A fodder bank requires careful management

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The production and maintenance of a fodder bank as insurance against unfavourable farming conditions, is particularly relevant during times when large parts of the country are subject to drought. But what is a fodder bank, and how should it be maintained?

Stockfarm spoke to a few prominent farmers in different parts of the country to find out how they manage a fodder bank. They are Gerrit van Zyl, a prominent Bonsmara breeder from Dewetsdorp, Uys Willemse, a dairy farmer, and a Dormer and Tuli stud breeder from Heidelberg in the Southern Cape, Jan van Zyl, a well-known Brahman breeder in the Northern Cape and North West, and Bok van Zyl, a farmer from Bethlehem in the Eastern Free State.

Stockfarm: How would you define a fodder bank?

Gerrit: It entails feed that is ‘stored’ to sustain your herd until the next growing season. It can include bales or foggage in the form of rest camps.

Uys: A fodder bank exists when I’m able to store six months’ worth of feed for the coming months until we can start harvesting or make silage again.

Jan: A fodder bank is an attempt to make provision for unforeseen circumstances. We perform an annual evaluation of the available dry material during the first week of May when the rain season is over. We cut blocks of edible material at strategic points, which we then weigh.

Based on this, we can calculate how much edible material is available in each camp. Assuming that cattle ingest 3% of their body weight per day, I can determine how many grazing days are available in each camp.

Bok: My definition of a fodder bank is that it is insurance against drought conditions when natural grazing is sparse.

Stockfarm: What method do you use to determine how much feed to keep in your fodder bank?

Gerrit: In our region of the Southern Free State I save a third of the camps as a fodder bank for a full year (August to July). Technically, this is grazing that can last for four to six months in a twelve-month cycle. I don’t think anyone would ever be able to have a large enough fodder bank for prolonged drought.

Uys: My criterion for Merino ewes is 200g per ewe per day for six months and 650kg (one bale of small grain silage) per cow per month for my dairy cows.

Jan: I determine how much roughage I have available on the veld, as this gives me an indication of how many cattle I can take through the winter. This is where an ox farming enterprise comes in handy – if necessary, you can sell your oxen quickly to make room for productive animals. My ox farming branch comprises a third of my cattle farming enterprise. If I do get rid of my oxen, I will immediately have a third more grazing at my disposal. The next step is to get rid of older and less productive animals.

We weigh all our animals four times a year. I therefore have a very accurate idea of ​​how much feed I need and how many kilograms of meat I have.

My godfather, Stephen Radley, taught me an important lesson. He said a drought will first take your saved veld, followed by your savings. Then it devours your hopes and your dreams. You cannot afford to lose the last two things. He also said that you will only be able see who learned from the previous drought when the next one arrives. My feed debts for the 1988 drought was only paid off in 1996. I have no feed debt for this drought.

Bok: You must be able to feed your animals for at least six months.

Stockfarm: Which feed do you consider the best to keep in your fodder bank given your conditions?

Gerrit: For me it’s natural grazing. It is the cheapest fodder bank available.

Uys: Barley or triticale kernels, and barley silage for the sheep. For the dairy cows, on the other hand, it is oats and canola, which are good for milk production.

Jan: My fodder bank consists of roughage in the veld. If you calculate how much roughage cattle ingest, namely 3% of their body weight, then a 500kg animal ingests 15kg a day. This means 5,4 tons per year and 540 tons for 100 head of cattle. Buying such vast quantities of feed is impractical and expensive.

Bok: A high-protein feed type that can be cultivated economically and that provides the highest yield per hectare.

Stockfarm: How do you manage your fodder bank to keep feed fresh?

Gerrit: This is easy since I rest a new third of my farm each year. As a result, my fodder bank remains fresh.

Uys: The small grains are stored in the silo, and the silage is wrapped in plastic and placed in rows.

Jan: I utilise my veld for grazing. Except for the reserve veld I retain as a fodder bank, I would rather buy extra land with more available grazing than buy in feed or rent land. Rented land and feed are very expensive during a drought cycle, but land prices are in a downward phase.

Bok: Always use the oldest feed first.

Stockfarm: How do you decide that your fodder bank’s monetary value is more than the animals you want to feed? When do you therefore sell your animals and the feed for the best financial outcome?

Gerrit: This is the most difficult question for a livestock farmer. My cattle will always take precedence. We are optimistic and therefore keep our animals for as long as possible. I think if you monitor your grazing days constantly and stick to a drought plan, you can go far before you start running into serious trouble.

Uys: If the climate permits it and there is enough grazing until the next harvest, I will sell half of my feed.

Jan: I calculated how much it would cost me to run 350mm water through a pivot. It turned out to be approximately R5 000 per hectare. I can buy a farm at R5 000 per hectare with the Lord’s rainfall for one year. This is the approach I follow to determine the value of a fodder bank.

Another important factor to keep in mind in sweetveld areas is that you cannot trek from sweetveld to sourveld at any given time. You must time it correctly so that you can move your animals at the start of spring.

The most important lesson I learned during the drought cycle was that I was on my way to alienating my family and losing myself. I discovered that there are some things that money can buy, but the really important things cannot be bought. And it is precisely these things that we tend to neglect.

Bok: Rather sell the animals and feed when the value of meat decreases and before the animals lose too much condition. Feed will always be in demand.

For enquiries, phone Gerrit van Zyl on 083 325 3047, Uys Willemse on 082 787 5831, Jan van Zyl on 082 444 5222 and Bok van Zyl on 082 807 4616. – Izak Hofmeyr, Veeplaas