Hendrik Smith, South Africa – Day 2

Below is the reception of the farm office we visited today

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Hendrik today took us to visit Janvos Landgoed on the High Veld near Ermelo.

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Jan is a bit of a man mountain and I would not have wanted to face him on the rugby pitch! He manages his family farm with his father and it is quite an operation. They have 8000ha in total: 3500 cropping of maize and soya; 300 dairy cows; 800 beef cows, 3000 sheep and 15ha of apples.

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Above is maps of all his farms. Each section has their own manager who has their own accounts, which means if one department sells something to another it is charged at the going rate. This was a bit of an issue for the dairy manager as the maize price here has doubled! The idea is to encourage competition between the managers.

The High Veld where they are has a bit of a unique climate for South Africa.

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Due to its altitude it is cooler than most other places. It has about 600mm of annual rainfall mostly in the summer. This climate is good for growing apples and Jan thinks he will increase the area as it shows a lot of potential. It seems to be the expanding crop in this area.

Jan showed us around his enterprises.

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The cropping side has been no till since 2008. Jan went to Brazil that year and bought a local planter there and then. The first year he was 33% no till, second 66% and third he was 100% and has never looked back. About 80% of the farmers in this area are no till. The planter above is Jan’s current planter which is a local make. It has a leading time on it as he grazes all his stubbles hard with animals and this helps relieve the damage.

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He grows 50% maize and 50% soya with a couple of pivots for irrigation. He grows GMO soya and non GMO maize. He gets a premium for non GMO maize. The cropping side also makes the silage for the dairy and charges them!

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Luckily when we there they were shearing the sheep

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The wool is worth good money from these Merinos. They fatten themselves off on grass. He sometimes plants ryegrass in one of his pivots for the sheep to lamb on. He gets 3 crops of lambs in 2 yrs and they lamb at 120%. In the shearing shed we saw the Sheep Guardian

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This keeps the Jackals off 300ha of grazing ground. It works in two ways. It emits a low frequency sounds that scares off the vermin and also it sprays lion’s pee every 15 minutes. I would not want to be the guy collecting the lion pee!

We then looked at the dairy

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They are zero grazed and are housed in this open building

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The cows are yielding at 42l per cow per day. Even at this high output they are not making a profit. The dairy industry is struggling here too.

When we were driving around Jan showed us his dam where he gets his water from. Luckily he has clean water but did have an incident with the local sewage works who were leaking raw sewage into his water. This is something we have heard all around RSA. The sewage works seem to have stopped working and are pumping raw sewage into the water system. Not only does South Africa have a water shortage problem it also has a massive water quality problem with pollution from sewage and from mines. I can’t quite understand why in a developed country they can’t get sewage works working.

Thanks to Jan for showing us around. It was great to see a diversified business on a large scale and how that diversity has lead to resilience and long term profitability. Also thanks to Hendrik for being our guide for 2 days. He is doing a great job here promoting Conservation Agriculture and I think the UK would gain from a similar person.

Hendrik Smith, SA Grain, Pretoria, South Africa, day 1 – 25th of January 2016

Dr Hendrik Smith is someone who I met through Twitter @Healthy_Soils and managed to persuade him to show us around the Pretoria area for 2 days.

Hendrik works for Grain SA as a Conservation Agriculture facilitator. He is trying to increase the amount of farmers using no till and cover crops to improve soils all over South Africa. Our first meeting was in Brits at the office of Elim Groen, which is a fertiliser company. There we met with Willie Pretorius who is an expert on soil health, cover crops and bio-fertilisers. We started and finished to day at Elim Groen talking about their new bio fertilsers

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It is a carbon based fertiliser based on vermicast,Biochar and other ingredients. In independent trials they have had great results. Higher yields with 20% less nitrogen. Need to try to get some to the UK.

After Elim Groen’s Hendrik, Willie, Gordon and I went to the farm of Joseph.

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It is a beautiful place, which is in a bowl surrounded by hills. Joseph has cattle, game reserve and about 450ha of irrigated crops. Joseph is an Executive Director of Grain SA and is the vice chair of a local farmer working group.

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Joseph is sat down with Hendrik to his right and Willie to his left. In the background you can see bales. He has baled up his residue which he will send to the drought hit farmers in South Africa for free. South Africa is in a terrible drought. The maize crop is going to be half of normal. This means RSA needs to import 65 million tonnes of maize this year which is just doesn’t have the infrastructure to do. Some interesting times ahead. Joseph on his farm two weeks ago reached 53 degrees Celsius. He gets about 800 mm of annual rainfall similar to home but he has huge evaporation losses due to the heat so needs to irrigate. The irrigation is causing real problems. The water he is using is being contaminated upstream by raw sewage been pumped into the watercourses. This is happening all over because the government is not enforcing or running the sewage works. This means the water contains chlorine and E. Coli. The irrigation is also causing sodium problems

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They had dug a couple of holes to see the problems. The first one is capping of the surface due to the sodium and they are also finding an impenetrable layer of salt like material about 10″ down. This is causing problems with rooting and water penetration. Hendrik and Willie took some soil samples to try to look into the problem

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Hendrik wants to take soil health information from lots of farms and publish it. Then it gives farmers something to talk about and compare. Joseph has two different soil types, both heavy clay but both were beautiful fertile soils

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The second one is a lot darker and stays cooler. Gus the farm manager is feeding Gordon! They double crop maize and soya beans on this ground. Their biggest pest problem in the crop is baboons

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The baboons will come and take the cobs and cause a lot of damage. Other problems are Leopards. They can’t calve in the Veld so they have to bring them in otherwise the Leopards take the calves. Makes our rabbit and fox issues look wimpy!

After we looked around Joseph’s crops we had a Braai with mutton

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It was nice to get out of the heat of the sun and next to the cooler fire! Only annoying thing was all the flies. It was a great visit with Joseph and interesting to see the issues of farming in RSA. Looking forward to day 2 with Hendrik.