Trevor Elliott’s father bought a forest area and started off with two cows 50 years ago. Today his operation is probably the biggest dairy farm business in South Africa, milking 15,000 cows. Erling Mysen reports.
On the southern coast of South Africa, in Tsitsikamma, a green belt with forest, pastures and dairy cattle lies between sea and mountains and is very different from the dry areas on the north side of the mountain range.
Tsitsikamma means “running water” in the local Khoi language and the area gets an annual rainfall of about 1150mm. Originally this was one of a very few forest areas along the coast of the country. From 1860 through until the 1920s forestry was an important industry. The huge yellowwood trees were logged and made into railway sleepers as South Africa was growing and developing fast.
Once logging of the natural forest stopped in the early 1920s the area fell into poverty. Some pine plantations were established and loggers who sold their land were employed by the forestry.
‘I visited New Zealand for the first time in 1993 and have been back many times. Prior to visiting New Zealand we subscribed to a number of New Zealand farming journals and technical literature.’
North of the 1500-metre mountain range there are extensive sheep and cattle farms. Among them was sheep farmer Ralph Elliott, of Scottish heritage. Elliott had read the book Grasslands of New Zealand by Sir Bruce Levy.
Elliott thought the area south of the mountains seemed similar to what was described in NZ so in 1967 he sold his farm and bought an area of forest and bushland east of Storms River. He cleared the land and corrected the soil deficiencies and started with two cows and some berries. He applied large quantities of lime, and fertilisers with phosphorus and trace elements. With improved soil fertility, 20 years later Elliott had more than 200 dairy cows and his son Trevor joined the farm.
“My father found the recipe for successful farming here. I have just copied what he did and grew further,” Trevor says.
In the beginning land was cheap to buy and Trevor bought as much as possible but today his strategy has changed.
15000 cows on 14 farms
Trevor has named his company Grasslands like the book his father read. The business has grown to 14 farms or establishments with a total of 15,000 dairy cows. A number of the properties are near Storms River where it all started. Others are mainly along the coast going east toward Jeffreys Bay (south of the big city of Port Elizabeth). He has also a couple of farms north east along the Great Fish River – an area with a climate similar to the Murray River region in Victoria, Australia, Trevor says.
The 14 properties have between 650 and 2400 cows each and are all organised the same way. The cows are divided into three groups. Two graze the fertile spring pastures. First and second-calvers are together, with the older ones in a separate group. The third group calve in the autumn and are fed maize silage in addition to pastures.
“The dairy and the market don’t like farms with only spring calving and we have to deliver milk all through the year,” Trevor says.
In addition all cows get concentrates and that make about a third of the total feed. Individual average yield is 6000kg milk/year, with 4% fat and 3.5% protein.
Copying New Zealand
Trevor copied his farming methods from NZ, except for the autumn calvers being fed silage. The rest of the cows graze pastures all year. The pastures can be up to 2.5km away from the barn where the cows are milked twice a day, usually at 4am and 2pm.
Trevor mainly has herringbone dairies, each with 48 bails. A team of four or five people do the milking and on average his company has one person employed per 70 cows. The pastures are in a rotation system depending of the growth of the grass.
“We measure the growth every week,” Trevor says.
The grass grows up to four times as fast in the spring compared to winter. Kikuyu is chosen because it can stand intensive grazing. But every autumn Trevor sows 20kg/ha of ryegrass in strips with 15cm between them. Both the seed drill and method are sourced from NZ. Seeding is done from April to June and the pastures rest for six-eight weeks afterwards.
All dairy cow genetics comes from NZ. Semen has been imported from NZ since 1984. Trevor has mostly Kiwi-bred Friesian cows but also some Jerseys.
“I visited New Zealand for the first time in 1993 and have been back many times. Prior to visiting New Zealand we subscribed to a number of New Zealand farming journals and technical literature.”
Share-milking in Africa
The price of land in this part of South Africa used to be very low but has risen together with the growth in dairy production.
“Land is now expensive, 200,000-250,000 rand/hectare (NZ$20,000-25,000/ha) and there is little available land.”
Trevor now rents some land. But he has also found another way to grow. He has taken the NZ model of sharemilking and implemented it in Africa.
South Africa is implementing land reform with the political aim of involving the black population in agriculture. Trevor has a very successful land reform project for his employees based on a NZ-style sharemilking contract.
One of the farms, Schoonfontein, is owned by 41 black landowners all of whom are employees or retired employees. The system is inspired by NZ 50/50 sharemilking. Elliott contributes with dairy cows, machines, labour and management. The landowners contribute pastures, fences and infrastructure. Profit is divided according to the contract. Trevor is now planning another sharemilking farm. This time the landowners are a mix black and white.
“We are waiting for government to approve a land reform policy. The proposed project will also require loans from a commercial bank,” Trevor says.
Dairying in the Eastern Cape, where Trevor has most of his production, has grown to provide 25% of the total volume in South Africa in the past 20 years. There are six milk buyers in the area. At the moment he gets 4.60 rand per litre of milk.
“I have contracts with and deliver to four companies. That gives me a better position for the annual negotiations,” he says.
“I am sure dairy farming has a great future in Africa, but you need to find the right places to farm.”
- Erling Mysen travelled to South Africa for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) 2017 congress as well as travelling extensively in the Eastern Cape area. Mysen is a Norwegian freelance journalist and farmer, farming a family property 60km north of Oslo where he grows wheat, barley oats, canola on 40ha, farms pigs and 90ha of forest. He spent three months travelling and working on a dairy farm in NZ in 1986/87.