The camels arrived on the farm in 1954, after they were replaced by motorised transport and sold to local farmers, including Knoesen’s grandfather Jannie Knoesen. Almost 65 years later there were 60 camels on the farm, now running wild.
After three seasons with little to no rain, the bull camels on Hans Knoesen’s family farm Koppieskraal in the western Kalahari, about 250km north west of Upington in the Northern Cape, became a menace as there were too many camels on the farm with no economic value. The 47-year-old Knoesen started seeing them as a potential asset and set out to find a market for camel meat.
“Our camel milk story started with a drought that lasted from 2013 to 2015. Our camel herd consisted of 60 wild camels of which about half were bulls. The many unproductive camel bulls necessitated a search for a camel meat market,” Knoesen explains.
This proved to be a challenge, but his research led him to discover the health benefits of camel milk.
Yip, camel milk! The idea of drinking this frothy milk produced by the long legged, big lipped, humped back mammals might make you cringe, but it’s known to be rich in iron, and vitamins B and C. Knoesen says that although camel milk is used all over the world, when they started their business, Camel Milk South Africa, it was still completely unknown in the country.
According to Knoesen they started with just one cow in May 2015, milking about 1.5 litres of camel milk per day.
When the new calving season started in August the next year, they increased their dairy herd to 15 camels.
“We milked by hand, but as one hand is required to hold the jug while the other hand does the milking, it took a long time to work your way through 15 camels. A mobile milking machine was introduced in September which not only sped up the milking process, but we also found that the camels were much more accommodating to the milk machine than human hands,” he adds.
Today, Koppieskraal farm has about 40 camels, of which about half are in the dairy herd every year. He says they have a no calf culling policy on their farm and that the calves are kept with their mothers. “The calves are used during the milking session to stimulate the milk flow before we attach the milking machine. We currently use a mobile milker and the camel cows produce on average 3 litres of milk per day over two milking sessions without any additional feeding.”
Knoesen says their camels are well adapted to the semi-desert conditions, and the warm Kalahari climate suits them well.
“Their forage consist of trees, scrubs and grasses, to a lesser extent,” he adds. The camel milk is filtered before bottling, which takes place directly after milking. “We do not process the milk in any way and it is not pasteurised or homogenised. It is a natural product, intact – as mother nature intended,” Knoesen says. Their camel milk is then transported to Cape Town to be distributed to Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Durban.
Although the contribution to the Koppieskraal farm of the slightly saltier, thinner camel milk dairy products is still very small, Knoesen says there is potential with the product, and that’s why they persist with it. They’ve experimented with a variety of milk products, including yogurt, kefir (a fermented milk drink similar to a thin yogurt) and cheese, but it’s not being produced for the market just yet.
“We have just launched our camel milk powder, which is sold online throughout the country. The camel milk powder will also enable us to develop additional products, such as chocolates, ice cream, soap and other cosmetics,” Knoesen adds.