Leonard Mavhungu (40) has his work cut out for him managing three farms, four dairies, 4 000 cows-in-milk, 4 000 followers, 900ha of pasture and a staff of 100. But not one to shy away from hard work, he has added mentoring to his duties and has a group of seven farmers that he is coaching.
As production manager for Amadlelo-Agri he has succeeded in running a highly profitable pasture-based dairy operation in the Eastern Cape. As a worthy winner of the 2018 Agricultural Writers SA New Entrant to Commercial Farming Award, he succeeds where many a seasoned commercial farmer has failed.
Guided by principles of profit and people he focuses on improving margins for the business and on growing a pool of competent, well-resourced, young, black dairy farmers.
Mavhungu never doubted his passion for farming and despite discouragement from his father, who did not believe in farming as a successful profession, he studied animal production at the Tshwane University of Technology after school. Upon graduating he embarked on his journey into dairy farming by landing a job at a total mixed ration (TMR) dairy in Gauteng.
‘I was 27 and scared, but I thought if the owners believed in me, I’d better get started!’
His natural talent was soon noticed and five years later, in 2004, he was offered a position at Amadlelo-Agri based in the former Ciskei region of the Eastern Cape. This is a project run by a group of dairy farmers who aim to set up a new generation of black empowered dairy farmers.
“The day I got to the farm I was shocked to see that there was nothing there,” Mavhungu recalls. “Clearing land, planting, building the dairy, fencing, erecting the pivots… it all had to be done. I was 27 and scared, but I thought if the owners believed in me, I’d better get started!”
It is this driven, focused attitude that had brought Mavhungu success and admiration from his peers. He is humble and always prepared to help, getting the job done with everything he’s got. His wife Dakala, has the same attitude and Mavhungu admits that the help he receives from her makes working hard possible. “She does the admin on the farm and makes sure everything is running smoothly for me. She is also the mother of my three sons, who are all still in school and need attention.”
At Amadlelo-Agri Mavhungu was introduced to pasture-based dairying, which requires close attention to maintaining a productive balance between soil, grass, cows and milk. A far more complex and intense management requirement than TMR dairies, pasture-based dairy farming, when done right, is far more profitable and sustainable. But the meticulous management of the latter is no easy feat, especially in a country that is prone to drought. Mavhungu has however excelled in his ability to manage the pasture in such a way that the dairy has remained in business.
Drought forces Mavhungu to pivot
The recent drought, which ran through three consecutive seasons from late 2014 to early 2018, brought many farmers to their knees and while Mavhungu was not spared, he notes that the drought was a great teacher.
“In the beginning we were in denial. We kept saying the rain would come. It didn’t. So, we made the call to destock, because we were confronted with the reality of what would happen if we did not. 2017 was a difficult year, but we came out of it smarter farmers.”
During destocking, Mavhungu culled cows on productivity and problems. Animals with below average yields and repeat health problems went. He says that he learnt that he could actually do better with fewer cows, which was a significant realisation.
With limited water, pasture-based dairies struggle to survive and at one of the farms, Keiskamma Hoek, Mavhungu was forced to shut down 160 hectares of pasture allocated to dry stock and heifers. This made up 20% of his total pasture. He explains that during the drought they learnt that it is better to irrigate a smaller piece of land properly than to try and spread the water out thinly over a bigger area.
‘Protests will come and go but if I lose my animals, that loss is permanent.’
The farms, leased from communities and land beneficiaries, are remotely located which makes for challenging logistics, in addition to community service protests that block farm access to input suppliers. This has put Mavhungu’s people and negotiating skills to the test. “You have to learn to negotiate in situations you could not possibly have expected, way outside your boundaries.
“For example, one of our input suppliers would not deliver to the farm at one stage because their drivers were being intimidated by protestors who were also threatening to burn their trucks. I had to approach the protest leader and explain to him that although I was behind the community’s call for improved services, I could not allow anyone to stop inputs coming in. Protests will come and go but if I lose my animals, that loss is permanent.”
The protestors lifted the blockade to Keiskamma Hoek for the trucks, even supplying an escort for the trucks.
There is no doubt that Mavhungu has a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to pass on to emerging farmers. His no-nonsense approach is respected by his students, who are asked for absolute commitment if they wish to progress.
He believes in positioning his mentees so that they become aware of their capacity and move steadily closer to realising their potential. “The first thing I teach is business principles; these are not negotiable. Once the lesson has been learnt, managers must present budgets to which they are held. Personal financial health is another important aspect for farm managers, many of whom neglect personal finances to their detriment.”
Commenting on the ups and downs that a mentor experiences, he quips that pushing his mentees to find practical solutions to problems offers so much reward when the students have breakthrough moments and finally realise what they are capable of. “The teaching brings longer hours to already long days, but it is so rewarding. There is joy in teaching and uplifting people which energises me.”