The wildebeest migrations are possibly the most well-known of all animal migrations worldwide. The white bearded wildebeest, a close relative to our blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) migrate through the Masai Mara National reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park, the Ngorogoro Conservation area and the Maswa Game Reserve, Grumeti Game Reserve and the Korongo Game reserves in Tanzania. Approximately 1,4 to 1,7 million white bearded wildebeest, joined by many Thomson gazelles, zebras and eland, migrate after better grazing year after year.
It is not merely a group of animals moving from one area to another – it is a large, complex ecosystem that survives due to all the role-players playing their part. The role-players being the grass, the herbivores that eat the grass, the carnivores that hunt and scavenge on the herbivores and the general climate that supplies the necessary rain, temperature and sunlight.
Figure 1: An illustration of the wildebeest migration. (Source: The Safari Company)
Plant nutrient quality
The wildebeest migration (Figure 1) can be used to illustrate how plant nutrient quality affects food selection during the cow’s different physiological stages.
Calving occurs in the nutrient rich soils of the Ndutu plains in the Ngorongoro conservation area in the south, the nutrient rich grazing (sweet veld) supplies the animals with the necessary protein, energy and minerals to maintain a good body condition score and high-quality milk. The animals stay in this area from January until the beginning of April.
The main reason for the return of the herd to the north, is dry weather in the south and its effect on the available grazing and water supply. Due to the high numbers of animals in the area, the availability of grass declines as the Ndutu plains enter the dry season.
The limited supply of available standing hay, free standing water and fresh regrowth forces the animals to migrate north to areas with suitable grazing for the lactating and pregnant cows. The herd spends the months of August through to October in the northern parts of the Serengeti and Masai Mara before they return to the south.
Less clay and minerals
The northern parts of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara are characterised by dystrophic soils, with a lower clay and mineral content than the soils of the plains in the south. Grass growing in nutrient rich soils have higher levels of protein, energy, macro and trace minerals and vitamins than the grass growing in the nutrient poor soils.
The greater portion of the adult animals that are migrating, are pregnant with many of them lactating, requiring a food source high in nutrients. Green grass is generally more nutritious than dry grazing, so animals will generally migrate to areas where it is raining.
The Serengeti, Masai Mara area is characterised by two areas with green grazing, the nutritious Nduto plains in the south and the Masai Mara woodlands of the north. Due to the Nduto plains having more nutritious grazing than the poorer grazing found in the north, the cows will spend approximately three months in the south, building reserves, producing milk and getting ready for the northward leg of their journey back to the woodlands of the Masai Mara.
On the farm
The aim of any game farmer breeding wildebeest, is to maximise animal production on the available rangeland. Producers need to keep in mind the physiological stage of the animal (for example, maintenance, early or late pregnancy, growth etc.) requiring differing levels of nutrients.
When feeding blue wildebeest, three questions should be borne in mind:
- Which particular nutrients do the animals need on a daily basis?
- What is the animals’ physical living environment, a zoo/boma (enclosure), camp or a game reserve, with what edible grazing available?
- What is the long-term goal of the enterprise – breeding, hunting, tourism or a combination of two or three of them?
Wildebeest are categorised as ruminants, who eat approximately 2 to 2,5% of their body weight on a daily basis (dry matter intake). A wildebeest cow who weighs around 160kg, will eat between 3,2 and 4kg of dry grass on a daily basis. In this amount of grass the animal must obtain the necessary amount of energy, fat, protein, minerals and vitamins required for its particular physiological state.
In determining how much of a particular nutrient is required, the National Research Council’s NRC Beef 2016 can be used as a guide. To improve accuracy in terms of supplying the correct amount of nutrients, the animal’s weight, age, sex, being pregnant, in milk and number of calves can help fine tune a feed suitable for the enterprise.
The physical location
Assuming the animals’ enclosures/camps are large enough and they have high quality water and suitable roughage, please ensure the purchased or mixed feed is suitable for the particular animals within the enclosure or camp.
- In camps where there is enough edible grazing, supply approximately a third of their total intake.
- Supply a suitable supplement in meal, pellet or block form.
- In camps where grazing is limited, supply approximately two-thirds of their total intake.
- Supply a supplement in the form of a meal or a pellet together with suitable high-quality hay in a separate bowl.
- Mix a semi ad lib feed, and supply it at approximately two-thirds of their total intake in bowls. The animals will get the last third of their intake from the grass in the camp or enclosure.
- In camps, bomas, zoo camps where there is no natural grazing, supply their total intake.
- Supply a supplement in the form of a meal or pellet together with suitable high-quality hay in a separate bowl.
- Mix a semi ad lib feed, and supply it at approximately two-thirds of their total intake in bowls, place ad lib hay in a hay rack or bowl for belly fill.
- Mix a full feed, supplying the animals with all their needs in a bowl.
Feed bowl management
When using a supplement where the manager must ensure the correct intake of products such as pellets, licks and self-mixed meals, it is advisable to follow the suggestions below.
- A rule of thumb where both male and female animals have horns is to place a bowl per animal and for every four animals an extra bowl. Multiply the recommended intake (from the manufacturing company) with the number of animals. Divide this number by the number of bowls and place that amount in each bowl.
- Place the bowls 2,5 animal lengths from each other in a rectangular chess board like fashion.
- Only feed the animals when they are near the feed bowls. This prevents some animals from eating first and a group later. The animals that come first will eat most of the supplement, and the other animals get little or nothing.
- If feed is left over, feed that amount less the next day.
- In camps where there is a lot of space, move the feed bowls daily or every second day, not all the bowls but the last bowls of each row. Move them to the front of the line (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Feed bowl placement and movement suggestions.
Keep feeding simple
When feeding supplements, follow the more bowls than animals approach, rather than feeding semi ad lib and total mixed feeds, where it is possible to use fewer bowls because there will be less competition for the feed. When using licks or meals with high levels of salt that help inhibit intake, fewer bowls can be used.
Keep feeding simple, supply a well-balanced mineral lick in the green season and a well-balanced protein, energy and mineral supplement/semi ad lib feed in the dry season.
The main indication that your feed programme works, is a cow giving birth to a healthy calf every year. The second indicator is the condition and growth rate of the calf in relation to its mother, and lastly the mother’s body condition. The best combination is a cow in a good condition, producing a healthy growing calf every year. – Craig Shepstone, Stockfarm
Contact Craig of Wildlife Nutrition Services on 083 305 1380 for more information.