Communal livestock farming (Part 2): Management of cattle

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

  • Cattle farming in communal areas is linked to tradition and culture. Improving sustainability is therefore very complex and often misunderstood by consultants.
  • Generally, the calving percentage in communal areas is very low. In some areas many calves die from diseases that could have been prevented.
  • A lack of resources prevents farmers from investing in vaccines, dips and drenches, and the small scale of herds makes using normal-sized packages (50 to 100 doses per bottle) very expensive.
  • Nightly kraaling of livestock creates an ideal opportunity to drive cattle through a footdip and apply insecticides and treatments for skin diseases such as ringworm and Senkobo disease, which is very common.
  • The key to improved productivity is to increase the calf weaning percentage – identification of cows and recording their calving records is the first step.

Cattle farming in communal areas is linked to tradition and culture. Improving sustainability is therefore very complex and often misunderstood by consultants. Emerging and communal farmers are often advised to introduce ‘superior’ genetics, with breed societies, government agencies and well-meaning donors often assisting these farmers to change to highly productive breeds.

Read the first article of the series here.

The animals arrive in the communal areas in very good condition and their genital soundness appear to be excellent. However, after the first winter on the sourveld communal grazing their condition score is below the level considered to be good enough for reproduction, they are covered in ticks, have probably suffered an episode of footrot, and bulls’ testes are so small that most veterinarians will take one look and declare them infertile.

Generally, the calving percentage in these areas is very low. In some areas many calves die from diseases that could have been prevented. Nightly kraaling increases the risk of footrot, scours, skin diseases, eye infections, and ticks and lice spreading. Yet, if the correct practices are followed, kraaling could also be the solution to these problems. Improving the sustainability of communal cattle farming will require a new way of thinking.

Find out more about the latest ruling regarding the keeping of livestock here.

Reducing the risk

Disease prevention is a key component of reducing these risks. A lack of resources prevents farmers from investing in vaccines, dips and drenches, and the small scale of herds makes using normal-sized packages (50 to 100 doses per bottle) very expensive.

As a mitigation measure, service providers could start co-ordinating the use of vaccines so that containers can be shared among the herds in a village. Traditional leaders can be involved in co-ordinating the process. Government and aid organisations could also provide these vaccines on a loan basis and recycle the funds by retaining a percentage of sales through the formal channels. Examples exist in Brazil where extension officers working for government agricultural agencies distribute production inputs and then deduct the cost when it is time to market the animals.

Nightly kraaling of livestock creates an ideal opportunity to drive cattle through a footdip and apply insecticides and treatments for skin diseases such as ringworm and Senkobo disease, which is very common. Aid agencies and government focus on communal kraals for dipping; however, filling a large dip tank can be costly and requires intensive organisation. On the other hand, a small cattle race at each kraal, where a footbath, hand spray and pour-on remedies can be used, would be far more effective in controlling diseases.

Read more about cattle branding here.

A vaccination programme is usually drafted for commercial farmers and is based on a fixed breeding season. Calves on commercial farms are born over a period of 40 to 60 days and can be vaccinated in batches. In a communal area, bulls are active year-round, and calving is more spread out. It is therefore necessary to record calf births and vaccinations. Farmers know their cattle very well and can even provide birth dates and pedigree information, but vaccination records, especially dates, are often incorrect by as much as a year.

The key to managing this is to use pre-printed numbered tags that will facilitate the planned livestock identification and traceability system (LITS). Without identification, communal cattle will in future not be allowed into the formal system. A unique LITS number can be printed on the tag – tags can also feature marks that denote vaccination records, or the actual vaccination programme can be printed on it. Many examples exist where the lambing or calving history is recorded by a notch on a plastic tag. The LITS roll-out could assist in this process and will greatly enhance the marketability of livestock.

We have been providing a sponsored community service to communal and small-scale farmers where every cow is tagged, vaccinated, pregnancy checked and age recorded. Proper records are kept, and every farmer is given a printout of these records. This could be implemented on a countrywide scale by government and other services. What is needed, though, is an agreed-on plan of action based on the proposed LITS.

