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- Vast areas of the Eastern Cape and other parts of the country are suitable for livestock and crop farming. The households in those rural communities usually consist of grandparents and children who attend local schools while their parents work in faraway towns or cities.
- The fertility ratio of the herd or flock animals farmed in these areas is generally good and most cows and ewes conceive and give birth. However, their offspring are often underweight due to a lack of nutrition during late pregnancy, usually in winter.
- The lack of vaccines, supplemental licks and other remedies during the year leads to a very low survival rate, resulting in only a small percentage of the calves and lambs being useful for breeding.
- The kraaling of animals is commonplace and an effective method with few animals being lost. Another advantage of kraaling is that livestock are normally very tame due to frequent handling.
- Government extension officers and other aid agencies often assist these communal farmers by purchasing rams and bulls from stud breeders in a bid to improve the quality of communal farmers’ herds or flocks.
In this first article in Stockfarm’s new series on protocols and lessons to support communal and emerging farmers, we focus on livestock farming in South Africa’s communal areas where the future of sustainable communal farming rests on the decisions these farmers make today. We will be looking at the pros and cons of communal farming practices, opportunities and lessons learnt to farm sustainably.
Vast areas of the Eastern Cape and other parts of the country are suitable for livestock and crop farming. The households in those rural communities usually consist of grandparents and children who attend local schools while their parents work in faraway towns or cities. Those who do farm are mostly elderly and depend on a pension or grants. They manage on a small scale with limited access to resources such as machinery, money, feed, remedies and even labour – all of which leads to production problems.
No scheduled production
The fertility ratio of the herd or flock animals farmed in these areas is generally good and most cows and ewes conceive and give birth. However, their offspring are often underweight due to a lack of nutrition during late pregnancy, usually in winter.
When cows and ewes calve and lamb, they often lack sufficient colostrum, meaning that calves and lambs do not receive enough antibodies to protect them against infectious diseases – a lack of immunity and resistance to parasites is the norm. The quality and quantity of milk is also insufficient for the proper growth and development of young animals.
Many of these problems could be overcome if the mating season could be managed, but without fences and camps to keep bulls and rams away, the calving and lambing season cannot be controlled.
Cash flow issues
Every year during December, family members return for the holidays to take part in traditional ceremonies (for example, young men going to initiation), and animals are slaughtered for these events. While there is more money readily available and more people to help with the farm work, it is already too late to rescue the lambs born in June and the calves born in October and November.
The lack of vaccines, supplemental licks and other remedies during the year leads to a very low survival rate, resulting in only a small percentage of the calves and lambs being useful for breeding. One communal farmer in the Lalies (rural areas) summed up this low survival rate as follows: “The expenses are direct – right now. But the income is indirect – it comes much later”.
Possibility of organic production
December is marked by an uptick in farming activities in these communities. Livestock are treated for external parasites, vaccinated and castrated by the able and strong young visitors. Kraals are fixed using cut poles, the land is ploughed, crops are planted, and vegetable patches are treated with manure from the kraals. Hardly any pesticides and fertiliser are used, and the maize and vegetables harvested are mostly organically produced.
While dryland maize is subjected to pests and disease, substantial amounts are still harvested and sold at good prices to local shops and kept for own use. Livestock, including pigs and poultry, often get their share of the organically produced grains. This raises the question of whether the Lalies have a strategic advantage to commercial producers who often are not in a position to engage in organic farming because they do not have access to organic feed for their livestock.
The kraaling of animals is commonplace and an effective method with few animals being lost. Another advantage of kraaling is that livestock are normally very tame due to frequent handling.
Kraaling does have some negative aspects, however. Kraaled animals are often exposed to years of accumulated manure that can lead to footrot and sheep scab, lice and tick infestation. Internal parasites normally do not spread in kraals, except for some bankrupt worm species that can survive in compost heaps. Newly born lambs and calves can also contract navel cord infection and subsequent liver abscesses and joint ill.
Controlling the aforementioned conditions is fairly easy when animals are brought to the kraals daily. Something as simple as a footbath at the kraal entrance can be implemented to keep footrot at bay and to treat already infected animals. Animals with external parasites can be injected for sheep scab or treated with pour-on remedies in the kraal, and a hand-spray disinfectant can be applied to young animals’ navel cords every morning to protect them against infection.
Most of the kraals are subdivided and can easily be adapted to allow for different practices (for example, putting out supplements for pregnant cows or ewes). The required licks and supplements can therefore be given to the animals that need it most. In one case where licks were provided, the lamb weaning percentage was 70% compared to between 10 to 20% in previous years.
The female animals in the Lalies are often bought from other farms, including from commercial producers who are not subjected to the same constraints as those communal farmers face. It is a necessary step because of the low survival rate of female offspring, which are not selected or bred for this management scenario.
These areas are often full of beautiful, uncastrated rams and bulls. However, they seem to lack breeding capacity and because of the small size of herds and flocks, inbreeding can be a problem. The bought-in sires are often cull animals with some defects or poor breeding values. An even bigger problem is the fact that these animals are adapted to environments that are vastly different to that of the Lalies. They may be much bigger, fast growing and require higher levels of nutrition to perform. Our experience is that these animals often exhibit immunity and fertility issues.
International literature advises the introduction of improved genetics to the rural under-resourced farms from a commercial producer point of view. In fact, commercial ram and bull breeders utilise this channel to sell animals that are not marketed via their normal channels. The question is, will these high-producing animals make it in the Lalies?
Government extension officers and other aid agencies often assist these communal farmers by purchasing rams and bulls from stud breeders in a bid to improve the quality of communal farmers’ herds or flocks. An unintended consequence is, however, a reduced survival rate in this much more restricted environment. Parasites and disease are also a much bigger challenge with these so-called superior genetics. Communal farmers may produce the odd good specimen, but generally the production system becomes less sustainable.
A focus on solutions
In the articles that will follow, we are going to look at possible solutions to the challenges mentioned:
- How can we improve the scheduling of breeding seasons and cashflow?
- Do communal farmers have a market advantage in making use of near-organic production methods and how can this be exploited?
- Can kraaling practices assist in controlling diseases and nutrition to help improve sustainability?
- How can we develop improved genetics that will suit communal small-scale farmers? – Dr Johan van Rooyen, Steynsburg Animal Hospital
For more information, contact Dr Johan van Rooyen on 087 551 2783 or email@example.com.