Our progress as nations and as the human race is marked by the meat, milk, hides, draught power that cattle have provided. They also are an investment, and have served as an indicator of wealth and as articles for barter. It is not for nothing that the idiom Dikgomo ke banka ya Mosotho (cattle are the bank of a Mosotho) exists in Lesotho and South Africa.

Where cattle are kept for production, beef farming can be a primary or a secondary enterprise. In the latter instance, the farmer has more than one enterprise and the beef enterprise is the subordinate undertaking. Because beef farming can be a low input system in terms of costs, labour and time, it is a very useful enterprise to run as a secondary enterprise. Thus cattle often are retained to keep grass down on marginal areas or to utilize excess roughage such as crop residues, and may also be kept for aesthetic and/or cultural reasons where people merely like to have animals or believe that cattle must be present for ceremonial reasons.

For whatever reason livestock are kept, buying cattle is an investment, albeit a risky one because of disease and mortality. Characteristically, beef production is a long-term undertaking and profits are rarely made on the short term.

Source: www.sesotho.org  and Beef Production, The Basics 

International business environment

  • There are currently just over 1-billion head of cattle in the world. India, Brazil, China, EU, Argentina and Australia hold the most stock of cattle (USDA, 2021).
  • The top producers of beef and veal are Brazil, China, EU, India and Argentina (USDA, 2021)
  • The top exporters are Brazil, India, USA and Australia. The top importers are China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK (USDA, 2021).
Source: www.fas.usda.gov/commodities/beef-and-cattle


Further reference:


South Africa imports and exports

  • The industry moved successfully from a net importing to a net exporting position over the past decade, broadening its market beyond the limited domestic growth.
  • Its competitiveness in the export market will benefit further from the persistently weak exchange rate, but the constant risk of disease outbreak and the implications that this can have for market access reduces the incentive to invest in large scale export driven expansion
  • Read the discussion under the “Perspectives on incorporating the informal market” heading on how the Agriculture and Agroprocessing Masterplan would enable greater participation from developing producers in supplying additional weaner calves.
  • To date, the bulk of export growth has been attributed to high value cuts destined for the Middle East and Asia. A high-road beef strategy for the beef sector by BFAP sees the need for exports to diversify, with high value cuts still destined for the Middle East and Asia, and remaining parts of the carcass sold both in South Africa and exported into the rest of Africa, where the demand structure is similar to South Africa’s domestic market.
  • Under a scenario of improved traceability systems, improved productivity for developing producers and expanded market access, South Africa would export 24% of beef production by 2030 (BFAP, 2021).
Source: excerpts from the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) Baseline 2020-2029; 2021-2030.



Local business environment

There are some 12.3 million cattle in South Africa (DALRRD, 2021) [BFAP puts the figure at 14 million (BFAP, 2021)]. Beef is produced throughout South Africa. The amount of beef produced depends on the infrastructure such as feedlots and abattoirs, not necessarily by the number of cattle available in those areas. South Africa has highly developed transport infrastructure that allows movement of cattle and calves from one area to another, even from other countries such as Namibia. Mpumalanga, the Free State and Gauteng command the greatest share of beef production in South Africa.

Three major groups of beef cattle farmers co-exist in the country: (i) The commercial beef producer where production is relatively high and comparable to developed countries. Their production is generally based on synthetic breeds and/or crossbreeding, using Indicus / Sanga types and their crosses as dams. (ii) The emerging black beef cattle farmer, whose cattle generally consist of indigenous crossbred or exotic type of animals. (iii) The communal beef cattle farmer who farm on communal grazing land. Their cattle are mostly of indigenous types.

The beef supply chain has become increasingly vertically integrated. This integration is mainly fuelled by the feedlot industry where most of the large feedlots own their own abattoirs, or at least have some business interest in certain abattoirs. In addition, some feedlots have integrated further down the value chain and sell directly to consumers through their own retail outlets. Some abattoirs have also started to integrate vertically towards the wholesale level.

