Healthy soil ensures healthy cattle


By Digital team | 17 October 2017
cattle; nguni; vibriosis
Photo: Willem van den Berg

The Speedy family have been keeping a watchful eye on their veld for three generations and after all these years they firmly believe in two things: high-density grazing and Ngunis.

They are often referred to as the “crazy English folk” says Jennifer Speedy, but that doesn’t worry them. Because these farmers can clearly see an improvement in the veld on their farm about 50km west of Vryburg in the North Wet province of South Africa, where Jennifer and her dad Sandy farm with Nguni and follow a holistic, or high-density grazing system.

“These are the two most important factors for us: the veld and the soil. On our farm, our goal is to make sure the veld and soil are in the best possible condition.”

The Speedys of Zoetvlei. From left: Jennifer, Sandy and Monica. Photo: Willem van den Berg

This has been the goal for many generations of the Speedy family. Sandy’s grandfather, Robert George Speedy, was a doctor who emigrated from England and started a practice in Wepener. During the First World War he served in Europe.

Upon his return to South Africa he bought the farm Zoetvlei west of Vryburg in 1919. Even back then, his son Gilbert was concerned about the condition of the veld and soil. He started to build up the plant resources on the farm. Sandy recalls that he and his father (Gilbert) began to rotate their cattle between different camps after meeting Edgar Matthews, a farmer from Alice in the Eastern Cape and author of the influential book Tukulu.

“He was the first farmer we came across who rotated his animals. Edgar called it the ‘slow rotation grazing method’. Back then, farms didn’t have camps and Edgar started off by using a four-camp system.”

Gilbert and Sandy increasingly became interested in the effects of grazing methods on the veld and soil. They created more camps, thereby grazing the land more heavily but also resting it for longer periods.

“We read books such as Holistic Resource Management by Allan Savory and Grass-Fed Cattle by Julius Ruechel, joined study groups that applied high-density grazing and also attended courses, including those presented by the American, Kirk Gadzia and Savory, a grazing expert from Zimbabwe . It seemed to be the only answer to improving the veld because the usual way of farming was not beneficial for the soil,” says Sandy.

Goal: 1 LSU/ha

When Jennifer joined them on the farm 23 years ago, they began to apply high-density grazing in earnest. The camps were further divided into wagon wheel systems consisting of anything from five to 20 camps with one watering point. Not all the camps were equal in size but were more or less 20 ha. The herds were systematically increased.

All the herds are moved every morning – without the help of farm workers. Photo: Willem van den Berg

“In the beginning we were worried that the veld in the narrow parts of the camp, near the water, would be trampled too much and would become bare. But it was in those parts that we noticed the biggest difference. This was where the veld recovered the quickest and best,” says Sandy.

It has taken more than 20 years to see a difference in their veld, says Jennifer. “Only once we’d reached the point where we were grazing 50 head of cattle per hectare, could we see the impact on the soil and the veld, and the subsequent difference in the recovery of the veld. This happened in about 2000.”

This is consistent with the findings of retired farmer and ultra-high density grazing expert Andre Lund, who says you will only see the difference in the veld once a certain animal impact-level has been achieved.

The Speedys say the carrying capacity in their area is 6-8 ha for a large stock unit (LSU). At the moment they are farming at 3.4 ha/LSU.

“We know that we have not reached our veld’s full potential. I want to gradually increase the herds and aim to eventually have 1 LSU on 1 ha,” says Jennifer.

Simple structures

While accompanying Jennifer and Sandy to the lands to move a herd of 500 cows to the next camp early one morning, it was surprising to note that they take no workers with them to help. When we arrived at the camps, the cattle were already waiting.

All Jennifer had to do was open the ‘gate’ (which consists merely of two electrified tyres) to the next camp and to count the cattle as they walked through the gate.

She says they usually move their herds every morning, but can leave the cattle in a camp for longer if the camp is bigger and the herd is maybe smaller.

“The biggest task and major expense of this type of high-density grazing system is building the camps, so we have simply erected two electrified wires for the new camps,” says Sandy.

“And for gates we use these tyres. It may not look as neat as the usual fences and gates, but it also doesn’t cost us a few hundred thousand rand.”

The most important factor when so many cattle graze together is the water, says Sandy. There should always be more than enough available and cement troughs must be nice and big and must fill up quickly.

Each camp system has a big enough reservoir which is kept full of water by means of windmills or mono pumps.

New grass species

It is clear to see the impact of the cows on the veld in the camp when they leave it.

A camp from which Nguni cows have just been moved. The trampled veld and loosened soil is exactly what they want because it absorbs rain much better. Photo: Willem van den Berg

This part of the farm is sandy and the soil has been well turned over. The grass is dry, but has mostly been grazed. A lot of the grass has been trampled by the cattle and now lies flat on the ground. The entire camp is covered with dung pats. Sandy shows us that the dung is soft and not hard and dry.

“This shows me that the cattle’s digestion is working very well, even on this dry veld. And that’s an important factor that we have noticed over the years – that our grass is improving all the time. It is more palatable and easy to digest, even grass that we previously thought was unpalatable, such as Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana). We have also seen new grass, such as spotted brachiaria (Brachiaria nigropedata) emerging.”

Effects of drought

The trampled veld full of dung pats is exactly what they want, says Jennifer.

“The loosened soil absorbs rain much better. This water will immediately soak into the soil and won’t run away like it does on hard ground. All the manure and plant material lying here becomes part of the soil once again. Like compost. It feeds the soil and builds up the carbon content, while the organisms in the soil ensure healthy soil. And it ensures that the veld is healthy. Actually, we are farming with soil micro-organisms and we try and keep them happy.”

In the camp where cows are now grazing, another improvement in the veld is clearly visible: there are very few bare patches of soil.

