These are the words of 22-year-old young farmer and manager, Thendani Mthethwa, who has managed to carve himself a bright future in agriculture, despite his initial plans to study ophthalmology (a medical field that specializes in eye and vision care).
He laughs when explaining that ophthalmology was an idea got by scrolling through the pages of career magazines, hoping to find a career that would interest him. In 2011, while attending Buhle-bethu High School, Mthethwa was offered a bursary by Kembali Farms, an agricultural cooperative with roots in Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) as well as the Eastern Cape. The cooperative visited the school to introduce scholars to agriculture and due to his high academic achievements, Mthethwa and a few other interested students were sent to Weston Agricultural College.
Mthethwa is the first to admit that he never had intentions to study agriculture but felt that it would be crazy to say no to the opportunity. “I didn’t want my parents to struggle with college fees after I finished matric, so I said yes to agriculture and no to ophthalmolog,” the young farmer adds.
After matriculating with exceptional marks in 2014, Mthethwa pursued his diploma in agricultural management at the George campus of the Nelson Mandela University. This was also funded by Kembali Farms.
The spirit of curiosity
His second year at the university comprised of in-service training, which he did at Kembali Farm in the Eastern Cape. There, he filled the position of trainee assistant manager.
But despite working on an 8500-hectare farm with 5000 cattle, the aspiring agriculturist felt that he was not being challenged enough and asked to be moved to another farm. “I was curious to learn more about the industry and I also wanted to gain as much knowledge as possible. The farm had a big team and was well managed too. So, there was little for me to do,” Mthethwa says. He completed the rest of his in-service training at Groenwei Boerdery near Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape.
The farm specialises in dairy and Mthethwa managed 900 cattle. During his time at the farm, Mthethwa made it his personal mission to perform outstandingly in all the tasks that was given to him.
“It was my goal to be considered for a job after I completed my studies. Still, I was stunned when the owner of the farm called me with an offer to appoint me as junior farm manager,” Mthethwa explains.
It was a position that would make the young farmer responsible for the health and conception rate of the cows and he couldn’t wait to start. It was a time in his life that he passionately describes as “so much fun.” And by “fun”, what he really means is “challenging”.
“I’ve always been curious to know more than what I already know.”
What Mthethwa likes about dairy farming is that he constantly has to monitor the production rate of the cows and the milk they produce. “For example, one day you might produce 22 000 litres of milk and on another you’ll only produce 18 000 litres. The drop in the production rate tells you that something is wrong, and that you should probably evaluate your management system,” he says.
With beef, Mthethwa explains it’s a slightly different ballgame. He elaborates that most beef farmers only sell their weaners once or twice a year and they can only evaluate the effectiveness of their systems once sales have been made. “This gives you little time to correct production errors,” the young farmer adds.
Mthethwa says his knowledge on dairy farming is a combination of his inquisitive spirit and desire for growth. “I’ve always been curious to know more than what I already know.”
Put to the test
In 2018, Mthethwa’s acquired knowledge was put to the test. Gall sickness disease broke out on the farm and they lost a lot of cattle. This tick-borne disease infects the red blood cells of cattle and causes severe anemia.
Luckily, farm management called in veterinarians who were able to guide Mthethwa on how to treat and prevent the disease from spreading any further.
“We didn’t lose one cow thereafter. It ended up being one of my proudest moments in agriculture,” Mthethwa says.
After the animals returned to good health, Mthethwa was awarded with a promotion for his stellar performance. His new position as herd manager motivated him to work harder, but the young mover and shaker was worried about his farming future. In fact, he feared the possibility that he might have pursued the wrong career.
“Working on the farm became less interesting and I felt stuck. Everyday turned out the same way and I didn’t like that. I wanted to be involved in different aspects of the farming process.”
Despite communicating his frustrations to the farm owner, Mthethwa’s fears were unheard and the young agriculturist decided to return to KZN, where he now works on the 1400-hectare Beginsel Farm. On the farm, Mthethwa oversees two departments, a dairy department with 560 cattle and a beef department with 450 cattle.
The young farmer manager explains that it is more challenging, because he gets to be involved in the maintenance of machinery and he gets to work on the farm’s milking system without having to call in technicians. “I’ve always wanted to be an all-rounder type of person, and at Beginsel Farm I get to be just that,” he says.
Mthethwa is currently doing his Btech in agricultural management part time and has plans to do his masters in agri-economics, next year. “From where I’m standing my future is bright and I’m currently doing research on a niche farming market I would like to enter, but I’m still analysing the feasibility of it.”