A good maize crop with accompanying lower maize prices is good news for the beef industry (feedlots make better money since they are not spending as much on animal food). Bad news has been drought conditions which lead farmers to sell off cattle, leading to an oversupply in the market causing the price paid for beef to drop.

Source: The Beef Market Value Chain Profile at www.dalrrd.gov.za, website of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD); DALRRD’s Abstract of Agricultural Statistics 2021.


The Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) Baseline 2021-2030 reports that the South African beef industry is the second largest contributor to the Gross Value of Production (GPV) of agriculture in South Africa, contributing more than 12% (2018-2020). Over the past decade, the GPV of beef expanded by an annual average of 10%. Despite this, the red meat sector can be regarded as a ‘sleeping giant’.


Useful sources for national information on cattle:




For the newcomer


  • Find the Codes of Good Practice on www.rpo.co.za. These set out steps for the successful cattleman (or cattlewoman).
  • Find the many publications and articles listed under the “Websites & publications” heading.


Beef cattle: the weaning of calves

It is important to decide when and by what means to wean beef calves, because it influences the weaning mass of calves as well as the condition of the cows, and indirectly their conception rates.


  • The major priority in beef production is to produce as many calves as possible. The main objective of weaning is therefore to enable a cow to calve every year by allowing her to regain condition after weaning.
  • Calves are ideally weaned when they are 7 to 8 months old.
  • The right time to wean a calf depends on the condition of the cow and not the age of the calf.
  • Calves should be weaned before the condition score of the cow falls below 2,5 if adequate winter feed is available and the cows maintain their condition. The calves should preferably be weaned before the cows condition score falls below 3,0.
  • During years of drought and poor feed supply, calves should be weaned early (about 6 months), to allow the cow to recover before the onset of winter.
  • It is important that the cow should recover and that the secretory tissue be restored before the next calf is born.
  • In the eastern parts of the country calves born during spring can be weaned early in May at the age of about 7 to 8 months.
  • In the more western parts calves can be weaned late in May or early June at the age of about 7 to 8 months as the breeding season tends to be later in these areas.


Early Weaning:

  • This practice should only be considered during times of severe drought or feed shortages.
  • Calves weaned at a relatively young age (less than 5 months) experience severe setbacks.
  • If the condition of the cow deteriorates considerably before the planned weaning time, the producer must decide whether to – Wean early and supply concentrate feeding to the calf – Provide a roughage supplement to the cows that are still suckling their calves.
  • This decision will depend on the availability and cost of feed. Generally, the feed (mainly concentrates) costs to rear early weaned calves are relatively high. Therefore, feeding concentrates to calves should only be considered during adverse conditions. Methods of Weaning: Circumstances on the farm determine the method of weaning.


The following methods can be used:

  • Keep the calves in a kraal or well-fenced camp and remove the cows to a distant camp, preferably out of earshot of the calves.
  • Remove the cows temporarily from a camp and in their absence move the calves to another distant camp. Cows tend to look for their calves in the camp in which they were last seen and this method should prevent the cows from breaking out of the camp.
  • Exchange calves from two different herds. The calves will then have the company of cows. Some cross suckling is, however, likely to occur.
  • Separate the cows and calves by a strong, close-strand wire fence. This method can reduce weaning stress.
  • Nose plates, commercially available or homemade, can be fitted to calves for 7 to 14 days. These prevent suckling, even if cows and calves remain together throughout the weaning period. When the nose plates are removed the cows and calves are separated, but with relatively little stress.



  • Perform castration, dehorning and branding when calves are 2 to 3 months old, not immediately before weaning. This will ensure that the stress associated with these operations does not add to that of weaning.
  • A few dry cows can be kept with the weaners to calm them.
  • Provide sufficient good-quality roughage, water and shade in the weaning camps.
  • To prevent excessive walking and trampling the camps should not be too large.
  • The weaning process could last 7 to 14 days, depending on the age at which the calves are weaned as well as the breed of the cow.


