The Midlands is heralded as one of the most fertile pockets of land within South Africa. With its rich agricultural history and sublime biodiversity, farmers in this region are celebrated for their consistently excellent produce and livestock. In this article, we shine a spotlight on three local farmers in order to get the inside scoop on all things cattle, poultry and trout!
Maggie Scratcher is a family-run business located on a third generation farm in Balgowan. The family has been on the farm for nearly 50 years, working dedicatedly to develop the land from a scrub wattle plantation to a successful small business. The farm currently employs around 30 staff members who, in turn, support approximately 180 people!
The family members involved directly in the daily operation of Maggie Scratcher have diverse qualifications and professional backgrounds. Linnet and Rowan grew up on the farm, thereby reaping the rewards of on-the-job experience. Their farm life background has proven to be essential and is perhaps their most valuable qualification for their current positions. Linnet, however, also has an MSc in Animal Science and has worked elsewhere within the industry. Rowan has a BA and has run her own separate business for several years. As with running any business, there are a multitude of non-farming areas which require focus and dedication, namely: keeping abreast of local market trends and requirements, government regulations and licensing, staff and human resources legislation, business administration, etc. The family’s varied experience and qualifications help them to handle as many of the above facets as possible, whilst prioritising their focus on the farming operation and the production of quality products.
Maggie Scratcher produces more than just barn and free-range eggs. It is a diverse, multifaceted operation which culminates effectively to produce a unique product. Day-old chicks are purchased from the hatchery, thereafter Maggie Scratcher are able to oversee their every requirement. These chicks are raised on the floor in roomy barn sheds until around 17 – 18 weeks, when they are at the point of lay. These pullets may then be sold to other producers while most of them are moved to Maggie Scratcher’s own laying unit. Their laying hens are housed using the barn system – this means that they are housed in open-sided barns with plenty of space to move around and scratch with ample sunlight and fresh air. They do not use climate control, keeping their environment as natural as possible whilst still protecting them from inclement weather and other risk factors such as predators. In addition to their barn unit, Maggie Scratcher also has some free-range flocks, which have the advantage and safety of the barn system combined with day time access to orchards and grazing.
All the feed fed to chicks, pullets and layers is milled and mixed on the farm according to specially formulated recipes, ensuring that they receive exactly the right nutrients for their stage of development. Maggie Scratcher sources and selects their raw materials very carefully, using local producers wherever feasible, so that their birds are fed the best quality, freshest feed possible. They also ensure that there are no colourants or artificial stimulants used in their feed.
The manual workload involved in this kind of operation is high – combining the best old fashioned, hands-on approach with top innovative technology where beneficial. The well-trained team checks all the sheds multiple times per day, ensuring that feed is always in plentiful supply, that drinkers are clean and fresh water is always available, that the birds are in good health and that eggs are collected from the free access traditional nesting boxes throughout the day. Their pullets also have a thorough program of vaccinations which, in addition to their stringent biosecurity program, protects the health of all their birds.
Once collected, eggs are taken to their custom designed HACCP compliant pack shed where they are sorted and graded before being packed for specific orders so that the freshest eggs possible reach their customers. Their pack shed is routinely inspected in order to ensure that they consistently meet the stringent HACCP requirements and remain completely up-to-date. Their customers range from large supermarket chains to small home industry outlets, local kitchens and restaurants, schools and home bakers. Many of them have been buying Maggie Scratcher barn and free range eggs for decades!
While the health and welfare of their birds is their top priority, they also make every effort to keep their practices as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. Wherever possible, they reuse and recycle materials. Their egg-packaging is made from recycled materials and is, in turn, recyclable. The deep litter system used in their barns uses shredded newspaper for bedding. By the time the litter is removed from their sheds, it is either used as compost by local farmers or is converted into high quality organic fertiliser in their custom aerobic biodigester on the farm.
