University of Pretoria (UP) graduate Dehan Kukkuk has been appointed to take on one of the most complex jobs in agriculture in South Africa: heading the Eastern Cape Red Meat Producers Organisation (EC RPO) in the province with the largest number of livestock in the country.
“The EC RPO and organised agriculture, in the form of Agri Eastern Cape, have partnered to improve animal disease management and drive red meat production in the province – this is what I have been appointed to lead,” says Kukkuk, who obtained a BSc Agriculture degree in Animal Science from UP in 2021.
The 24-year-old, who hails from Bloemfontein, says he’s always wanted to be involved in agriculture and farming, adding that he chose to study at UP because of the excellent reputation of its Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. “Also because I needed some life experience away from home and to meet new people,” he adds. “The people I met in my four years at UP will be with me for life.”
His previous position, which was his first job after graduating, was in the pork industry as a farrowing house manager on a Topigs Norsvin (a swine genetics company) nucleus farm in Mpumalanga.
“Biosecurity in the pig industry is far ahead of biosecurity in cattle, sheep and goats, and I believe I can make an impact in this regard,” Kukkuk says. “One of my first goals is to work with the national Animal Health Forum to address several pressing issues, including vaccination availability; biosecurity; and the control of the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth – which have a devastating effect on our farmers and livestock markets.”
There is a major livestock vaccine shortage in the country, he adds.
“Where possible, we are helping farmers in the Eastern Cape to access vaccines, while putting pressure on government to approve the registration of private manufacturers so that they can get into production.”
Kukkuk says that registration applications from the private sector for the production of vaccines for diseases such as bluetongue and African horse sickness have gone unattended for two years.
“Farmers are struggling on the ground as bluetongue is a major problem for sheep farmers in the Eastern Cape who are reliant on the government-run Onderstepoort Vaccines, which has been facing production and supply problems.”
In terms of contagious disease control, Kukkuk says that far stricter regulations at livestock auctions need to be implemented as animals are transported from numerous farms and areas.
“We are in the process of implementing a properly regulated Agri Eastern Cape traceability programme with ID tags and brands so that if an animal carrying any disease is found at an auction, we can immediately trace it back to the specific farm,” he explains. “We also have new ID tags with a barcode for rapid traceability, but a normal tag and brand works as well. By law, animals need to be tagged or at least branded, and this is compulsory when they are transported. The auctions also need to ensure that the truck drive-throughs and footpaths are properly sanitised to prevent the spread of disease.”
Kukkuk says they also want to share knowledge about on-farm disease recognition and control on a regular basis with all commercial and communal farmers in the Eastern Cape.
Livestock in the former Transkei is on his radar as there is very little government support for communal farmers in terms of the provision of veterinary support, vaccinations, the management of breeding and herd health, and compulsory regular dipping.
“We are working hand in hand with the Animal Health Forum; the forum is in close contact with the national Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, which is responsible for supporting farmers.”
The head of this department, Minister Thoko Didiza, attended a meeting of Transkei farmers in March and pledged that support is on its way. The communal farmers have heard this many times, Kukkuk says.
“We don’t have the funds to support the communal farmers, but we are trying to help where we can,” he adds. “Ultimately, we want to create a database of Transkei farmers, and we’ll be working on this with organisations such as the National Wool Growers Association [NWGA], which has longstanding livestock improvement, market access, and training and mentorship programmes with communal wool farmers in the Transkei and greater Eastern Cape.”
Another issue that Kukkuk hopes to address is how to create accessible markets for free-range or grass-fed livestock in the Eastern Cape, which is the low-carbon alternative to industrialised feedlots.
The meat classification system favours the feedlot weaner market. Farmers get better prices by sending cattle to feedlots at about seven months (called weaners) rather than raising them on a farm and selling them to the abattoir at three years or more.
“We understand the farmers’ frustrations and we are having ongoing discussions about this, and thinking about how best to benefit grass-based farming,” Kukkuk says. “In May, we’ll be doing roadshows in many areas in the Eastern Cape together with the NWGA, and we welcome input from farmers. We want them to experience the benefits of the new EC RPO structure.”