Source: The Info Pak “Beef cattle – weaning of calves” on www.dalrrd.gov.za 

The Case for NoseRings


NoseRing is an agricultural product used for stress-free weaning of livestock – without having to separate the young animal from its mother. This results in weight gains during weaning for both mother and young. This means healthier, more robust livestock, no damage to fencing and kraals, higher conception rates – and happier farmers!


Feedlotters benefit from purchasing weaners that were weaned using low-stress weaning methods. For more information visit www.nosering.co.za.


Caution: Under no circumstances are home-made devices to be used. Incorrect usage could render farmers liable for prosecution under the Animals Protection Act, 71 of 1962.

The importance of information for adequate livestock marketing

Livestock producers are regularly faced with the decision whether animals should be sold, slaughtered, or kept in the hope for better prices.

Agricultural product prices, and especially livestock and meat prices, are influenced by a large number of variables like feed prices, seasonality, rainfall and product demand; to name just a few. This creates a lot of uncertainty as to when producers should market their animals as well as for making production decisions for upcoming seasons. Hence, these decisions should be based on timely, accurate and transparent market information as they are critical for ensuring long-term profitability.

Unfortunately, this type of information, such as slaughtering numbers and meat prices, is often not readily available to South African livestock producers. This forces the producer to base his marketing and production decisions on inadequate information; which can have significant negative effects on his profitability. The importance of the availability of information is not limited to the producer level.

For the meat value chain to function effectively, there has to be timely and accurate information, including product flow and prices to all the segments of the value chain. It is important to know how costs and profits are distributed along the value chain to ensure the effectiveness of the system, given the very dynamic nature of the industry this is a major challenge.

There are a number of ways in which role players in this sector can minimize production risk. A good starting point is consulting industry experts that are knowledgeable and informed with regards to seasonal trends and current market conditions.

Source: Dr DC Spies, School for Environmental Sciences and Development at the North-West University. Contact him at 018 299 2373 or David.Spies (at) nwu.ac.za. 

Perspectives on incorporating the informal market

An estimated 40% of the national herd is in the hands of communal farmers, who are underrepresented in the beef value chain. The low productivity and unrealised potential here is attributed to (i) there being too many male animals in the herd (55%) and (ii) the low calving percentage (below 35%) (BFAP, 2021). The BFAP Baseline 2021-2030 sets out how matters can be improved: “If the female share in this herd can be increased to 60% and the calving percentage improve to 60%, the number of marketable weaners (70% of production) will increase by 129% or 793 800 animals (33% of SA’s total cattle slaughters for 2020) valued conservatively at nearly R4 billion”.

Refer to “Box 5: Opportunities for inclusive growth in South Africa’s beef sector” in the BFAP 2021-2030 Baseline.


Some role players and initiatives

  • If the Agriculture and Agroprocessing Masterplan (still in the pipeline – 2021) sorts out the issues of identification and traceability for the national herd, export growth can be accelerated substantially, which would enable greater participation from developing producers in supplying additional weaner calves (BFAP, 2020, 2021).
  • The National Red Meat Development Programme (NRMDP) took over from where the Eastern Cape Red Meat Project began in 2005. In 2019/20 it benefitted over 1 000 farmers, generating an income of close to R24 million, and about 3 000 cattle sold in formal and informal markets (NAMC, 2020). It had been a success story until September 2020, after which the ball has been dropped by the NAMC, ARC and DALRRD. Read the Parliamentary Monitoring Group’s minutes on the crisis meeting (2021, May 26) at https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/33079/.
  • The Meat Naturally initiative in the northern Eastern Cape has achieved great success in improving incomes while restoring rangelands.  It is a project under the Umzimvubu Catchment Partnership which consists of several role players: Conservation SA, LIMA, Institute of Natural Resources (INR) and Environmental & Rural Solutions (ERS).
  • Read about the ARC’s Kaonafatso ya Dikgomo (KyD) programme on the “Animal improvement and breeders” page.
  • NERPO (see later “Associations involved” heading) has the mandate “to commercialise the developing agricultural sector and ensure meaningful participation of black individuals within the mainstream commercial agribusiness sector”. Find more at www.nerpo.org.za.
  • Read about the AgriBEE Beef Fund for “assisting Black small holder farmers to actively participate in the value chain of commercial A-grade beef production”at www.berlinbeef.co.za/content/agribee-beef.

