Dairy farming is one of the country’s largest and most important agricultural industries. Kireshni Naiker, a dairy farmer from KwaZulu-Natal, says that running a dairy operation requires a deep passion.
“[When starting a dairy farm], there are many other factors to consider but I would say, venture into it not purely for the financial gains, but because you’re passionate about it,” advises Naiker.
Naiker, has an honours degree in animal and poultry science from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She worked her way through the dairy farm hierarchy, from the position of intern to junior dairy manager. She spent some time in Tasmania in Australia, where she worked as a dairy farm intern.
“I was born and brought up in the city and had no previous experience or exposure to farming. My reasons for venturing into agriculture is pure passion for the industry that came from within me.”
She explains that dairy farming demands hard work, commitment and dedication, not to mention a large amount of money.
“[Starting] a [dairy] operation from scratch requires an enormous amount of startup costs, and it will take you years to start seeing a return on investments.”
Some of those costs include infrastructure like cooling facilities, milking parlours and sheds. The daily running of a profitable dairy operation also requires electricity, water, cow feed and dairy equipment.
Smallholders not surviving
In South Africa, the milk production industry is dominated by large-scale commercial producers and small to medium-sized commercial operations. According to this guide, created by Milk SA, a sustainable dairy farming operation can no longer be started with just a handful of cows. Potential dairy farmers who want to make consistent money from their operations, need at least 100 cows.
There are many reasons why smaller farming enterprises have difficulty surviving. The large increases in the cost of electricity, fertiliser and animal feed in the last few years placed huge pressure on the industry in general, not to mention that is has become much more competitive. The economy of scale benefits of large-scale producers has made it more expensive for agriprocessors to buy from smallholders.
Select the right breed
Despite the pressure faced by South Africa’s dairy industry, the cumulative production of unprocessed milk in the country reached 2 017 million litres between January and August this year. If you are an aspiring dairy farmer, the first thing you need to consider when starting your operation, is selecting the right breed of cow.
The cow breed you choose determines the amount of milk your herd produces. It goes without saying that the more milk the cows produce, the higher your profit.
In South Africa, there are at least six cattle breeds considered to be ideal for a dairy operation. The most popular of these breeds is the Holstein-Freisland, which has been found to produce high milk yields with a low butterfat content. This breed is also known to have a good temperament. And because it is quite large, it can be sold for its meat when it can no longer produce milk, thus providing additional income to your dairy farm.
Other popular cattle breeds include the Jersey, Guernsey and Ayrshire.
What to look out for when buying a dairy farm
Naiker says that setting up a dairy farm from scratch is exorbitantly expensive and out of the reach of most people. “If you want to start dairy farming, purchase an existing farm after doing extensive research on it.”
Milk SA recommends that aspiring dairy farmers look at the following factors when considering the purchase of a dairy farm:
- Is a dependable source of electricity available?
- What are the existing milk facilities and equipment?
- What is the distance from the farm to the nearest town?
- What are the existing milk routes of milk-buying companies?
- Are the roads to the farm in good condition?
- Is there an existing contract with a company that buys milk.
- Availability of sufficient water.
- Possibility of producing enough roughage.
- Existing pastures and types of soil.
A good water source is especially important, says Naiker, as dairy farming is water-intensive. Cows can consume between 80 to 120 liters per day, depending on the weather. “Dairy farming requires a huge amount of water on a daily basis. Make sure you have water rights and good water resources. 87% of milk is constituted of water.”
Managing your herd
As an aspiring dairy farmer, you need to be knowledgeable about a great deal of disciplines, including the proper care of your animals, cow lactation cycles, pasture management, biosecurity and general herd management, to name a few.
Part of general herd management is managing feed. The Dairy Farming Handbook lists the price of feed as the largest contributor to the cost of milk production. Feed costs can contribute up to 75% of the total cost of milk production, although this is dependent on whether the farmer uses a pasture-based system or a mixed ration system.
Naiker prefers a pasture-based system. “In South Africa, a pasture-based system, together with growing your own maize or [using] silage for supplementing winter feeding, is your best start.”
She advises that aspiring dairy farmers surround themselves with mentors who can help them navigate the industry. “The knowledge you will gain by their experience is priceless. I’m saying [this] from my very own personal experience with the mentors I had. They taught me everything I know about dairy farming today.”
The issue of climate change is often associated with dairy farming, says Naiker. “At the same time, we are living in a world where there’s issues of food insecurity. So, my advice to people venturing into dairy farming today is: strive to make a difference. There are various methods, practices and technologies that allow us to farm more sustainably and profitably. Do your part.”
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