Mind-boggling differences between South Africa and Australia


By JENNY KELLY, The Weekly Times

Story Originally Published by The Weekly Times

Staff supervision: Farm manager Jurie De Wet from Shawe Beefmasters at Dundee and (below) a stockman moves cattle. Picture: Jenny Kelly

Traveling around South Africa, it quickly becomes apparent that staffing levels and people management are the eye-opening differences between farming here and in Australia.

Labour is so cheap that the classic Aussie story of multiple council workers leaning on a shovel to fill in a pothole is more like 20 people over here.

Soon after arriving here the tour bus ran into roadworks and, on my count, it took three people to move a little gate across the road like a stop/go sign.

And then you visit farms and find out details about labour and wages and the reaction is … “seriously?”

A dairy farm at Dundee milking 850 cows had 100 permanent employees.

A mixed farm near the Kruger National Park, running 200 to 250 Nguni cows plus sugar cane and a citrus orchard on about 1000ha also had 100 permanent employees plus additional seasonal workers during harvests.

A grazing property running 1200 Beefmaster cows on 8500ha had 55 permanent employees.

Jurie De Wet, manager of the Shawe family’s Beefmaster operation at Dundee, said his main role was supervising workers.

“Most days I get home as clean as a whistle. Really it’s all about managing people and making sure they are doing their jobs,’’ he said.

Like Australia, there are varying wage structures for different jobs and abilities.

A basic farm worker appears to be among the lowest paid people in South Africa. Mr De Wet said his team of 55 indigenous workers were paid an average of 2400 rand a month, about $250.

The dairy farm paid workers more, about 3500 rand, or about $370, a month.

Australian farmers on the tour said it cost about $50,000 to employ a general farm worker for a year. It means producers in South Africa can employ 10 to 20 workers for a similar cost to one Australian employee.

And it shows up in what properties can do. The dairy farm had Dundee milking 850 cows had an intensive operation of the cows in undercover sheds and milked on a 60 cow rotary three times a day.

The milking times were 5am to about 9.30am; 1pm to 5pm; and 8pm to nearly midnight.

Kevin Fedderke, who was managing the 3000ha operation for his family, said they were concentrating on production and were currently averaging 28.5 litres per cow and were aiming for 32 litres.

Their top Friesian cows, which are managed to perform and drafted and fed accordingly each week, were doing up to 60 litres per day.

When we visited they were tagging cows with new Allflex electronic ID and Mr Fedderke said they were updating equipment to try to end human error in the milking shed.

He said they had been using visual ID tags, and the milkers were required to punch in each cow’s number, but some workers had the habit of using the same number repeatedly.

“So at the end of the week we had cows doing hundreds of litres a day and others which hadn’t been milked at all,’’ he said, highlighting the issue of people management.

The dairy industry in South Africa appears to be under similar pressure to Australia in rising costs compared to milk returns.

Another farm visited, Orange Grove Dairy near Dundee, has the oldest registered dairy farm in South Africa, with a Jersey herd going back 90 years, and chief executive officer Peter Durham said the industry was changing.

He said while there used to be 40,000 dairy farms across the country there were now 1600 and the average size was about 800 cows.

He said there had been a 400 per cent increase in electricity prices since 2007. He has now started to develop a pasture-based property to move away from the costs of intensive feeding.

Mr Fedderke said they were receiving 5.10 rand, or about 50c, per litre of milk. It was costing 55 rand, about $5.70, per cow per day to feed. He said feed was 40 per cent of production costs.

He said their dairy farm, which began in 2006, was still developing and not yet profitable.

“You need 1000 cows to break even,’’ he said: “But we can see in the future that if we have 1000 to 1200 cows doing 32 litres a day then we will be smiling.’’

The beef sector in South Africa seems to have a more positive vibe.

A visit to a Beefmaster grazing property, also near Dundee, was fascinating. Not least because they were feeding chicken litter, scrapped straight out of poultry sheds complete with little white feathers, direct to all their cattle and it had Australian eyes popping.

Mr De Wet manages the property for the Shawe family and it was a mix of 1200 registered and commercial cows over 8500 ha, plus a feedlot.

An interesting difference was the bulls. The group inspected a group of 100 rising three-year-olds which were being prepared for sale in August and they had all been used on the property, or as Mr De Wet referred to them as “non-virgins’’.

Like Australia, he said African beef prices had lifted after a drought that had caused a cull of females and tighter supplies. As an example he said last week they had paid 36 rand (about $3.70) per kilogram liveweight for weaner calves for the feedlot. This time last year the price was 22 rand/kg.

Mr De Wet said they sold 45 calves a week to meat wholesalers from the feedlot and were receiving 45 rand/kg carcass weight or ($4.63).

He said financials for the feedlot were tracking well, due in part to cheap grain, and “there is 800 rand (about $82) profit every time a calf leaves the feedlot’’.

For the Australians the fascination was with labour. The property had workers on horses who went around every day counting herds to check health but also guard against theft.

Crime appears to be huge issue in Africa, and the amount of razor wire and extreme electric fencing (some 10 wires high) is mind-boggling.

Mr De Wet said it was important to pick up problems quickly, and the area had something called Farm Watch, basically a telephone and radio network between farms.

“You need to know of a problem quickly so you can do something about it,’’ he said.

There was also a team of workers who deliver chicken litter to the herd at a rate of 14kg per animal over two feeds per week. He said they vaccinated against bacterial issues.

Milking at midnight. Feeding chicken poo to cattle. It couldn’t happen in Australia which is why visiting a place like Africa is so fascinating.

• Jenny Kelly is leading a tour for The Weekly Times and Swagman to South Africa.

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