Weaner calf Firth Group

Q&A interview with Firth Group’s Ben Groenewald: Weaner calf (speenkalwer) farming at Firth Group [Part 1]

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing head of the Firth Group’s weaner calf division (Afrikaans/Afr.): speenkalwers), Mr Ben Groenewald.

In this, the first of two instalments, join me as I share these interesting details, in an easy-to-read Q&A format. (Ed. translated from Afrikaans to English, and paraphrased.)

Q: Good morning Ben. Before we get started with our discussion surrounding the details of the Firth Group’s weaner calf division, what’s currently on your busy farmer’s to-do list for this week?

A: Just this week, we acquired a few young buffalo bulls (Afr. jong buffel bulletjies). Right now, we first need to bleed them—this involves a process of acquiring blood samples for testing, so that we can apply for necessary permits to move them into our large hunting camp.  As per stringent regulations, when farming with and keeping buffalo, we need relevant state vet approval before these animals may be moved between camps on our farms. Withing the hunting market in particular, there is still a steady demand for buffalo hunting—at the Firth Group, ethically responsible hunting[1] remains a secondary, yet complementary revenue stream.

[1] Strict measures to control our ethically responsible hunting protocols and internationally recognised best-practices are strongly enforced. The Firth Group prides itself in its strong opposition to ‘canned  hunting’ and other unethical hunting practices.

Weaner calf Firth Group
Young buffalo bulls — blood samples being taken for permit requirements by state vet
Q: Are buffalo in any way susceptible to the recent foot and mouth (FMD; Afr. bek en klou) outbreak that is plaguing parts of the North West Province at the moment?

A: Buffalo are indeed very susceptible to infection. The disease itself is extremely contagious among hooved animals. We have to be extremely careful. If FMD were to contaminate the farm, then our entire operation would be shut down by the authorities. This would lead to not a single animal being able to enter or leave the farm. 

Weaner calf Firth Group
Young buffalo bulls

As such, with buffalo being at high risk of easily catching the disease, extreme caution is exercised when working with them. The very same applies to our cattle business divisions: Firth Red Brangus and the weaner calf division. 

Q: Explain the basic process of how weaner calf farming works—the basic model?

A: I’m not sure if this is a formally known term in cattle farming, but I call it backgrounding. It works like this: At auctions, my primary objective is to purchase/buy healthy ‘light-in-weight’ calves (Afr. ligte kalfies). Interestingly, the feedlots (Afr. voerkrale) also buy weaned calves that weigh between 150kg – 300kg. These calves are then fed at the feedlots, until they reach between 400kg – 600kg. Once the desired goal weight is reached, the calves are slaughtered. In other words, with this division, we’re at the beginning of the meat-supply food chain.

Specifically, what I do, is to purchase weaned calves that weigh under 150kg. Once they arrive at the farm, we place them in suitable camps, giving them additional feed to sustain optimal and consistent weight gain. This facilitates rapid ‘fat-gain’ in the calves. Once the recently weaned calves reach an average of 240kg, we then sell them to the feedlots. The demand for weaned calves at this weight is very high. Once the feedlots purchase our weaned calves at this approximate weight, the feedlots need only contend with the calves for 120 days before they’re ready for slaughter.

In short: The feedlots only acquire weaned calves. In my division, we too only acquire weaned calves. However, the major difference is that the weaned calves that we acquire, mostly weigh less than the average calf weight that feedlots prefer to purchase them at. It’s my job to do a excellent job of fattening the calves to the point that the feedlots are then interested in purchasing them.

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Weaned calves on the move

Q: How successful is this division at present?

A: The model is dependent on a good cash-flow variable. At one stage, we were doing so well that we were sitting with about 500 calves on hand—I had to decline acceptance of surplus weaned calves from some of our suppliers as we didn’t have the resources to contend with more. I must just say that, ideally I don’t want to deal with too many young calves during the colder Winter months. Reason being: it takes about an additional month of feeding and care to facilitate reaching a calf’s optimal resale goal-weight. In other words, the calves pick up weight far more slowly during the colder Winter months.

