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Making 5,000 dairy cows pay in South Africa's desert

A KEEN focus on data and analytics has enabled the Loubser family to maximise production from their 5,000-head dairy in the extreme conditions of South Africa’s Western Cape. Ben Briggs visited Fair Cape Dairies and found a business relishing its role as an industry leader.

Brothers Melt (left) and Johannes Loubser manage Fair Cape Dairies.
Brothers Melt (left) and Johannes Loubser manage Fair Cape Dairies.
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South African dairy unit making 5,000 cows pay in the middle of the desert

FARMING in the middle of the desert presents its own challenges, but the Loubser family is not one which leaves things to chance.


With a keen eye for detail and an obsessional use of technology to monitor cattle, they have built the 5,000-cow Fair Cape Dairies enterprise 22 miles (35km) from Cape Town in the Western Cape of South Africa.


With several brothers at the helm of the business, Johaness Loubser is the man who runs the cows and ensures they are maximising their potential. And he is keen to point out this does not happen by accident.


“I remember telling my dad some years ago I was doing everything I could to get production up but was hitting a ceiling because I had a lack of information at my fingertips,” he says.


“I did not know what the problems were with the animals but now I monitor them much more closely and I know, for example, when one is approaching a mastitis problem and I can rectify it.”


Reliant totally on AI for the herd, Johaness says heat detection in a herd of this size is absolutely crucial.


“We cannot afford to have people walking round looking for them to be on heat. I have a software system which does it for me and it is 100 per cent foolproof,” he adds. “I also spend a lot of money on my vet as they are absolutely pivotal to our success as a business, visiting five times a week.”


Using sexed semen on the Holsteins and Ayrshires, he aims for 2.5 to three lactations with the Holsteins, which are as big and rangey as the ones seen in European systems. He claims to have ‘40-plus’ 100,000-litre animals in the herd and is calving between five and 15 cows every day.


And Johaness believes the environment the cows live in is crucial, especially as the summer heat can rise towards 40degC.


He says: “My old dairy meant the cows were under stress a lot of the time. They were to exposed to the summer heat and winter storms which meant I was inhibiting their production and I needed to upgrade my business. I wanted to upgrade to maximise the production potential of the Holsteins which can produce an astonishing amount of milk.


“Cow comfort is so important for a dairy farm. We have free stalls and a deep litter system and do not use sand because of the health problems it causes. We also pay a lot of attention to walkways as they are so important and it is essential to create a relaxed atmosphere.”


The element of relaxation extends to banning workers from using sticks, with many seen flicking towels at animals to get them to move towards the parlour. Also, no dogs are allowed on-farm because of the stress they can cause animals.


Major investment has been made in the parlour as well, with a move away from a herringbone system to a 64-point rotary parlour which allows one cow to enter every 8.5 seconds.


Milking three times a day with daily yields up to an average of 40 litres, this has climbed from 33 litres a day 10 years ago. And Johaness is aiming for more than 14,000 litres a year from his Holsteins.


He adds: “There is a huge difference between the farmers at the bottom and those at the top and how they operate their business. Big farmers are competitive as they were more competitive when they were smaller. They have the drive to succeed.


“Dairy is a commodity so if you produce for liquid milk then you have little choice. This is why we have branded products going in to the likes of [South African retailer chain] Woolworths, which tells a story for the consumer. The value added element is key.


“We are exposed to international feed prices and a currency [the rand] which shifts as our country deals with periods of turmoil. Currency fluctuation is so difficult for us so we control what we can.”


Johannes claims a milk price of roughly 5R/litre (30ppl) would be a good place to be for most farmers, enabling them to make a margin on their milk.


With his brother Melt Loubser, the pair are a bullish force in the industry. Melt, who oversees much of the work on the farm’s branded milk drinks, cream and yoghurts, is also vice-chairman of Milk South Africa and has been involved in the industry as it moved away from the control of South Africa Dairy, an equivalent of the Milk Marketing Board. Since 1994 and deregulation, South African dairy farm numbers have tumbled from 20,000 to about 1,650 today.


And Melt believes this points to many of the issues farmers in the EU could face.


Melt says: “You had a free market system applied to an industry that could not cope and it caused havoc. It is interesting to ask how you would move away from a system which is propped up by subsidies, such as the one in the UK, to a free market. It has been tough to get industry bodies together and it took a decade to get to where we needed to be.”


Seeing levy board Milk South Africa as a key part of the jigsaw of success, Melt says a key element of the levy body’s remit is promotion to consumers about the benefits of dairy as part of a healthy lifestyle.


He adds: “The biggest challenge of a free market is to ensure supply meets demand. You have a situation in Europe with quotas coming off and you have seen the problems there. We also have an issue in South Africa in which exporting to Europe is almost impossible because of the standards they have set there.”


Heavy promotion of dairy to teenage consumers has been delivered through the ‘Loretta Rush’ dairy adverts, but he is convinced big challenges lie ahead for the industry.


He says: “We need a product-oriented milk supply which meets the needs of the market and demand therein. This blatantly did not happen in Europe when quotas came off. Supply went up and then the likes of Russia and China exited the market.


“I really think European dairy production is heading down again. It has reached the top and will fall back. Subsidies simply stimulate inefficient systems which do not react to the market because of the lack of a business mindset.”


But whatever the stimulation in the market, or lack of it, the overarching issue of climate pressures, and a changing climate at that, are ones which loom large over South African dairy farmers.


With the Western Cape in drought, Melt claims climate change needs a unified approach from across the industry.


“Sustainability and environmental challenges are going nowhere,” he says. “We have lost a lot of farmers due to drought and this shows the challenges we face as an industry.”


Johannes adds they draw most of their water from deep boreholes in the land and also have a large dam at one side of a mountain range; a common theme in the country and one used by many vineyards which sit on one side of a mountain range and have a dam on the other.


With slurry collected through slats in the huge purpose-built sheds, they are able to spread 12 months a year, with many of the nutrients going towards the wheat, silage, oats and lupin they grow, supplementing a twice a day feeding pattern on-farm.


And despite the challenges they face of climate and currency, Johannes truly believes the future is in their hands and no one else’s.


He said: “You have a choice. Either solve the problems in front of you or complain about them. I know which I would rather do.”


Fair Cape Dairies

  • Farming since 1875 and now in to the fifth generation
  • 1.5 million litres of liquid milk a month
  • 1.5m litres of long life milk
  • 1.2m litres of yoghurt
  • 400,000 litres of milkshake
  • 180 dairy products produced for their own brand and sold to retailers

Farm size and dairy herd

  • 2,500 hectares (6,177 acres)
  • 5,000 head, with 2,500-3,000 in-milk at any one time
  • 350 Ayrshires for specific contracts
  • 40 litres average for Holsteins with 2.66 lactation lifespan
  • 420-day calving interval
  • 305 days in-milk
  • DMI 25-30kg/day
  • Calf mortality 6 per cent. 11 per cent nationally
  • 80 per cent heat detection. 59 per cent nationally

IFAJ congress

Ben Briggs was in South Africa in his capacity as chairman of British Guild of Agricultural Journalists and the Fair Cape Dairies tour was part of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists annual congress in April.

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