How to graze your veld

To make money from livestock, you need to know how to graze your veld effectively. Yet choosing the right grazing system for your farm can be tricky and expensive. Here’s some advice.

The advantages of moving animals in a structured way when grazing were already known in England and Germany by the 1800s. In South Africa they were not really considered until the widespread drought of 1933.

For decades after that, the management of veld was aimed mainly at preventing soil erosion and desertification caused by overstocking and overgrazing. Only later would the focus switch to using animals to improve the veld in such a way that the nutritional needs of livestock could be met.

Grazing systems range from rather simple two- or three-camp low intensity grazing systems for dry areas with low rainfall to highdensity, quick rotational systems in which areas are grazed intensively for very short periods of time by a large herd only once or twice a year.

Continuous grazing methods like those often seen on communal land are of course also a grazing system, but for these to be successful, grazing animals must be moved by herders according to the condition of the veld – something that unfortunately doesn’t seem to happen as much as it used to in the days when youngsters like a youthful Madiba were tasked to look after herds and flocks.

Generally, what you as farmer are trying to achieve by managing your veld is the following:

■ To ensure your livestock farming is profitable in the long term by stimulating the vigorous growth of good quality veld in the form of perennial grasses, broad-leafed herbs, shrubs and trees. But be careful not to stock too lightly (keep too few animals), because then animals may constantly eat only the best, most palatable plants and avoid the more unpalatable feed that they also need.

This selective grazing is one of the biggest dangers of livestock farming. Not only will it eventually degrade your veld as the better plants are continually grazed by animals, it will also result in lower production per animal over time.

The veld cover should always be in line with what can reasonably be expected in any specific area, with bare patches as well as unpalatable plants limited to an absolute minimum.

■ Enough resting periods should be built into the system to ensure there is always enough feed, especially in dry periods.

■ Livestock must be managed and herded actively to graze the veld productively and sustainably. Remember, you need the correct type of animal for the best results. Animals should be adapted to your area’s vegetation and should be stocked in the right numbers. Smaller-framed animals, for instance, are generally more productive on natural veld than large-framed animals.

■ To graze your veld successfully, you must know how to balance the needs of your animals with that of the veld. You must also be able to recognise any changes in the veld that you need to respond to, like invasive bankrupt bush and other unpalatable vegetation that suddenly make their appearance.

■ Do not forget the money you need for infrastructure. Roads, gates, fences and handling pens, as well as water pumps, reservoirs, pipes and drinking troughs can be expensive. One of the most important concepts of grazing veld is that it needs to rest long enough after being grazed or burnt.

Not resting camps frequently or long enough can result in unpalatable, woody plants destroying your valuable grazing and lowering your grazing capacity to the point where you can’t keep enough animals to make a profit.

Veld also needs to rest long enough to produce seed and establish seedlings, while giving established grass tufts time to grow and produce more leaves, while rebuilding root reserves for the next growing season in spring.

Veld needs to rest after rain, when plants start growing again after a dry period, or after winter, when they are at their most vulnerable. In the Karoo, autumn and winter rains promote the shrub component of the veld, whereas later rains help the grasses.

Always get expert local grazing advice, especially if you are new to an area, from experienced neighbours (just ask, you’ll be surprised how helpful neighbours can be!). Alternatively, visit your nearest agricultural research institute. They will help you assess the condition of your farm, establish a realistic stocking rate and suggest the best kind of animal or combination of animals to keep. Bear in mind that game, cattle, sheep and goats all graze differently.

The best veld-grazing systems are those that give you the most flexibility. Often you want to use a combination of methods, depending on your short-term goals. For example, parts of your farm may need more rest than others, while some could do with more intensive grazing.

Also build into any system strategies to manage your livestock at various stages of their life cycles. Pregnant or gestating ewes need more attention and better fodder than dry stock like oxen and wethers (hamels).

In most parts of the country a lack of rain and hot summers make any progress with veld management a slow process, and it often takes a lifetime to restore your veld to optimal condition. However, having some form of grazing plan is always better than having none.

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