Inside Look at South Africa's Beef Sector

This Business of Farming

Savvy cattleman focuses on consumer preferences

Published on: December 4, 2013

Today our farm tour through South Africa stopped by a vertically integrated beef farm and talked shop with its very smart manager, Willem Wethmar, part owner of the Chalmar Beef Company near Bapsfontein, not far from Pretoria.

The feedlot has capacity for 18,000 cattle and a further 10,000 cattle on pasture.  The farm also produces 30,000 tons of corn silage on 1,853 acres, and buys a wide array of feed ingredients for rations. In fact, feed arrives here 24/7; rations include everything from white corn feed; "hominy chop" (a by-product of dry milling consisting of the bran coating and corn germ);cottonseed oil cake; soy hulls; cracked yellow corn; soy cake; and defatted maize germ (hominy chop minus the fat).

Since we werent allowed to take photos at Chalmar Beef, I dug up this similar scene from our sister publication Beef Magazine.  Their feedlots look a lot like ours.
Since we weren't allowed to take photos at Chalmar Beef, I dug up this similar scene from our sister publication Beef Magazine. Their feedlots look a lot like ours.

The farm has a strict no photography policy, so try to imagine a large feedlot full of cattle, a vast, multi-room bulk feed warehouse, and a meat processing facility just a hundred yards up the road.

Yes, the cattle walk to their final destination.

"There's no slaughter stress here," says Willem. "Stress can spread like a fire between animals, but the cattle walk to the Abbatoir (processing plant) and that decreases any stress."

The company slaughters 300 cattle a day with a focus on quality and an eye toward pleasing South African consumers, who prefer fresh beef to frozen, and lean rather than marbled cuts. Popular grilling cuts include ribeyes and T-bones. We peeked inside a local supermarket and found meat prices were similar –and in some cases cheaper – than our own.

Family business

Chalmar Beef was started by Wimpie Wethmar in 1969. His children, Willem and Sarah, proudly maintain the family-based ethic that has seen Chalmar Beef gain a reputation for premium cuts of tender, juicy and flavorful beef - and win many accolades for high animal welfare and hygiene standards at its slaughter house.  

Last June the company won 'Abbatoir of the year,' a prestigious award presented by the Red Meat Abbatoir Association. It's the second time they earned the honor. Chalmar Beef has turned into the first choice for many of South Africa’s leading chefs and an A-list Supplier to Woolworths, one of South Africa's mainline grocers. 

Feeder cattle are sourced from selected disease-free areas and from selected producers who practice good animal husbandry. It appeared most of the breeds were indigenous to South Africa.

Beef measles

Unlike American cattlemen, Chalmar Beef does not deworm its cattle. Instead, they deworm herdsmen, who are often infected with tapeworms and become carriers that can result in beef measles in the livestock.

"We're in a place where third world and first world are sitting right next to each other," says Willem. "Tapeworm may get passed to cattle if the cows are closely grazing near farm homes. Workers will use restrooms but some bacteria may get on clothes and find its way to cattle." As the adult tapeworm continues to live inside the human intestine it sheds infective eggs which come out in feces. These eggs can survive in the environment for several months under the right temperature and moisture conditions. Once the eggs are consumed by cattle, they develop into cysts or measles in their muscles. Cattle are infected by eating materials contaminated with tapeworm eggs originating from humans. These materials can be in the form of food (grass or feed) or water.

There were a few other things about this business that made us realize we weren't in Kansas anymore. The headquarters and slaughter house were surrounded by gates, high voltage fencing and guards armed with shotguns. Willem says it is because buyers come to the processing plant and use cash to conduct business. An armored car comes by each day to pick up the earnings.

Pretty much everything in South Africa has a barbed wire fence, as security and crime is a constant worry.

Best practices

Chalmar Beef produces its own roughage: silage from 110-day corn, and high quality hay High quality protein and micro-minerals are used for starter rations to aid adaption of newly arrived weaners. Rations are mixed with U.S.-built Digi-Star systems for extreme precision. "There is very little waste in this system,' says Willem.

Cow manure forms the basic fertilizing program. An agronomist evaluates all fields for soil capability, potential and production. Nitrogen is used primarily as a pop-up starter fertilizer.

This farm, like our own large scale livestock farms, must follow tight regulations to stay in compliance of environmental rules.

"We do have an environmental assessment statement and regulators do visit," says Willem. "The regulations are very burdensome, but you have to operate within the system."

The business has 300 employees spread among the cattle, crops and meat processing enterprises. Cattle on feed are generally slaughtered between 12 to 18 months of age with a rate of gain around 3.3 pounds per day.

The most impressive thing about Willem was his knowledge of cattle and decision-making that leads to the best consumer experience possible. That includes everything from breed selection going into the feedlot, to the kinds of cuts leaving the processing plant.

"We try to decrease all the variables that can possibly produce tough beef," he told our group.