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- The greatest challenge with communal livestock farming in rural areas is the year-round availability of grazing.
- Sourveld is highly palatable and nutritious in early summer when it is young and green, but as it matures and forms seed, it becomes less palatable with a very low nutritional value in winter.
- Continual grazing takes its toll on quality and quantity, but poisonous plants, consisting mostly of pioneer species, increase and often make vast areas of land risky for animals.
- Veld needs to rest and therefore rotational grazing is imperative. All the negative effects of continual grazing can be reduced dramatically in the sourveld regions by excluding a portion of the available grazing on a rotational basis every summer.
- Limitations to implementing rotational rest are water sources, fencing and handling facilities.
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.
Sweetveld and sourveld
Many communal areas experience harsh winters with low winter rainfall and severe frost, leading to poor quality feed for the animals. The communal grazing areas in the east of South Africa have high rainfall and well-drained soils; this combination leads to a mix of species known as sourveld. Sweetveld is more common in the western parts and usually grows in areas with lower rainfall, and where the soils contain more clay.
Sourveld is highly palatable and nutritious in early summer when it is young and green, but as it matures and forms seed, it becomes less palatable with a very low nutritional value in winter.
Communally grazed rural areas in the east consist mainly of grassland and have the potential to produce a lot of feed due to the higher rainfall. Saving the grass in summer does not contribute much to the availability of foggage in winter because of the loss of nutritional value.
Factors affecting veld productivity
However, grazing sourveld will continually reduce the production of seeds and deplete root reserves. In time, the plants get smaller and less productive. The problem of footpaths and erosion in areas where the grass cover is destroyed causes much harm to the environment. Sourveld produces more feed than sweetveld, but it loses value in winter; sweetveld in turn produces less feed, but it remains valuable in winter. Sourveld can withstand overgrazing and continual grazing, whereas sweetveld deteriorates rapidly.
Continual grazing takes its toll on quality and quantity, but poisonous plants, consisting mostly of pioneer species, increase and often make vast areas of land risky for animals. The most common grass species that grows in damaged areas is Cynodon dactylon (commonly known as kweekgras or couch grass), a well-known poisonous grass that leads to livestock mortalities due to its cyanide content. Many other local plants that are poisonous will increase in damaged grazing.
Annual lambing in communally grazed areas is usually a disaster in the making since there is no feed for lactating ewes. Ewes mostly lamb in mid-winter when the sourveld has very little protein and is highly indigestible. If a winter lick (a source of energy and protein) is supplied, sheep and cattle can utilise the sourveld foggage a lot better. It has been observed that the survival of lambs improves from 10 to 70% by simply supplying blocks of winter lick to ewes as they come home to sleep in the kraal every night.
Grazing with a goal in mind
Veld needs to rest and therefore rotational grazing is imperative. All the negative effects of continual grazing can be reduced dramatically in the sourveld regions by excluding a portion of the available grazing on a rotational basis every summer. This will allow the grass to produce seed and replenish its root reserves, thus making the plants more viable. Grasses will also start to regrow in footpaths and trampled areas around water sources.
How can this be accomplished in rural areas? Around towns, the grazing areas are often subdivided into commonages and some adjoining farms. It would be ideal if the local authority, stock owners and extension officers can come to an agreement to exclude one of these areas every year, for example September to March. Ideally, these camps should be rested every three to four years, but even if it is longer, the positive effects will be seen.
Camps or parts of the commonage that do not have access to drinking water are often found to be in excellent condition, whereas the camps next to rivers, dams and boreholes are in poorer condition. The visible and potential damage to the environment justifies a drastic intervention by rural authorities’ traditional leaders and agricultural officials. Keeping good records of lamb and calf production and deaths from malnutrition will provide the evidence that less is more – reducing livestock numbers and saving some areas on the communal land will improve the sustainability of communal farming practices in the peri-urban areas.
In the village where there are no fences separating the grazing areas in use, the answer for village farmers could be to exclude parts of their available land every summer – if they will agree to it. Holistic management practitioners who follow the principles advocated by Allan Savory have stopped using fences as a means of controlling where animals graze; instead, they make use of herdsmen to take livestock to the grazing area daily. If village leaders could agree on a four-year rotation plan, it would contribute greatly to more profitable livestock production.
Limitations to implementing rotational rest are water sources, fencing and handling facilities. The local government and the Department of Agriculture are already providing support in many ways, and if a grazing model can be negotiated so that a section of land is allowed to recover, it will improve sustainability.
A challenge experienced in both the peri-urban and village grazing areas is the presence of powerful individuals – often with large herds – who do not comply with community decisions. One possible solution to this problem is for ‘herd health and production support’ supplied by the local authority or the provincial Department of Agriculture, to be made conditional upon participation in a village grazing plan. The implementation of a livestock identification and traceability system (LITS) could also assist in giving livestock owners, who are part of a village plan, access to markets.
Most villages have a committee managing the dipping tank and there is co-ordination during the shearing period. These committees could agree to exclude a quadrant of the village area every year.
Opportunities to improve grazing
There are many aspects relating to the practice of kraaling animals at night that could facilitate grazing management. Livestock are taken to the grazing and fetched from it every day. These animals are tame and used to being herded by a herdsman on foot or on a horse. It could be possible to arrange for these herdsmen to decide whether or not to rest certain areas or camps.
Livestock owners often complain that the licks they put out for their animals are stolen. It is therefore better to supply licks near or in the kraal every night. In summer, when there is ample green grass, a phosphate lick will be of great benefit, especially to cattle. In winter, a lick containing protein and energy will assist in consuming and digesting the poor quality sourveld.
Most of these licks contain urea that could be toxic if kraaled animals are hungry. It is therefore safer to let them ingest the lick before entering the kraal. It is then also possible to put out enough lick for the day, for example 400g of Dundee lick per cow per day. – Dr Johan Van Rooyen, Steynsburg Animal Hospital
For more information, phone Dr Johan van Rooyen on 082 463 3087, Wandile Khave on 066 303 6271 or email email@example.com.