Read more about the Sernick Group’s recent farmer development event here.

Code of good practice

Good agricultural practices prescribing safe and ethical handling are often not applied in communal herds because of a lack of skills and facilities. Training and skills transfer should be top priority and based on a universal code of good practice that can be accepted by all role-players in the value chain. Without this, rural farmers will be increasingly excluded from the market.

We have been performing procedures and treatments on communal livestock for a number of years and have seen a great willingness among communal farmers to accept good practices. The control of serious diseases and ethical standard requirements will be greatly enhanced by making a ‘Village Code’ part of all extension and veterinary services.

Improving productivity

The key to improved productivity is to increase the calf weaning percentage – identification of cows and recording their calving records is the first step. This will enable veterinarians and other service providers to identify infertile cows (usually the very large-framed breeds), bulls failing to get cows pregnant, and sexually transmitted diseases that reduce the calving percentage.

The practice of introducing genetics that requires high levels of nutrition to achieve fast growth and heavy weaning weights should be discouraged. There are several factors influencing the choice of breed, but adaptability to the communal grazing environment should be the overriding principle. Formally recording body condition score (BCS) is the most practical way of identifying animals that maintain a good BCS through the winter and during lactation. By identifying ‘superior’ cows, their bull calves could be identified as replacements bulls.

Read more about malignant catarrhal fever here.

Viable marketing efforts

Marketing calves and old cows are a serious challenge for communal farmers. Livestock agents are not prepared to pay good money for a few calves at a time, as it is challenging for them to load these calves onto large trucks that are unable to navigate the badly maintained rural roads. Keeping good records of cows’ pregnancy status in a village could provide the information to co-ordinate marketing efforts. Agents could be asked to tender, or a local stock sale can be arranged.

The implementation of a communal tagging and record-keeping system can also improve the value of calves. Our experience is that many calves in communal areas are produced in a way that is close to organic. LITS could enable using this as a branding and marketing exercise. Just imagine finding ‘certified beef from a sustainable village production system’ in shops. (The Brazilian government extension model even went as far as exporting meat to European restaurants, which printed the source on their menus, by facilitating this type of production process.)

Preservation of grazing

The preservation of communal grazing is probably the biggest challenge. Yet there are examples of sourveld in high rainfall areas that is in excellent condition despite continuous grazing.

Assisting farmers to keep records, reducing the length of the calving season, and improving productivity will make it possible to persuade village farmers to leave a quarter of their available grazing to rest for a growing season. This will require leadership and good co-operation between local traditional leaders, farmers and service providers.

A permanent solution

The future of communal farming will be bright if there is a co-ordinated plan making it possible for government, aid agencies, commercial suppliers and private individuals to join forces with village farmers. A standard data list could provide the data required to deal with challenges, and LITS could be the vehicle to provide this data so that role-players can launch a co-ordinated support effort.

Table 1: Standard data collection for cows.

DataExplanation
Cow identificationTag number, type and colour.
Owner 
Cow body condition scoreThis could be based on the five-point BCS.
Cow teeth ageSuckler, weaner, yearling, 2-tooth, 4-tooth, 6-tooth, 8-tooth, old (50% worn), worn and overworn.
Cow pregnancy status2 months, 3 months, 4 months, 5 months and more, point of calving.
Treatment appliedThis is determined by an agreed health plan.
Person servicing 
Observations and advice 
Village/locality 

Institutions looking to serve the community can also adopt villages, and if a practical, standard procedure is agreed upon and managed by the government, things could improve dramatically. – Dr Johan van Rooyen, Steynsburg Animal Hospital

For more information, phone Dr Johan van Rooyen on 082 463 3087 or email veearts.sdh@nokwi.co.za, or phone Wandile Khave on 066 303 627.


Communal livestock farming (Part 3): Grazing management in commonages

The greatest challenge that livestock farmers in rural areas face is the availability of grazing throughout the year. Rotational grazing and resting are the tools that make it possible to produce livestock on grazing that has a seasonal availability.

Read more here.

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