Free State ‘black gold’ breeder shares his secrets to success

When Chrisjan van Tonder’s (29) farming enterprise was no longer showing the profit margins his family was used to, he had to make some tough choices. He exited the dairy business and doubled down on the Drakensberger cattle breed

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Growing up on a farm in the Free State, 29-year-old Chrisjan van Tonder always knew that he would one day feed the nation. However, when the time came to take over and become the third generation to assume responsibility for the family farm, it was unexpected and under challenging circumstances.

Van Tonder farms with livestock around Lindley in the Eastern Free State on 1200 hectares. There he breeds Drakensberger cattle, often referred to as “black gold” in those parts.

His business, FCC van Tonder Boerdery, is a third-generation farming enterprise the young farmer is extremely proud to be at the helm of. However, getting there has not been easy.

Drakensberger black gold breeder
Chrisjan van Tonder is the owner of FCC van Tonder Boerdery in the Free State. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Van Tonder’s agricultural knowledge was built up by his father, Colyn, who made sure that his son was acquainted with baling hay, feeding animals and maintaining farm equipment at a very young age.

If there was work that needed to be done, the young Van Tonder would always be in the mix. “I would either be with my dad busy with the cattle or with one of the workers on a tractor somewhere,” he recalls.

Agriculture eventually became all he could think about. As a result, he decided to study agriculture at Potchefstroom Agricultural College in 2010. However, van Tonder was forced to join his father on the farm before he could finish his qualification.

His father passed away shortly after, due to him being diagnosed with cancer.

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As the only son of two children, Van Tonder was tasked with running the family farming business. His sister, Elsarie Cronje, pursued a career in education and is currently working as a teacher in Abu Dhabi.

ALSO READ: Springbok reveals: ‘Farming brought me closer to God’

Filling some huge shoes

A lot of work awaited him as the new head of the family business. At the time they farmed with cattle, sheep, maize and dairy. The dairy business, however, was no longer profitable and he exited it.

Van Tonder explains, “It was no longer profitable to milk at all. The prices of milk versus the input cost did not make sense. Also, some of the big milk buyers withdrew from the area.”

Instead, he shifted his focus to Drakensberger cattle. These locally adapted cattle, he explains, have a lot of milk for their calves and are tough with a pretty good temperament.

In his farming enterprise, there is no such thing as short cuts.

It is only hard work, combined with a deliberate decision to farm with this indigenous breed, which Van Tonder regards as the secret to his success.

He explains, “Because it is an indigenous breed, they have been adapted to the area. I struggle little with ticks. I don’t dip my cattle. It is good for me, profitable for my business and friendly to the environment. I would say what also makes my business successful is a combination of available veld, adapted livestock and the grace of God.”

Apart from being environmentally friendly and cheap to maintain, Drakensbergers are also extremely fertile and maintain their condition well on natural veld, he explains.

Father’s priceless lessons

“When my father passed, I had to leave my studies to run the farm. Taking over came with many challenges. Things like finance, tax and paperwork wasn’t my thing. There was no one to help, so I just had to teach myself. It was difficult and still is, so much so that I still don’t like paperwork,” Van Tonder laughs.

What made the transition more bearable was the wise teachings and lessons his father left behind.

“My dad taught me honesty, integrity, hard work, to think of solutions to problems instead of making hasty mistakes, as well as providing knowledge and assistance where there is a need.

Drakensberger black gold breeder
Drakensberger cattle on Chrisjan van Tonder’s farm: Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“My dad’s planning of tasks was perfect; on the contrary I am more impulsive and sometimes try to be everywhere at once,” he confesses.

As a young farmer, Van Tonder recalls having learnt many lessons and his advice to new farmers is to be wary of taking advice from every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

“Rather identify the right people if you have a problem. Rather than listening to ten different people. Don’t lend your ears to too many farmers,” he says.

In addition to this, a cow with a calf remains the best investment there is, Van Tonder explains. He says farmers should know that fertility is the most important factor in livestock farming. They can farm with the breed of their choice but should ensure that it can adapt and reproduce in their area.

“The most important factor in cattle farming is to focus on fertility and the amount of cattle you keep. At the end of the day, you need to focus on what is going to affect your profitability. Your livestock must be fertile to be able to reproduce so that you have calves to sell,” he advises new farmers.

“It also does not help if you farm with too little livestock, because then you will not get your costs covered.”

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