Applying veld management techniques to survive seasonal dry spells

2 April 2024

During a farmers’ event hosted by Duncan Serapelwane, Riaan Dames, a seasoned pasture specialist with more than three decades of experience in veld management, imparted valuable grazing management advice. The event took place at farm Taylor Span, just outside Heuningvlei village near the Botswana border in North West.

Riaan said farming principally serves as a means of livelihood, so the primary objective is to ensure profitability in your operations. “While love and passion for the land may be other reasons for farming, these reasons are secondary to making a living,” he said. Farming offers a better quality of life than city living, but it also comes with higher risks.

Riaan emphasised the importance of grazing management for farmers, particularly in unpredictable climate conditions. According to him, proper veld management techniques can prevent farmers from being affected by a temporary drought. “It will be a problem if it persists for a few more seasons. But the good news is that they already predict that next season will be back to normal or even be above normal,” he said.

Livestock farming involves using grass to produce meat. Therefore, as a livestock farmer, you are a grass farmer. “Your cattle are like harvesters, but if you neglect your grass you won’t have any meat to sell.”

To succeed in grass farming, farmers need to understand the factors that contribute to grass growth and how to maximise that growth, he said. This is crucial for increasing carrying capacity and when seeking finance, as lenders will evaluate grazing capacity to determine whether or not to provide funding based on the number of livestock the land can support. “Remember, grass is to a livestock farmer what food is to humans,” said Riaan.

Managing your grazing is crucial, particularly during seasons like this when the drought may compel many farmers to de-stock. It is essential to take care of your grazing so you can guide your animals through dry seasons without the need to de-stock. De-stocking can be costly, because prices are low during a drought but shoot up after the recovery when you have to restock. “The idea is to ensure that as many animals as possible can survive through a drought,” Riaan explained.

Grass, much like human beings, needs rest. When it is grazed too low, the roots are affected and this results in poor growth. For the plant to be fully productive, it needs sufficient rest. “In the past, animal migration allowed for this to happen naturally. However, now that humans have interfered with nature by putting up fences and drilling for water where it doesn’t occur naturally, a good farmer needs to mimic nature by rotating their cattle and allowing the grass to rest properly.” 

The longer the cattle stay in a camp, the longer the grass needs to rest. “Research suggests that if animals are grazed in a camp more than six times in a season, the camp will need a year of rest for proper recovery,” said Riaan. “Otherwise, the grass production in that camp will fall by about 50%, which degrades the grazing and carrying capacity.”

This research also indicates that if a camp is grazed minimally and allowed to rest for a year, grass production can double. Basic grazing management ensures there are parts of your farm that can rest for a year or two, if you have enough land. This does not mean the camp cannot be utilised; but grazing should be minimal.

Riaan said controlled burning can also be a part of your management plan, but it should be used strategically and not indiscriminately. “Burning should be done occasionally, not annually. Additionally, it’s important to control the growth of bushes, as having too many can reduce your carrying capacity.”

It is important to create a grazing plan and establish a plan for fodder flow. Efficient grazing and fodder management are critical components of a comprehensive production plan. Budgeting effectively means having a comprehensive understanding of your spending habits, including knowing when and on what you will be spending your money. Neglecting to budget properly can have a significant impact on your financial situation. Since cattle sales are not a frequent event, it is essential to budget carefully from your sale in order to manage your finances until the next sale.

In addition to managing grazing, the type of animals you raise on your farm also plays a significant role. The key to converting grass into beef lies in having animals that are both adaptable and productive. The type of animal you raise plays a significant role, as it must have the ability to convert all of its consumed kilograms into beef in order for you to see a return on investment. The more adaptable the cattle, the more productive they are. If your business revolves around selling calves, it is essential to have a steady annual supply of calves in order to stay afloat. 

If you have 10 000 kg of beef on your farm, to stay profitable you must produce 3 000 kg a year. On average, 30% of your total production is expected to be sold. Skilled farmers can reach 40-50%. “The ideal cow should have a high level of productivity while grazing and require minimal supplementation. Avoid overspending on bags of feed or supplements in order to keep your animals productive,” said Riaan. 

If your cows fail to conceive with a bull within two to three months of calving on the veld, it may pose a problem. For those living in areas with minimal rainfall, it’s best to avoid keeping large-framed animals that demand ample amounts of feed to stay in good shape.

In the past, the main priority was to improve and increase milk production in order to raise heavier weaned animals. But this does not take into account the trade-offs involved. Increasing the pressure on your animals for higher milk production ultimately leads to higher maintenance costs. To sustain high milk production, a larger organ mass is necessary. “When people inquire about milk production, I always advise against trying to exceed the natural limitations set by your environment,” said Riaan. 

“Choose a cow that can produce a 210–220 kg calf every year without requiring additional feeding. In my experience, a smaller cow tends to be more efficient in a drier climate than a larger cow. While large cows are generally acceptable, they thrive best in areas with plentiful rainfall and superior grazing.”

Riaan also explained the importance of getting to know your market and consistently supplying what it needs. “Putting your weaners in an auction ring and seeing them sell for R10 less than others is a clear indication that you are raising the wrong animals.”

You can watch the video of Riaan Dames’s presentations on our Videos page. <>

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