The Agricultural Policy Action Plan (APAP) 2015-2019 tackled beef under “The red meat value chain”.

  • To double the production of livestock here and arrive at the commercial potential, APAP saw the following as important: (1) improving the market linkages (2) improving the veld and herd management practised in the communal sector.
  • Support would include preparing communal farmers to meet market requirements, partnerships with the private sector on infrastructure like abattoirs and keeping an eye on competition policy to ensure that no smallholder was unfairly disadvantaged against big, mechanised production units.
  • It saw “inadequate border controls” between South Africa and neighbouring countries as contributing to stock theft, overgrazing and biosecurity risks. The APAP regarded as “critical” the maintaining of the country’s Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) free status. Based on the BFAP outlook for this sector, the APAP saw potential for another 41 100 jobs here. Some trade measures were also identified, like addressing current barriers to exports market among most African states.


News and success stories






National strategy and government contacts

Find the note on the Agriculture and Agroprocessing Masterplan (2020) under the previous heading.

Contact details for and information on all directorates of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) can be found at www.dalrrd.gov.za. Relevant to this page is the Directorate Animal Production.

Associations involved

Red Meat Industry Forum www.redmeatsa.co.za The Red Meat Industry Forum of South Africa represents all the nationally representative role player organisations in the Red Meat industry. Its website is comprehensive, and is for consumers and the industry alike. The website enables the public to access information on news, events and promotions. Also find information on red meat research projects, industry objectives and statistics. Included in its network and structures are:

Member organisations included in the Red Meat Industry Forum are the RPO, NERPO and SAFA (see below).

  • RPO – Red Meat Producers’ Organisation www.rpo.co.za The RPO is recognised as the mouthpiece organisation for commercial red meat producers and represents the highest authority within the red meat industry in terms of commercial producers’ interests in South Africa. Provincial contact details are available on the website.
  • NERPO – National Emergent Red Meat Producers Organisation www.nerpo.org.za The primary aim of NERPO is to commercialise the developing agricultural sector and ensure meaningful participation of black individuals within the mainstream commercial agribusiness sector, hence ensuring the long term sustainability of the agricultural sector in South Africa.
  • SAFA – South African Feedlot Association www.safeedlot.co.za The SA Feedlot Association is an umbrella organisation that addresses collective interests of the South African Feedlot industry which collectively markets some 75% of the total beef produced in South Africa. Read about Q-Sure accreditation on the website.

Grass Fed Association of South Africa (GFASA) www.grassfedsa.org The GFASA was established “to enable primary producers to produce certified GrassFed and/or Free Range meat for consumers” (as opposed to being finished off on a maize diet).

Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa www.regenagsa.org.za Also proponents of grass fed beef cattle farming

Other member organisations are SHALC (see leather); SAFLA (see livestock auctions); RMAA (see abattoirs); SAPPO (see pork); RMRDSA (see next heading) and the Gauteng Meat traders Employees Union (GMETU). All Beef Breeder Societies are listed on the “Animal Improvement & breeders” page.

Visit the “Abattoirs” page for contact details of associations like the Association of Meat Importers and Exporters of SA (AMIE), Red Meat Abattoir Association (RMAA), South African Meat Processors Association (SAMPA) and the South African National Consumers Union (SANCU)

Training and research

The universities offer degree courses on animal production. Diplomas are offered by universities of technology and Agricultural Colleges. The Provincial Departments of Agriculture work closely with the Agricultural Colleges to offer short courses on animal production. Details of all training providers can be found on the “Agricultural education and training” page.

