Women in Agri: With proper research, you will make fewer mistakes - Yolanda Kevetuna - Farmer

Yolanda Kavetuna is a geologist and a farmer from Namibia. She was born into a family of farmers in a village communally owned by the locals. 

"My grandparents and parents are all farmers. They farm on communal land called 'cattle posts' with other family members," she explains.

She credits her grandparents for inspiring her to become a farmer. She used to hear her grandmother's stories growing up about how they began with small stock and eventually transitioned to large stock. 

"I witnessed my grandfather's farming efforts that helped him take care of us so we could be able to live a comfortable life," she shares. "So basically I was raised around livestock. I attended school in Windhoek, but every holiday I went back to the village and worked with cattle."

Yolanda explains that, prior to Namibia's independence, every family living on communal land had a fenced-in cattle post. Today, people can't fence off communal land because it is against the law. 

"The maximum amount of land you can use in communal areas is 20 ha, which is very little," she says. "I was forced to lease a farming plot with my partner approximately 400 kilometers from Grootfontein, in the Omaheke region."

Why Livestock Farming? 

Yolanda says she chose livestock farming, specifically cattle, because they require less maintenance than other farming ventures.  

"My job is 8-5, so cattle was the way to go, especially since our farm is far from our places of work," she says. "If you have sufficient grazing, security measures, animal health programs, record keeping, relatives who can assist and knowledgeable workers, you will minimize the risk of losing livestock drastically. On the other hand, in other farming ventures for instance small stock, chickens, etc; there is a high risk that workers will kill or sell those animals as they can always blame predators for the loss."

Currently, she is raising a mixed herd. About half the herd consists of crossbred Brahmans, and the rest are Santa Gertrudis, Simbra, Braunvieh and Simmentalers. They are involved in a weaner production system in which they sell to local auctioneers who transport to South Africa.  

"In our business, we are paid per kilogram, so we recognize the need for adaptable cattle that give us beefful calf calves at weaning," she says. "We're currently investigating ways to increase our beef production per hectare. We therefore value adaptability of cattle and quality of bulls."

Currently, the farm employs two people full-time and a foreman who works on a casual basis. Among Yolanda's responsibilities are strategizing and measuring herd performance. She also takes care of gathering records such as weaning weights, inter-calving period calculations, etc., and I analyze those records.  

"We want a cow that gives birth every year, wean a calf that is half the mother’s body weight with minimal licks and supplements," she says. "Additionally, we are looking into the production of maize and beans that will be used as supplements for our animals."

The other partner looks after the maintenance of the farm, licks, and supplements. While her family is heavily involved with the communal farm. According to her, her mother and uncle care for the animals. 

"Although I have little input on how things are run on the communal farm, nobody from my family works on the leased farm in Omaheke Region." 

As she works full time, Yolanda spends most of her free time working on the farm. "From 8-5, I have to dedicate myself to my paying job, and from seven to twelve, I work on the farm," she says. 

When she is not at the farm, she communicates with the team using the farm's WhatsApp group. Every morning, the care takers outline their plans for the day and give feedback on the previous day's progress. 

"When we are on the farm, we rise as early as 6 am to let the cattle into the kraal and observe the mob in action," she says. "We try very hard to stick to our health plan and take care of any health issues that arise. Often, we are inoculating or administering vitamins to the herds. Every day has its own distinct challenges."

Furthermore, farming has taught her a lot of skills she had never considered before.

 "Previously, I didn't bother with labour-intensive work, but now I can operate a neck clamp, feed cattle into the crush pan, fix leaking pipes, etc," she says. "I have basically learned how to do the day-to-day work on the farm. The key is to learn as much as you can, start small and grow from there."

Funding for her Farm

Yolanda recalls that as a geology graduate, she spent four years working for an exploration company. During this time she saved about N$60,000.00 and purchased 13 heifers for N$4500.00 each in 2013.  She was fortunate that this was a drought year and prices were low.  

In order to purchase more cattle, Yolanda continued to save money. During that time, the cattle were managed by her family, and she had access to a cattle infrastructure. 

"I continued to save money to purchase livestock, but nowadays, since cattle's prices have risen, I no longer buy cattle. Instead, I build my own herd and purchase quality bulls for my breeding goals," she says.