“The many hooves on the veld and the loosened soil stimulate the growth of the existing veld, but also stimulate new growth. Where we used to have clumps of grass, we now have much denser grass and our soil is covered much better,” says Sandy.

He says they had good rain last summer. Before the rain, it was very dry. Farmers in the North West province have taken great strain due to the severe drought over the past three years.

Jennifer says that they reduced their numbers a bit just before the good rains by selling their oxen. She believes they could actually have persevered. They did not feed their cattle. The only lick they gave them the entire year was phosphate and salt. Sandy says that shrubs such as brandy bush (Grewia flava) and camphor bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus) helped a lot during the drought.

Why Ngunis?

“Nguni have adapted over many years in Africa. They are completely at home here. These days, we still try and adapt European breeds to our conditions. Why? We have cattle that originate here. It seems to me we are making things much more complicated when we should just keep it simple,” says Sandy.

Nguni have adapted over many years in Africa. Photo: Willem van den Berg

Jennifer adds that they can keep more Ngunis than other cattle because they are smaller and have less impact on the veld. And they utilise the shrubs better than other breeds.

“We have tried other breeds and have also used other bulls with our Nguni cows but we had too many problems,” says Jennifer.

“Jackals preying on the new-born calves was one such problem. This doesn’t happen with the Nguni. I have seen eight jackals circling an Nguni cow and her calf, but they didn’t get a chance to come close to the calf. And we had far too many birthing problems when we used other bulls with the Nguni cows. So today we only farm with Ngunis.”

The Speedys say that the pregnancy rate is slightly lower in such large herds. However, they are satisfied with their average of 75% cows covered by bulls. Calves are weaned at seven months. The heifers are put to the bulls at two years of age and if a heifer does not conceive, she is sold immediately. The oxen are slaughtered at three years of age.

Jennifer says they usually have three herds – cows, heifers, and bulls and oxen together – with each about 500 strong.

“Sometimes, however, we run the cows and heifers together to have a bigger impact on the veld. Then the herd can consist of little more than 1 000 animals.”

Bulls are put to the cows and two-year-old heifers in February and kept with them until the end of April. The calving season is December to February. In the past year, 78% of the cows fell pregnant.

“Very few calves are stillborn. It really is usually only one or two,” says Sandy. “We also lose about 15 calves to diarrhoea. They are medicated for it, but we still lose a few. Especially on hot and dry days.

“And of course, the abattoirs penalise us for our Ngunis because their carcasses often weigh too little. We get up to R4/kg less. But our input costs are much lower and we sell more animals than we would with an ordinary farming enterprise and other cattle,” says Sandy.

Sandy adds that Nguni meat is the type of meat the consumer is looking for. “It is not too fatty and the animals are not fed rubbish and injected. They come straight from healthy veld.”

He also believes the high meat prices over the recent period has forced consumers to look for cheaper alternatives.

“We can rather reduce the price and sell more. It is, after all, our job to feed the nation. But I know farmers won’t like that idea.”

Meat rebellion

In the early 1990s, the Speedys were also dissatisfied with the meat situation in South Africa. Sandy says that everything in those years was controlled by the Meat Board: the purchases, the prices and also where meat was sold.

He and a group of farmers wanted to prove that the consumer would rather buy directly from farmers and not from butcheries and shops controlled by the Meat Board. They took meat processed on their farms to a butchery in Johannesburg where one morning in one part of the butcher they wanted to sell their farm’s meat and in the other part the butchery would sell its meat. The concept made the radio news the night before and the next morning people stood in queues a few kilometres long outside the butchery to buy directly from the farmers.

“Our meat didn’t even reach the butchery. We ended up selling straight out of the back of the refrigerated truck,” says Sandy.

This mini rebellion was broadcast on TV news that evening with a clear message from the public: “We trust farmers and want to buy from them directly.”

Sandy says Dr Kraai van Niekerk, the former Minister of Agriculture, organised a big meeting shortly afterwards to discuss the issue with farmers.

“The farmers completely took over the meeting and Van Niekerk said at one point: ‘This meeting is not turning out the way I want it to.’ Things began to change after that and the Meat Board later lost its control over the farmers’ meat.”

Today they sell most of their meat at the Vryburg abattoir but will sometimes contact agents of other abattoirs to get better prices.

A farmer with a difference

Jennifer Speedy with a herd of weaners. She doesn’t farm differently because she’s a woman but rather because she’s a Speedy. Photo: Willem van den Berg

Sandy and his wife Monica say they always knew Jennifer would become a farmer. They have three other children, two daughters and a son, all of whom love the farm, but it was Jennifer who as a child always played with her plastic farm animals and always had a keen interest in farming.

Jennifer says the fact that she is a woman initially made things much more difficult.

“The workers were not accustomed to working with a woman and even less to taking orders from a woman. Until they saw that I knew what I was talking about, that I knew what I was doing and that I could do what they did. I can also load a bag of lick onto the pick-up truck and fix broken implements.

“The livestock agents also regarded me with skepticism. One was very angry when he came here to load cattle and I told him he may not use his cattle prod. He was very surprised to see how calmly, but how quickly we load the animals onto the truck.”

But she doesn’t farm differently because she’s a woman. She farms differently because she’s a Speedy: she loves the land, the veld and the animals. Which is why there are oxen on the farm that are older than three years of age and have names like Pie Face and Jelly Bean.

“They were hand-reared. We couldn’t send them to the abattoir. They will be slaughtered later here, on the farm,” says Jennifer. “Now you know why we are called the crazy English folk.”

ENQUIRIES: Jennifer Speedy, email: jenniferspeedy@gmail.com, cell 073 192 9855

  • This article was written Willem van der Berg and originally appeared in Landbouweekblad.