  • Details of AgriSETA-accredited training providers may be found at www.agriseta.co.za.
  • ARC – Animal Production (ARC-AP) www.arc.agric.za Short courses offered include Beef Cattle Management The ARC–AP feedlot at Irene offers facilities for research to all stakeholders in the feedlot industry.
  • Read about the Aldam Stockman School at www.stockmanschool.co.za. Sessions include addresses by keynote speakers and practical demonstrations. Past presentations are also available under “ Resource Centre” .
  • Carnavon Estate, one of Nerpo’s benchmark farms, is used to train farmers and youths in commercial livestock production. Find the Nerpo contact details under the “Associations involved” heading. See also www.nerpo.org.za/index.php/business-arms/nfedt
  • Institute for Production Development c/o RPO
  • PCI Agricultural Services www.pciagri.co.za
  • Peritum Agri Institute www.peritumagri.com National Diploma in Livestock Production
  • Peter Milton Tel: 083 630 8868 Cattle feedlot course
  • Rhodes University Institute of Social and Economic Development www.ru.ac.za/iser See our blog “New study identifies best practice in livestock production and marketing for small emerging farmers” (2021, August 31)
  • The RPO-NAMC Transformation Project trains farmers in cattle marketing.
  • Rothman Livestock Training Services www.rltsafrica.com Contact details in Namibia and South Africa are available on the website.
  • SA Feedlot Association offers Seta accredited Feedlot Training Programmes for members at their feedlots at no cost. Find the SA Feedlot Association unit standards under “training” at http://safeedlot.co.za.
  • Skills for Africa www.skillsafrica.co.za
  • Stellenbosch University Department of Animal Sciences www.sun.ac.za/animal
  • Tshwane University of Technology Department of Animal Sciences www.tut.ac.za
  • University of the Free State (i) Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences www.ufs.ac.za/animal  (ii) Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development and Extension www.ufs.ac.za/censard
  • University of Limpopo Department of Agricultural Economics and Animal Production; Centre for Rural Empowerment www.ul.ac.za
  • University of Pretoria (i) Department of Animal and Wildlife Sciences www.up.ac.za (ii) Faculty of Veterinary Science, Department of Production Animal Studies www.veterinary.up.ac.za

Visit the Red Meat Research and Development South Africa’s (RMRD SA) website at www.rmrdsa.co.za.

There are two formal structures in the red meat industry from which funds are made available for research and development, namely the Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF) and the Red Meat Research and Development Trust (RMRDT). Read about them at www.redmeatsa.co.za.


Companies involved

See this heading on the “Abattoir” page. Software providers are listed on the “Animal improvement & breeders” page.

Contact details for a number of feedlots can be found in DALRRD’s Beef Market Value Chain Profile (see next heading).

Websites and publications

Visit the websites listed earlier on this page.

See if the Directorate Marketing has resumed publishing the annual Beef Market Value Chain Profile under the “Annual publications” on the Directorate Marketing web pages at www.dalrrd.gov.za, website of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD).

Under “Resource centre” on the above website, find these Info Paks: (i) Beef Cattle: dehorning (ii) How to estimate the age of cattle (iii) Beef Cattle: Castration (iv) Beef Cattle: weaning of calves (v) Cattle: Condition scoring of cattle (vi) Methods of tick control in cattle. Also look out for the following: (i) The excellent Agricultural Marketing Extension papers. Paper no. 7 covers Red Meat Marketing (ii) Establishing and managing a small herd of beef cattle (iii) Guidelines for planning and construction of a feedlot (iv) Beef Cattle Management: A Nutritional Focus.

Find Red Meat Marketing, one of the series of Agricultural Extension Training Papers under “Resource centre” and “General publications” at www.dalrrd.gov.za.

Find the many guidelines on beef production on the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture website at www.kzndard.gov.za.

