Soldier-farmer breeds Nguni to honour Zulu tradition

A soldier by profession and a budding Nguni cattle breeder, Phakade Khanyile is determined to push the boundaries with his herd. Nguni cattle have long been the mainstay of traditional Zulu culture

Phakade Khanyile is an active soldier and avid Nguni cattle breeder from Amersfoort in Mpumalanga. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Phakade Khanyile is an active soldier and avid Nguni cattle breeder from Amersfoort in Mpumalanga. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

As an active soldier for the South African National Defence Force, Phakade Khanyile has learnt that quitting simply isn’t an option. This attitude has come in handy on the Mpumalanga farm where he works alongside his father.

Khanyile (41) has over two decades’ experience with the army. Before he could join the force, he underwent an “emotionally and physically difficult” two-year training programme which shaped his future.

“In everything that you do, do your best,” he advises Food For Mzansi.

His unwavering spirit is proven by the fact that he not only serves his country, but agriculture. Six years ago, he started working with his father who runs a commercial farming operation with Beefmaster cattle, sheep, and crops.

Khanyile himself has started farming with Nguni cattle.

“I chose to invest in Nguni genetics and try to establish a herd that in the future could be considered an elite herd,” he says. His cattle graze on a 200-hectare piece of land, which he leased from a community trust that owns 1 800 hectares of land.

This journey of acquiring the Nguni breed materialised in October 2019 when Khanyile bought five pregnant cows.

“I am forever grateful to those who advised me to start small and focus on quality. I believe quality genetics and strong management are key in a livestock operation,” he says.

On every other occasion when he had extra cash, he would buy more cows.

Khanyile’s farming operation is based in Amersfoort, about three hours outside Pretoria. His herd has multiplied to 42 cows and a permanent employee looks after them when he’s deployed away with the army.

Mzansi’s indigenous Nguni cattle, long the mainstay of traditional Zulu culture, inspires Mpumalanga cattle breeder Phakade Khanyile. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The beauty of Nguni cattle

Choosing Nguni cattle was a deliberate decision influenced by “practical and romantic reasons,” he adds.

On a practical note, Nguni cows are highly adaptable to all regions in South Africa. They are low maintenance and generally have lower veterinary costs.

The breed has an exceptional fertility rate, early sexual maturity, and their temperament ensures ease of handling and reduces the chances of injuries. Also, because they have a wide and varied gene pool, sourcing excellent genetics is not difficult, he says.

“Romantically, I think they are beautiful with their coloured patterns and elegant horns. They are my people’s cattle going back to ancient times.

“There is a Zulu idiom which says ‘inkunzi isematholeni’’, meaning that the leaders of tomorrow come from the youth. I feel [budding] farmers like myself have a responsibility to continue farming [the Nguni breed] as a living history of our people for future generations. Being around them creates emotions that I can’t explain.”

He has registered with the Kaonafatso ya Dikgomo Scheme, which facilitates access of small-holder farmers to the mainstream agricultural economy and works closely with the Agricultural Research Council. The scheme, he says, “helps me with performance recording, determining which animals are productive and profitable.”

Khanyile is still reluctant to sell his cows as “I am just growing my herd for the next few years.” The bulls He only sells at auctions, which he keeps for a year after having been weaned.

“I want to achieve a herd of 100 cattle within five years. I want to improve my genetics and provide or sell good genetics to the market,” he says, adding that this variety of breed is the pulse of his livestock agribusiness.

“Nguni cows are known as the perfect dam line and make a lot of sense in a crossbreeding programme. They are a small-medium frame breed and yet calving issues are rare even when a medium-large frame bull is used.”

Khanyile’s breeding strategy

Khanyile is confident that his breeding strategy will ensure he reaches his 100-mark herd of cattle earlier than anticipated. “I have one breeding season where I put the bull in January and February. The calves are born in October and November. Weaning takes place in May [and] June. Cows that fail to conceive are culled as the herd is too small to carry passengers that are not productive.”

His feeding method to ensure that his cows are of high quality is simple.

“I supplement my herd with a phosphate lick in summer and a maintenance lick from May until August, when I switch over to a production lick until there’s green grass. The herd doesn’t get bales, silage, or stalks,” he says.

“In ten years’ time, I hope my business is sound and stable with good financial performance and a good herd with a solid reputation for quality that has been developed over years.”

Khanyile has a few tips for beginner farmers:

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