They have an ongoing program dedicated to eradicating invasive plants and converting the remains of the original scrub plantation back to indigenous forest – despite this being non- productive in business terms. Farming for the Maggie Scratcher family is about more than just business. With so much diversity within the farming and business operation, no two days are the same, but all are full and busy!
Peak Trout is nestled in the foot of the Drakensberg, up at Cathedral Peak. They have been farming their trout here for about 11 seasons now, and supply a lot of their trout into the market in KZN, as well as to Mpumalanga. Most of their fish goes to the table market, where they are processed and distributed from Mpumalanga. Simon and his team at the farm take pride and much joy in being a part of the stocking community in KZN, and although they are not the only trout farm in the area, they do have a vast majority of the waters around the Midlands that they stock. The farm produces approximately 10 tonnes of live trout that it sends to the various dams they stock, which in turn allows for many great fishing weekends and competitions for those who live in or visit the Midlands and Drakensberg areas. This is what Simon loves most about what he does, knowing that people are having a good time because they are catching fish. Due to this, their focus for the last few years has been on live stocking.
“As a youngster, I probably picked up a fly fishing rod up at the age of nine, and haven’t really ever been able to put one down since,” says Simon. He grew up around the Midlands and attended Martizburg College, where he was a member of the fly fishing club. It was here that he learned all the tricks and tips required for fly fishing, and has many happy memories of his time there and of their teacher, Mr. Win-Whittier. “I was just encapsulated by the idea of the fly fishing, and especially the idea of being able to tie your own flies and catch fish on them.” It was while he was a member of the club that he learned how to tie his own flies, something he still enjoys doing today. His passion and love for fly fishing is what made him decide to enjoy a career in the field, hence the trout farm. Simon also has a guiding business in Slovenia where he works and guides people during the fishing season in Europe, and he travels between the two countries. Simon loves the Midlands, especially as a fishing destination, because it is close enough to the ocean that you can be fishing in the sea in the morning, and be back at the rivers or dams in the Midlands that same afternoon. The most common fish that can be caught using flies in the Midlands area are rainbow trout, brown trout and the Natal scaly.
When it comes to trout fishing competitions, and Simon has been to many, his favourite would have to be the Kamberg Trout Festival. It has been going on for a great many years now and each year is just as good, if not better, than the last. You’ll see all the trout fishing fanatics there, and be able to catch up with old friends, make some new ones and just have a great weekend! Choosing a favourite dam, on the other hand, is quite tricky as waters fish differently every time. Simon’s three favourite dams to trout fish are Riverside on the Moller’s Farm, Highmore, which he has been stocking for many years, and Zulu Bravo, which is private water but one that Simon also stocks. These places offer great fishing and amazing scenery. His three favourite rivers are Mlambonje, which is where Simon currently farms and lives, The Bushmans River, which is close to where Simon grew up, and the Njesuthi River, for its dramatic scenery. These rivers offer great waters and a fantastic fishing experience.
When it comes to fly fishing in the Midlands, Simon would recommend paying a visit to Wildfly, a fly fishing outfitting shop on Nottingham Road. They will sort you out will all the gear you will need, as well as point you in the direction of some great waters to fish on. Escape Fly Fishing is also an operation to check out for all keen fly fishers. The company takes guests out on tours to some really pristine waters where they can enjoy some excellent fishing. If its custom flies you are looking for, Simon suggests checking out Angler Fish Flies. “He ties some amazing custom flies,” Simon says, “and will be able to give you the flies you need instead of just the flies you think look good.” With so many great fishing spots to try, the Midlands really is an accessible place to indulge your love of fly fishing, or develop a passion for this sport.
