Rangeland management for better grazing

More grass equals more cattle

05 August 2021 | Agriculture

KIRSTY WATERMEYER

OKAHANDJA

A Namibian farmer is proving the benefits of holistically managing farmland for better cattle farming results.

“The more grass you have, the more cattle you can keep,” says Hendrik Botha, a Namibian farmer who has been practising holistic rangeland management and bush thinning since 1996 on his farm Agagia, north-east of Okahandja.

When Botha started, his farm could only stock 670 head of cattle, whereas now that same farm has the capacity to carry 1 400 head of cattle and, as Botha explains, “more cattle means higher profit margins”.

Using a combination of rangeland management together with bush thinning, Botha has increased his farm stocking rate from 25 kg/ha to 45 kg/ha of live weight.

Standing among wide stretches of tall grasses, interspersed with indigenous trees on farm Agagia, a sight often very different on many neighbouring farms, Botha says, “I win the Meatco Producer of the Year Award every year in March/April. This is because I still have grass on my farm in these months when other farmers do not.”

How Botha developed his rangeland

With low rainfall in most of Namibia, rangelands are constantly under pressure. As a result, many farmers have adopted various rangeland management approaches.

Botha uses two key strategies: bush thinning and camp rotation to allow for recovery of the land.

“The holistic management of land is a process; it does not happen overnight,” says Botha.

“Bush thinning involves the selective removal of invasive or encroaching tree species such as Acacia mellifera (Blackthorn or Swarthaak) and Prosopis in order to allow the grass to grow, but this does not mean that the grass will grow overnight.”

According to Botha, farmers do not just need grass; they need palatable grass as cattle are selective grazers that prefer the annual to the perennial grasses, but they also need grazing during the annual grasses’ dormant phases.

“Cattle will eat selectively until the grass species they prefer are grazed to the ground. This removes all the growing energy from the grass. Annual grasses are usually not able to recover from this,” he says explaining the dangers of bare ground and how it can lead to the land needing many years of recovery time.

Botha practises rotational grazing by dividing his farms into camps and rotating his cattle between the camps. This allows grass to recover.

The science of holistic rangeland management

Survey mapping provides a clear picture of the benefits of Botha’s approach, especially during times of drought, where aerial mapping showed Farm Agagia carrying better rates of herbaceous biomass than neighbouring farms.

As Dr Cornelis van der Waal of Agri-Ecological Services explains, Botha was part of a test group where they tested satellite technology to estimate the quantity of grazing at the end of the rainy season.

“I think Botha’s success is attributable to his successful bush control and outstanding, continuous observation of grazing conditions, on which he bases his management decisions.”

According to Van der Waal, if farmers want to copy Botha’s grazing management approach, there is not a ready-made recipe.

“He developed his approach over decades and frequently adapts his management plan. If you wanted to start, the steps would include getting to know the natural resources on your farm, as well as ecological constraints such as level of degradation.”

The next step would be setting up a monitoring system so that you can track improvements and setbacks of rangeland and animal production.

“Then determine if the farm's infrastructure is adequate for the grazing strategy applied. I also recommend choosing a mentor to help with decisions such as stocking rate adjustments, animal production system to use and obtaining a realistic view of the farm's potential.”

Van der Waal says the weak links and threats in the production system chain must then be identified and proactively addressed within the financial means of the farm.

These may include addressing problem areas on the farm requiring special treatment, a marketing strategy during drought and addressing bush encroachment.

Every year one must then adapt management as monitoring data and new information becomes available. The National Rangeland Management Policy and Strategy would also be a good starting point, as it explains the principles involved in good rangeland management.”

Botha advises farmers to imagine what their farm can look like.

“By developing an image of what your farm can look like, you create something to work towards and you can start putting steps in place to achieve that. Evaluate grazing regularly, know the rangeland management principles and apply it consistently.”

He believes that educating farmers on the concepts of bush thinning, combined with holistic rangeland management, will change many views and intentions and improve Namibia as a whole.

“If farmers work with a mindset of conservation, they will be much more successful as their practices will become sustainable rather than destructive,” says Botha.

Van der Waal further advises that if someone wants to follow the holistic management fraternity, a good starting point would be the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. Another good resource is the Bush Control Manual available on the De-bushing Advisory Service website.