She’s often up with the chickens every morning. They are her bread and butter after all, so farmer Judith Mabitsela (48) loves nothing more than the sound of a rooster crowing in the morning.
Judith, who is based in Mokopane in Limpopo, started farming chickens in 2015 and today sells about 40 000 chickens in a cycle. “In a year there are eight cycles which we have to produce the 40 000 chicken per cycle,” she explains.
PLANTING THE SEED
She’s always loved farming and learnt the basics when she was a little girl. “It was school in the morning, then right after I would help my grandmother with her cattle and sheep in a village outside Polokwane called Moletjie and to thinking about it now, back then the only things we bought were clothes.
We had our vegetables garden and livestock to live off.” After matric she studied agriculture at Pretoria Technikon (now Tshwane University of Technology) and graduated in 1998.
“After I got my diploma I started looking for a farm.” She looked for six years at the various government programmes that offered farming for young graduates, without much luck.
“I then got a call from the Department of Agriculture telling me that there is a meeting at Mohale Community Municipality. And that the then MEC for Agriculture wanted to buy farms for young people. That’s how I got my farm but at that time I was still working for Transnet since 2002.”
MAKING THE JUMP
It wasn’t a quick process though. The farm was officially allocated in her name in 2014, more than 10 years after she was first assigned to it. Once it was in her name, she resigned as a service co-ordinator at Transnet in 2014 because her heart was in farming. She took her package from Transnet and started farming full time.
“In 2015 I started farming chickens, and later in the years I started planning my vegetable plantation which we only planted in 2016. I started with 1 100 chickens,” she says. “I specialised in crop production but I had a friend of mine from university who studied animal production. She is the one who trained me in dealing with chickens and then my poultry production was up and running.”
When we catch up with Judith, she’s fresh off a new sale, having sold 40 000 chickens the night before. “I have one automatic house that was constructed by the Department of Rural Development. It holds the 40 000 chickens that have to go to the market every cycle, which is contracted to a company called Creams in Brits, North West.
“In a year there are eight cycles and we have to produce the 40 000 chickens per cycle,” she says. “I also have the manual house which we also circulate like that. We put 1 100 chickens per cycle but this one is slow due to the fact that it caters for an informal market.”
Explaining the difference between the automatic and manual houses, Judith says that only two people work in the automatic house, to check the chickens and remove the dead ones which die mostly because of age or the heat.
“The water and food came out automatically unless we have to put in medication, which we do every 14 days until they are ready for Brits. The manual has to be checked three to four times a day to see if there’s enough food and water for the chickens.”
THE HELPING HANDS
She says she’s not running a onewoman farm but gets help from her son, Refiloe Mabitsela (30), her nephew Lethabo Rasethaba (27) and her elder sister, Mogadi Rasethaba (53).
“My son and sister are the ones that do all the paperwork and sales, while I just handle the production side of the business. I’m not good with people like them. The vegetables are quiet and so are the chickens so I’m fine like this.”
She has five permanent staff members and gets about 20 workers on contract when the work gets too much. “We start the day with a prayer and usually we plan the day the night before so everyone knows what they should be doing when the day starts. My day starts immediately as the sun rises but everyone else’s day starts at 7am and they knock off at 5pm.”
She’s had to learn some tough lessons on the job. “There was a point when the chickens were dying. I didn’t know that when it gets too hot and the chickens were too big that the fat and heat would kill them. It was frustrating but I didn’t know what was going wrong with the chickens. I lost close to 500 chickens in an hour last December.”
They live in one of the hottest provinces in the country and the temperature can reach up to 47 degrees celsius, she explains. “It was hot and the chickens were ready for the market, but they couldn’t handle the heat. We tried to open all the windows and doors in the house to allow the air to come in because the fan wasn’t doing enough ventilation as the chickens kept on dying.”
BUILDING A LEGACY
She has a lot of plans for her farm, which includes farming more than just poultry. “My main goal is having to see my farm fully operational but the problem now is capital. I don’t have the necessary financial muscle but I’ve been using my own money from my pension fund which has ran out.
“I have been sending proposals almost everywhere but still no feedback. For the farm to be fully operational, I need R20 million.” Right now, Judith doesn’t slaughter the chickens she sells unless there’s a special order from the informal market.
She wants to change that in future. “I also want to build a slaughter house where they can slaughter our own chickens which will add more value to the chickens,” she says. The country’s land expropriation without compensation plan is a scary topic for the chicken farmer as she doesn’t know exactly which land is up for the taking.
“My farm is not fully operational yet so maybe they might want to look at the size that is not used and give it to somebody else. That’s why I want to be able to use every hectare on the farm but due to the lack of resources I’ll just have to wait and see. But the title deed puts me at ease because the land belongs to me,” she says.
While the government is working on their land expropriation plan, Judith will continue putting her all into her farm. “I can’t be a small-scale farmer forever. I want to become a commercial farmer, who mass produces everything.”