While I was at Agritechnica in Hanover Germany last November, I had a chance to talk shop with a few farmers from other parts of the world. It was a great opportunity to find out what matters to them and how they see agriculture’s future. Speaking with Ralf Küsel, a mixed farmer from South Africa, and his business partner Kurt Klingenberg gave me a unique insight into the problems, opportunities and practices common to that part of the world.
Here’s what they had to say.
“(Preventing) Erosion was one of the main reasons I changed to no till.” explained Küsel. “It’s not better yields, but not worse yields. Its saving money. After five or 10 years you notice you don’t have to replace the tractor. I used to do about 1,000 hours on the tractor per year. Now it’s 500. That’s where you start saving money.”
“In South Africa it (no till) has gone from about 10 to 50 per cent in ten years,” he continued. “In the last three, four, five years it started snowballing.”
Küsel farms about 2,000 hectares (about 5,000 acres), growing corn, popcorn and soybeans. Canola is also grown in the region as winter crop, but it requires irrigation. “The summers are too hot for canola,” he said. “In our part of the world the winters are very arid. Only the summer months get rain, so we need irrigation to be able to grow it.”
Küsel only grows cover crops in the winter and pastures cattle across the entire farm. “Our fields are very odd shaped among mountainous, rocky ridges with natural grass,” he explained. “In the winter the cattle are run on the maize (corn) stover. We no-till seed into that the next summer.”
The average yield for corn crops in the country is roughly four tonnes per hectare (about 63 bushels per acre), but Küsel says he has seen yields on his farm as high as 10 tonnes per hectare (roughly 160 bushels per acre).
To get the crops into the ground, farmers in that region rely on seeding equipment that is imported from South America. Some of it is made by familiar brands, like John Deere, but North American farmers wouldn’t recognize the machines as being the same ones available here.
“We have mainly South American-made no-till planters,” he added. “Brazilian or Argentinian.”
Küsel and his business partner each farm their own operations but they do work some fields together and share some equipment, which is relatively unique. “Generally in South Africa it’s every farmer for himself,” he said.
One of the machines they share is a Hagie self-propelled sprayer that they imported from the U.S. on their own. They couldn’t find the features they were looking for on any of the mainline brands available in the country. Sharing expenses and machine use with a partner helped make that a viable option. “It didn’t make economic sense to import it on my own,” Küsel explained.
The most popular tractor brand in the Market there is McCormick, according to Küsel. John Deere and Case IH are also well represented; and the average horsepower for a field tractor is around 130, relatively small by Western Canadian standards.
When it comes to marketing their crops, most of the country’s production is consumed domestically, and producers can deliver to buyers in a manner similar to how most Canadian growers sell their grains. But Küsel prefers to deal directly with processors. He is also an active trader in the domestic commodities market.
“If you take (the amount) of crop we produce, we trade about 100 times more on the futures market,” he explains. “It gives us a unique opportunity. Because of the volumes traded, you always have a buyer and you always have a seller. You can speculate or use it as a hedging medium.”
“The advantage is being on the ground level. So you have a feel for what’s happening, being in the industry. That’s the most important part of trading. A farmer knows what’s happening and you’ve got farmer friends.”
“Obviously our price is affected by the international price, especially the Chicago price. We have a lot of farmers and sons of farmers that go off to the U.S. to work for custom harvesters. What the advantage for us is they’re the guys driving the combines. You email them and ask them what is the crop looking like. They go through three or four states, and they’re the first guys to know. You get the first information from them and speculate on that.”
Küsel says he’d be interested in acquiring more land, but like elsewhere in the world, land prices have significantly increased in South Africa in recent years. “They’ve gone up in the last 10 years, probably more than trebled,” he said.
Despite that, he is looking at leasing more land and improving his operation, because, as he sees it, agriculture has a bright future ahead of it. “We’re investing in farming,” he said.