditions are pretty tough but we try our best not to pamper our goats,” he says. “We feed supplement during mating, kidding and sale preparation.” In winter he feeds the pregnant ewes a maxi block with aloe to boost colostrum production. Once the kids are born the mothers get a lick mix of Procon 33, Maxiwol concentrate, Tau production lick, crushed yellow maize and salt. This helps with body condition maintenance after lambing. He also feeds lucerne and ground nut hay bales, which are high in protein. this is good for milk production and kid growth. 

“I vaccinate my goats with Supavax P Plus and the OBP Bluetongue vaccine,” he explains. 

Thabo has three kidding seasons in a year, which has a positive impact on his cash flow. He weans the kids at four months and puts young rams through a growth trial. This means he can sell them at 12 months as commercial rams to communal and emerging farmers who want to improve their flock quality. “I sell young ewes between eight and twelve months to interested buyers who want to breed,” says Thabo. He says there is a niche market selling goats to start-up farmers because they are low maintenance and easy to farm.

Thabo highlights the challenges brought on by stock theft. “We are close to the Botswana border so there is also some cross-border theft.” Thabo and his neighbours have set up a farmer patrol and some farmers have installed cameras on the roads. 

Interrupted electricity supply is another major problem. “My water comes from boreholes and when there is load shedding, I need to run the borehole pumps off generator power,” he explains. Diesel prices are currently at an all-time high, so running the generators is expensive. “All these things, including workers’ salaries, put pressure on me as a young farmer,” says Thabo. 

He thinks the government should prioritise supporting young people who want to farm. “We need young, vibrant people in positions of power in government to take young people seriously and change policies to encourage entry into agriculture. Their success is the country’s success,” says Thabo.

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