I must add, that relationships are key in this business. If you work hard at establishing favourable relations between suppliers, discounters and sellers, you stand to gain access to weaned calves rather easily and you won’t struggle. The converse no doubt also applies—poor supplier/seller relations will see you struggling to acquire sufficient stock to farm with.

Q: Where are the suppliers—in what region mostly?

A: I buy mostly from suppliers within a maximum radius of 200km of Wolmaransstad. If I sell to a feedlot that is further than this, then I have to ensure that I can fill an entire truckload before justifying the fuel costs to make the delivery. For example, I have one such feedlot client that I sell to in the Western Cape Province. I am fine with delivering to this client because I usually have a full truckload of calves when doing so—to be specific: our trucks are full when we reach about 110 calves (which translates to about 60-70 cows) per load.

Weaner calf Firth Group

Young, recently weaned calves

As a matter of interest, there was a time when we were content with acquiring cows with the weaned calves. However, the market is saturated with this right now, so I prefer not to acquire any cows (with calves) at all. The risks of reaching optimal resale conditions for both calf and cow are too high—most certainly, under current (2022) market conditions that is.

Q: Are the calves mostly female?

A: When purchasing calves, I prefer to take on males—young bulls. Let me put it this way, if I’m sitting with a batch of about 60-100 calves at any given point in time, I need to be sure that males (i.e. young bulls) dominate the ratio between male and female. Too many cows is not a favourable ratio for my division. Reason being: the female calves tend to pick up weight too quickly.

Young weaned calves inside enclosure
Q: What’s the average price of a calf? How do you sell—what is the primary price-variable?

A: That’s an interesting question! Usually at the end of February, early March, market prices are at their highest—for buying and selling. This coincides with the closing of most business’ financial/tax year-end cycles. At any other time, the price may fluctuate quite a bit, particularly during the Winter months. At present, the price is hovering around R36-R40/kg for the lighter calves. Once Winter has passed, the going price for the same category or class of claves, may reach as much as R60/kg. On average, I prefer to purchase batches of calves that fall within the price-range of about R45-R50/kg. However, one has to avoid purchasing calves at a high price (for example, in the late Summer months), and being forced to sell them at a lower price (during the Winter months). As a profitable business model (under such conditions), this will result in a nett loss on each calf—making the buying and selling of weaned calves an unsustainable investment proposition. Profitability would be too low!

Young weaned calves

For this reason, for my weaner calf farming division, primarily it’s all about striking the right balance between when to buy, and when to sell.  However, once I’m certain that a batch of calves are going at an optimal purchase price, then we buy—particularly when there’s an over-supply of calves on the market. However, we have to remain careful once taking delivery of the calves, because they’re very susceptible to pneumonia (Afr. longontsteking) in the early-to-mid Winter months.

More weaned calves on the move

Ed. This is the end of the first instalment—part 1 of the Q/A interview with Ben Groenewald. Be sure to watch this space for the follow-on, part 2 (second instalment, coming in July 2022).

[1] Strict measures to control our ethically responsible hunting protocols and internationally recognised best-practices are strongly enforced. The Firth Group prides itself in its strong opposition to ‘canned hunting’ and other unethical hunting practices.
Adrian Baillie-Stewart
Article written by Adrian Baillie-Stewart

On a part-time basis, Adrian serves as lead digital communications consultant for the Firth Group of farms. This includes Hillcrest Game Estates, Firth Red Brangus, Firth Wagyu, Maquassi Spruit Pecan Nuts and Highlands Cycads. A communications specialist at Content Strategics (Pty) Ltd., Adrian helps small to medium enterprises achieve their primary operational goals by maximising the commercial impact of their media content published across multiple online digital platforms.