Farmer Focus: South African dairy closures a worry

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This week I travelled 260 miles to Mareetsane, a small town just south of the historic town of Mafeking, very close to the Botswana border. I went to look at some Ayrshire cows to possibly add to my herd, writes Danie Schutte.

The farmer I visited, who farms on 1,400ha, decided to sell off his dairy herd, which consisted of about 350 cows in milk. His farm, which also produces beef cattle and maize, is located in a vast semi-arid, mainly mixed-farming area.

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Normally maize farming in this area is a highly risky business, but this year was an exception and bumper crops are being harvested. I suspect that is one of the reasons he decided to close down his dairy operation and concentrate more on maize production.

The closure of dairy farms in South Africa remains a major concern to me.

There are others who hold an opposite view that fewer dairy farmers means more consolidation in the dairy industry and possibly more economically run dairy farms because of economies of scale.

My worry, however, is the loss of dairy farming expertise. Dairy farming remains a tough occupation and it takes years to get the necessary experience to be successful. I do not think that any industry can afford to lose that expertise on the scale experienced here.

In the past eight years, South Africa lost 53% of its commercial dairy farmers. But it must also be mentioned that, during the same period, national milk production increased by 16% and the milk produced per farmer more than doubled from an average of 1,580 litres/day to almost 4,000 litres/day.

In my own case, I have not yet made a decision about the cows. I am mainly concerned that the bought-in cows may not acclimatise well on my farm.

Looking at the trends, I do not seem to have much of a choice. Bigger seems to be better and the only way to longer term survival.

Danie Schutte is an organic Ayrshire dairy farmer who also processes dairy products on his 90ha farm near Pretoria, South Africa.

Mili Thakur