As part of her breeding bull purchase in 2019, Yolanda approached a bank for financing. As far as acquiring loans for livestock purchases, she felt very comfortable doing so since she had a payment plan that involved paying with livestock and investing any profits back into farming once she settles her loan, rent, and all other bills.

"Sometimes, you need to balance which animals to sell and which to keep as breeding stock to meet farming needs, breeding plans, and to cover expenses," she explains.

Market Share

The farm sells their calves to three auctioneering companies in the area. She says there is always a market for young calves, so the auction houses are always busy.

"The presence of weaners in Namibia and South Africa keeps the market competitive, hence there are always customers."

Yolanda considers a successful year on the farm to be one with an average calving rate of 85 % or higher, a 0.5 % mortality rate, and an average weaning weight of 200 kg.  

"It is very important to keep track of where your money goes in your farming business," she says. "Keeping records is imperative to achieving our goals. I am very bad at this but I am doing research on different ways to keep track our finances."

Challenges She Faced

Land is the biggest challenge Yolanda faces. "It's so expensive to buy farm land, and the requirements are so ridiculous," she says. "It's also hard to find land to lease."

Previously, she had trouble finding a suitable partner for her farm. Due to differences in perspective, there were rifts and losses between her and her partner. 

"I've dealt with partners who had different visions from mine, so I've seen how easily you can push each other in opposite directions.  Furthermore, I have been a victim of theft and I have suffered countless losses."

As a new farmer, her biggest challenge was not having a clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish.

"At first, I just wanted to own livestock and sell it," she shares. "I have come to realise that this wasn't enough. In order to keep my dream alive, I needed to set goals and develop a long-term vision for the farm."

Another challenge she faced was not measuring her animals to stay up-to-date with all their facts. She has learned that by measuring all her animals, she can figure out how to adjust and tweak things to help her reach her goals. 

"What progress are you making with the bull you have purchased," she asks? "How will you know you are making progress? Would it be feasible to adjust your management to achieve this goal? If you do not weigh your animals, you are losing valuable information that could enhance your operations."
 
Advice for Beginners

As a farmer, Yolanda believes that wisdom, passion, and a curious mind are essential to success. Her secret to success is asking the right questions until she gets satisfactory answers. 

She says, "I am still looking for a mentor, however I have so many people I look up to and ask for help from.  If they are in a good mood, they answer my questions."

According to Yolanda, new farmers must be people-skilled. Moreover, they must be able to make their vision and passion clear to their staff, so that the stuff is empowered to operate the farm independently. She adds, "Your farm should continue to thrive even when you are away."

Her other advice to new farmers is to invest their own money if possible and continue learning about farming as they grow.  

"Cash is king," she says. "Have as much starting capital as possible. Research. Visit farms and learn how they are managed. Find out everything you can about farming. Ask questions and find mentors. With proper research, you will make fewer mistakes. Attend training, workshops, webinars, and presentations. Buy magazines about farming."

In her opinion, engaging with the farming community will help you to gain a better understanding of farming.  

"I have a close relationship with a vet," she shares. "The vet gives me advice about animal diseases and how to handle them. More importantly, I have learned that everyone is just trying to figure things out, so don't overly depend on anyone. Learn to save yourself because nobody is coming to do it."

Female Farmer Support 

According to Yolanda, women can only be effective farmers and lift each other up when they believe in themselves individually and are passionate about farming.

"I understand that historically women in the sector have not had the same opportunities as men, hence the need to support and empower them to compete on par or close to par with men," she says. ​"Equally, I believe that we must support and empower all those involved in farming, as farming is vital to livelihoods. We are all in this together. The knowledge, expertise, and support we provide one another in the farming community play a major role in the quality and safety of the products we produce."

In addition, she believes that government can help in making agriculture more productive, sustainable, and resilient.

"The government must stop wasting the country's resources by giving land to people who have no interest in farming," she says. They need to allocate land to the right people and set up monitoring systems to ensure that every farmer who receives a grant, land, etc., follows through on their commitments. Also, the government should provide mentorship programs and start-up capital to aspiring farmers."


Vision and Mission

At the farm, Yolanda says they are considering raising chickens and small livestock, including goats. Her biggest concern is stock theft. However, when she is not working, she enjoys reading magazines and being outdoors. 

She dreams and plans to h her own farm. 

"As a farmer, I want to share my journey and experience," she says. "I also want to teach others about farming."