South Africa drought takes its toll

Gloria Hafemeister
Now Media Group


South Africa has a dual agricultural economy, with both well-developed commercial farming and more subsistence-based production in the deep rural areas.

It is also one-eighth the size of the United States and has seven climatic regions, from Mediterranean to subtropical to semi-desert.

Agricultural activities range from intensive crop production and mixed farming in winter rainfall and high summer rainfall areas to cattle ranching in the bushveld and sheep farming in the arid regions. Maize (corn) is most widely grown, followed by wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers. Citrus and deciduous fruits are exported, as are locally produced wines and flowers.

South Africa is not only self-sufficient in virtually all major agricultural products, but it is also a net food exporter.

This year, however, is the exception.

When a group of U.S. farmers, including six from Wisconsin, visited recently, they saw parched fields and crops that are yielding about half the normal production. Farmers describe it as the worst drought in 100 years.

Some farms in South Africa have turned to vertical integration as a means of surviving in the competitive world of agriculture.

Rossgro Group

Rossgro Group is involved in a variety of enterprises and is now in the third generation.

In the 1950s, the family had dairy. Then the current business started in 1964 when Chris Rossouw started farming alongside his father, and the family combined various enterprises

In 2003, Rossgro commenced its poultry operations comprising of the egg, broiler, feed-mill and animal feed operations. Since then, the Rossouw family has built a successful and diversified agricultural family business, with a strong presence in the three provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo in South Africa.

In 2007, the business was recognized by the Agricultural Writers Association of South Africa with the Farmer of the Year award.

More than 90 percent of South Africa's natural resources can be described as semi-arid climate regions. The soil in these regions can be classified as moderately poor to very poor in phosphorous and therefore has a characteristic shortage of phosphate in the grazing. Natural grazing is widely used in the extensive production of livestock.

Therefore, it is vital that phosphorous in the form of feed phosphates should be supplemented throughout the year, especially during the highly productive summer season.

The Rossgro Group responded to this need by establishing SA Feed Phosphates, based on the production and marketing of feed phosphates as an essential and strategic nutrient for all productive animals, which include poultry, pigs and ostriches, as well as dairy, ruminants and aquaculture.

'Phosphates are essential in the formation of the skeleton, as well as in the energy metabolism of animals,' said Luc Smalle, company manager. 'Phosphate deficiency can result in stunted growth and poor reproduction.'

Another enterprise, Africa Lawns, is the second largest supplier of instant lawn in the Southern Hemisphere. The drought this year in South Africa has resulted in the parching of these sod fields, however.

Large chicken business

The company raises chickens for both meat and eggs.

In all, they have 800,000 layers on five farms. Some are free-range eggs for niche markets.

'We have not been required to give more space in cages for chickens, but it is coming,' Smalle said. 'Right now, we have some free range because we can get 30 percent more for the eggs.'

He noted that chickens in the free-range set-up can walk in and out of the building as they please, but they go to the nesting boxes to lay eggs.

'Actually there is more bacteria on these eggs than on the ones in the controlled-environment houses where the chickens stay in their cages,' he said. 'Consumers don't understand this, so we provide what they say they want.'

Smalle said they also sell brown eggs because it is what consumers prefer, but he pointed out that nutritionally, the color of the shell makes no difference.

They also raise about 300,000 pullets each year, keeping some for their barns and selling some to other producers. They are also a major supplier in South Africa for chicken meat. Since consumers say they want yellow-skinned birds, they feed yellow corn to the chickens. They also have a small market for white-skinned birds so they feed white corn to those.

Fortunately, South Africa has not had any problems with avian flu.

The Rossgro group also raises a variety of grain for the market. Visitors looked at their corn and soybean fields, drying up in the drought. Soybeans are planted on 15-inch rows and corn is in 36-inch rows.

They raise a small percentage of food grade corn, but the majority is for livestock feed.

They double crop a small portion of their land where irrigation is available. If a parcel of land is not productive, they leave it fallow because the cost of production in relationship to the price they get for their grain is too high.