Contact 012 672 9111 – the ARC at Irene – for the following publications: (i) Beef Cattle (complete set of Bulletins, available in Afrikaans or English) (ii) Feedlot Management CD (iii) Beef Management CD (iv) Beef Breeding in South Africa. The ARC at Silverton can be reached at 012 842 4017. The following publications are relevant to this chapter: (i) Handleiding oor vleisbeesfasiliteite (ii) Beef cattle facilities manual (iii) Manure handling in intensive animal production units, written by HT Breedt, edited and revised by F Cilliers. Copyright. 2009.

Kejafa Knowledge Works stock a number of livestock publications. Visit www.kejafa.com for information about books which include the following: (i) Essential Guide to Calving by Heather Smith Thomas (ii) The ABC of Beef Production by Schalk J Viljoen (iii) No risk ranching G Judy (iv) Essential Guide to Calving: Giving Your Beef or Dairy Herd a Healthy Start Heather Smith Thomas (v) Herd Bull Fertility James E Drayson (vi) Getting Started with Beef & Dairy Cattle Heather Smith Thomas (vii) Grass-fed cattle by Julius Ruechel (viii) Natural Cattle Care Pat Coleby (ix) Reproduction and Animal Health C Walters and G Fry (x) Knowledge Rich Ranching Allan Nation (xi) Raising Beef Cattle Heather Smith Thomas (xii) Vleisbees Produksie (xiii) Ranching full time – 3 hours a day (xiv) Grassfed to Finish.

Find the “Red meat” option at www.agriconnect.co.za.

The Savory Institute, www.savory.global, found that grazing animals play a crucial role in combating one of the major causes of climate change – desertification.

Visit www.grassfednetwork.com for information on finishing cattle off on grass rather than on grain.

Nation in Conversation took a look at intensive meat production (2018, September 12). Find “Intensiewe veeboerdery se rol in volhoubaar vleisproduksie” and the earlier overview of the beef industry (March 2017) on YouTube.

There are many other videos on YouTube like  “Cattle”, “How to start a cattle farm”, “Making money with cattle” etc.

V.Reddy, V., Goga, S., Timol, F. & Molefi, S. 2016. The socioeconomics of livestock keeping in two South African communities: a black man’s bank. Available at www.hsrc.ac.za/en/research-data/view/8099

Find the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) Beef Carcass Futures Contract at www.jse.co.za/livestock

Lymberry, P and Oakeshott, I. 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. London: Bloomsbury.

Buy shares in beef cattle. Visit www.livestockwealth.co.za. See also Beeswinkel https://beeswinkel.co.za, an online auctions platform.


Some articles

Read our blog “New study identifies best practice in livestock production and marketing for small emerging farmers” (2021, August 31).

Reporter. 2021, July 29. “Traceability and biosecurity essential for SA’s beef industry”. Available at https://beefmaster.co.za/2021/07/29/traceability-and-biosecurity-essential-for-sas-beef-industry/

Majola G. 2021, April 21. “Beef sector eyes growth of its export footprint”. Business Report. Available at www.iol.co.za/business-report/economy/beef-sector-eyes-growth-of-its-export-footprint-dfef5f5b-4f4c-4285-b7e4-2f847d2d726f

Sihlobo W. 2020, January 30. “Livestock traceability key to driving SA beef exports”. Available at https://wandilesihlobo.com/2020/01/30/livestock-traceability-key-to-sa-beef-driving-exports/

Find the latest articles on the Farmer’s Weekly website, www.farmersweekly.co.za/animals/cattle/ Six examples:

Find the Meadow Feeds technical articles for beef cattle at www.meadowfeeds.co.za/technical-articles/beef/

Reporter. nd. “Livestock farming – calculate production cost per unit”. Show Me Rustenburg. Available at https://showme.co.za/rustenburg/industry/agriculture/livestock-farming-calculate-production-cost-per-unit/

De Bruin, L. 2015. “The ethics of meat production”. University of Pretoria. Available at www.up.ac.za/en/production-animal-studies/news/post_2130821-the-ethics-of-meat-production



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