Netherwood Farm in Nottingham Road is home to some of the world’s most incredible Angus Stud Cattle. Rob Kleinloog, the owner, is a cardio thoracic surgeon who grew up on a farm, and therefore always wanted to pursue a future in farming. They started on a small farm in Balgowan when their children were still at school, and bought the current Netherwood farms in 2000. The stud, Netherwood Angus, was established in 2001. The purpose of the stud is to produce top breeding bulls for the beef industry. The farm also has a fat stock operation where free-range (drug-free grass fed) animals are produced. This Angus and Wagyu beef-production is for Netherwood’s own restaurant (Fork & Cleaver) and butchery on the farm, as well as other niche markets.
Taylor Knott, who grew up on a family-run cattle farm in the Eastern Cape, currently manages the cattle on Netherwood Farm. “I pursued my passion for farming by doing a Bachelor in Agricultural Management at NMMU: George Campus (Saasveld). In 2016, I joined the Netherwood family as the Netherwood Angus Stud Cattle Manager”, Taylor says. “At Netherwood, we run two different herds of Angus Cattle, a commercial herd and a stud herd. The commercial herd is bred for Angus beef and weaner production, as well as producing breeding heifers to sell to other future breeders on our Annual Stud Production Sale which normally takes place the first week of August. The stud herd is for producing stud bulls for breeding purposes on other stud/commercial farmers locally and nationally. In total, we have 650 Angus. All cattle rotate extensively around the natural veld on Netherwood Farm. Cattle graze freely in the veld, eating all sorts of natural grasses available to them. However in winter, the veld grass goes dormant after the frost and cold weather. We then feed our cattle on foggage kikuyu grass, hay bales that we baled during the summer months as well as silage feed. This is supplied from our 20 ha maize harvest that we grow ourselves every year” he continues.
When asked about why he chose to specialise in the management of Angus cattle specifically, Taylor says: “Worldwide, Angus is recognised as one of the best mother cow lines due to their good milk production, high fertility, low maintenance requirements and functional udders with small teats. Because of small calves at birth, calving ease is guaranteed. It is therefore our choice breed. The Angus Breed is renowned for its superb carcass qualities. It has the genetic ability to deposit intramuscular fat (known as marbling). The result is the fine-textured beef of ultimate tenderness, flavor and juiciness – truly the connoisseur’s choice.”
Netherwood Farm is on a mission to become a self-sustaining business. Taylor elaborates on this by stating, “All of our Angus and Wagyu Beef are supplied to our butchery at Netherwood Farm. The meat is then cut up and distributed to what is needed by the Fork ‘n Cleaver steak restaurant and the Blueberry Café. We follow the farm-to-fork principle. The Netherwood Natural Beef is sourced from our Netherwood Farm in the Midlands and is free from hormones, growth stimulants and antibiotics. All the cattle at Netherwood Farm are pasture raised, grass fed, not fed animal products and are humanely sacrificed.”
Managing such a significant number of cattle comes with an array of responsibilities. “As the cattle manager, I have to make sure the cattle are all happy and healthy, that there is sufficient grazing available and that plans are in place for possible future drought and tough winters. I’m responsible for the management of all the dosage, inoculations and vaccination programs as well as ensuring that instructions are followed properly and carefully. The supply to our restaurants and butchery is controlled by supervising the supply-demand chain. I must be on my toes during calving season, make sure all goes well and assist if there are any difficulties, which very seldom happens”, Taylor explains.
By implementing sustainable farming practices, such as high-density grazing as a tool to increase soil fertility and plant life, as well as the incorporation of plant organic matter and manure into the soil, Netherwood Farm aims to give back to the earth. “The idea is to keep and return the land to a healthy, productive state by using the available resources such as cattle and livestock. We also collect chicken litter that is mixed into compost, which, after some time, is spread onto the pastures for fertilization”, Taylor continues.
When asked about the appeal of farm life, Taylor’s answer certainly does not disappoint! “Being outdoors in the beautiful Midlands and working with cattle is way better than the buzz of the city. It is so much better to have an “office outdoors” rather than sitting indoors. Spending time with cattle on a Sunday afternoon and watching “their way of life” is a gift.”