Thinking of buying a bull or cow? Patrick Sekwatlakwatla shares cattle farming guide for newbies

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Patrick Sekwatlakwatla helps support farmers in the Free State through Sernick.
Patrick Sekwatlakwatla helps support farmers in the Free State through Sernick.
African Farming/Media24

He left the army to start a security company.

But his heart had never really been in it.

Now, more than 25 years later, Patrick Sekwatlakwatla is proud to have had a hand in introducing many small-scale famers to the world of commercial agriculture – a world he never could've imagined inhabiting so confidently when he was a child.

Patrick grew up in rural Limpopo, in a place called Edwinsdale near Bochum, some 150km from Polokwane.

His family farmed livestock and he spent much of his childhood herding animals.

“I was raised by smallholder farmers and quite naturally I wanted to be a farmer,” recalls Patrick.

His parents, however, thought otherwise.

“They didn’t see farming as a business and insisted that I find a good job and build a career,” he tells African Farming.

After he matriculated from Mathipa Makgato High School in 1992, a shortage of funds closed the doors to university or college education.

So, in 1993, he applied for, and was accepted by, the South African National Defence Force. Ten years later he left the army with friends and brothers-in-arms, Steve Sayer and Mike Chapman, to start a private security company.

Routine security site visits to Obaro’s Pretoria West branch put Patrick in touch with Obaro personnel.

“We had our guards posted there. At the time I was studying animal and crop production through the University of South Africa,” remembers Patrick. His frequent interaction with Obaro’s branch manager led to his being recruited by the company.

“The security company wasn’t doing that well and I wasn’t really keen on the work,” he says.

At Obaro he started off as a salesperson and worked himself up the ladder until he was head of corporate social investment, a position he held until he left the company in 2014.

Patrick completed various agricultural courses during this time including an AVCASA course with the Tshwane University of Technology, and an NQF 3 animal production course with the Peritum Agri institute in 2007.

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There is no question about Patrick Sekwatlakwatla’s unmatched passion and energy for the development of black farmers.

He has been at the helm of farmer development for over 25 years, steering and implementing powerful and effective programmes through companies like Obaro in Brits, in the North West province, and the Sernick Group near Kroonstad, Free State.

During his 12 years with Obaro Patrick was responsible for establishing the company’s Emerging Farmer Development Programme which ran carcass competitions in partnership with the South African Meat Industry Company (Samic), held information days and started the emerging farmers’ backyard feedlot project.

“We were doing all sorts of training and mentoring for emerging farmers, focusing on livestock management and improvement,” recalls Patrick

He was also part of the founding team of Temo Agri Services at Obaro which carried out development work with emerging grain farmers.

While he was with Obaro, Patrick played a role in the development of black farmers, many of whom are now recognised as progressive black commercial farmers.

In 2014 Patrick’s work came to the attention of Nick Serfontein, chairman of the Sernick Group.

“Nick phoned me and wanted to meet. He drove all the way from Edenville, in the Free State, to Brits. During our discussion he told me he had read about me in agricultural magazines and would love me to join his company,” recalls Patrick.

Nick’s vision of developing black farmers and empowering them to become part of the solution to the land reform debacle, resonated with Patrick.

“He had a dream for black farmer development but didn’t really know how to go about it. Although I was a bit hesitant, I knew I wanted to be part of this dream,” says Patrick.

In 2010 he became South Africa’s first black cattle judge. 

Then in August 2014, he joined Sernick, where he is running the well-known Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme.

The programme, a comprehensive intervention that aims to commercialise black farmers, has more than 660 emerging farmers on its books. 

Patrick says he is proud of how the programme has changed the perception of farmers, especially elderly farmers some of whom are now implementing succession plans.

“Most of our current participants in the training courses are young men and women, mainly the children of farmers who are involved in the operations.” 

He says the project has been a game-changer in women’s empowerment too.

The most common problems, especially for land reform farmers, according to Patrick, are a lack of funding, skills and support.

As part of the solution to these problems the first Sernick Training Center was established at the Sernick farm in Edenville, northern Free State.

“We now have three training centres in the province offering various NQF level livestock courses, theoretical and practical, which are making a big impact on the ground. We also offer short practical courses on dehorning, branding and artificial insemination,” Patrick says.   

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Inbreeding was another difficulty as many farmers were only interested in cattle numbers and not too concerned about animal quality. 

“The bulls were kept in the herd for the longest period and inbreeding was prevalent,” he explains.

Farmers lacked basic management skills and infrastructure, such as handling facilities and properly fenced camps with waterpoints.

“They didn’t have breeding seasons or weaning targets; they were not selecting and separating weaners and heifers or grouping their cattle according to age and breeding season,” he says.  

Sernick introduced a bull and weaner exchange programme to address the inbreeding issues.

“This was a crossbreeding programme where we offered quality bulls to the farmers on loan. Many could not afford the bulls, so they sold weaners back to us to repay the loan over a period of up to three years. They kept the heifers,” explains Patrick.

In the first year the programme helped 25 farmers.

When many had repaid their loans and were producing quality weaners, the carcass competition was introduced for the first time in the Free State.

This was done to extend the reach of the project and to teach farmers about the importance of proper nutrition and quality weaner production. They used a customised feeding model and farmers brought their weaners to Sernick’s feedlot for a full 120 day cycle.

“At the end they would compete against each other for prizes sponsored by the Land Bank, Old Mutual’s Masisizane Fund and Sernick itself,” explains Patrick.

Depending on the sponsorships available the winner could walk away with R20 000 in cash and a bull bred and sponsored by Sernick. “This was very encouraging, and farmers began to see things differently.”  

With a calf.

Buying livestock

Patrick always advises his farmers to buy bulls from reputable breeders who provide a fertility certificate, and preferably some of the bull’s history.

“The first questions I ask when a farmer wants to buy a bull are about numbers and type of cattle. I want to know whether his animals are older cows or heifers, and whether they are short or long animals,” Patrick advises.

This information will help to choose a bull that is fit for purpose.

“This really matters,” he emphasises.

A large bull may cause birth complications for heifers if the calf is too big.

“For heifers, one should look at smaller framed bulls,” he shares.

“This is why it’s important to examine the records when you buy a bull. One can study these to check the birth weight, maternal weight and weaning weight of that bull.

“With those facts, you can determine if the bull will be okay to use on the heifers. A bigger bull with a birth weight of 39kg to 40kg cannot be used on heifers as it could lead to a difficult birth (dystocia) where the calf may get stuck in the birth canal and both mother and calf could die.

“I always advise farmers who are starting cattle farming to buy pregnant cows, a cow and a calf, or a three-in-one (a pregnant cow and a calf).”

These animals tend to be problem-free, says Patrick.

“I advise inexperienced farmers not to buy pregnant heifers as they may not know what kind of bull serviced them," he adds.

“As a first-time farmer you don’t want to experience birth complications.”

Watch Patrick's story:

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