South African farm develops special breed

Now Media Group


Bonsmara cattle are a cross between longhorn and shorthorn Hereford and the African breed and provide just the type of beef animal that has allowed the Sernick family in South Africa to succeed direct marketing beef and selling registered breeding stock.

When a group of U.S. farmers, including six from Wisconsin, visited the Sernick farm recently, they learned about the business that includes Nick and Vida Sernick's son and two daughters. It also has 450 employees.

"My son is more into the meat part and meat distribution, and he is taking over the finances," Nick said. "I'm the farmer."

The farm includes 3,200 head of cattle with 600 bulls tested each year.

"We don't want large animals," he said. "We want broadness on shoulder and good legs."

The Sernicks raise feed on 5,000 acres of land. Sixty percent of the land is used to support the stud breeding cattle, and the rest is for beef that is marketed directly. The family also custom feeds some cattle for other farmers.

Feed conversion is emphasized in Sernick's breeding program.

The Bonsmara originates from South Africa and has been scientifically bred and strictly selected for grazing activities in sub-tropical climates. In 1937, it was generally noted that British breeds did not have the required heat tolerance for the sub tropics and that the Afrikaner Breed did not perform as well in terms of calving regularity. Professor Jan Bonsma decided to test different breed combinations at the Messina Livestock Research Station. The result was the Bonsmara breed.

Bulls of five British Beef breeds were used on Afrikaner cows, and the progeny were then performance tested. After pilot trials, it was decided to continue only with the better performing Hereford and Shorthorn cross-breeds. Ultimately, three-quarter Afrikaners were mated to half-breeds to obtain progeny with five-eighths Afrikaner and three-eighths Hereford or Shorthorn blood.

The Bonsmara is mainly bred in Africa, and approximately 60,000 registered females are currently being performance recorded with the commercial and seedstock herds, adding to around 4 million head. It has been recently exported to North America and Australia.

Feed production

Raising feed for all these animals has been a challenge this year with South Africa experiencing its worst drought in a century.

They grind hay bales to put in a TMR mix with corn silage. In all, they produce 6,000 tons a month of different types of feed, selling a portion of that to other livestock growers. They also do custom feeding for others.

They store silage in a drive over pile and have large round hay bales.

This year, the Sernicks also bought cheap animals from farmers that couldn't feed them because of drought. The farm regularly buys animals from other farmers, but Nick said he never buys from an auction barn.

Once a year, they sell bulls in an auction complex on farm. Each sale includes 50 bulls and 300 females for breeding. Two years ago, a bull in the sale sold for 750,000 ran or about $50,000.

The Sernicks also slaughter beef each day in their own facility and distribute it throughout the country. They run several Country Meat Stores and also sell to hotels, restaurants and exports. They debone the meat because it is not economical to transport fat and bone.

The week after the group visited, the Sernick group launched its own certified Bonsmar Beef program.

"Each part of business is a different entity," Nick said. "Each one must stand on its own legs."

Why the value chain?

"There is such a big difference between what farmers get for the original product from the farm and what people pay for meat," Nick said. "The farmer is getting less and less while middle men make more. This gives stability in the business.

"Even in this drought, we did extremely well because of all the entities. We became a price maker instead of a price taker.

"We train and support emerging farmers, too."

The farm runs a 12-week farm management course in which they have mentored between 500 and 1,000 farmers the course got its start.

Farms getting bigger

When the U.S. farmers visited this highly developed country, they learned that farms are getting bigger and bigger, and vertical integration is becoming a popular way of farms doing business.

One wheat and sheep farmer the group visited said it's a growing trend in South Africa as farmers find that if they get bigger, the economy of scale will help them succeed.

Another farm on the tour, the Rossgro farm, includes large poultry and hog facilities; grain production; a feed manufacturing plant; and a sod farm. That farm also includes several family members who each head up a different division of the farm.

Many of the African farmers, unable to make it with domestic animals, have turned their farms into game farms, raising wildlife on their farms.