The benefits of ecological beef cattle farming

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Dr André Mentz, animal scientist and author of the book, Ecological Cattle Farming – A roadmap to sustainable cattle farming, says that ecologically friendly beef cattle production is now more important than ever, yet is largely ignored in favour of intensive systems. This is to the detriment of both the producer and the sector at large.

The benefits of ecological beef cattle farming
Ecological cattle farming is not new to South Africa, yet is misunderstood by the large majority of participants in the beef cattle production value chain.
Photo: Dr Jack

Beef cattle production can be defined as a chain of three manageable processes: resource conversion, product conversion and money conversion.

Resource conversion involves the transformation of sunlight into animal fodder through effective veld and grazing management practices. Product transformation is the change of animal fodder into red meat by means of effective and sustainable production systems.

And the conversion of money is the transformation of red meat into red meat products, paid for at the end of the process by the consumer.

Although seemingly straightforward, the modern cattle production industry finds this difficult to grasp.

Ecological cattle farming is not new to South Africa, yet is misunderstood by the large majority of participants in the beef cattle production value chain.

It is typically called ‘commercial cattle farming’ or ‘extensive cattle farming’ and refers to a cattle farming operation on natural veld. The word ‘sustainable’ is what counts here, not ‘ecological’. But the concept of sustainability, too, appears not to be fully understood.

Influence of agri media
The lack of appreciation for ecologically sustainable and profitable cattle production is exacerbated in part by the South African agricultural media.

By far the majority of articles that appear are of little or no value to commercial beef cattle production, and true yield studies are largely ignored.

Most of the writing comprises ‘nice’ stories about specific production enterprises or the promotion of specific beef breeds, selection and performance traits, supplementation and breeding technology.

What is ecological farming?
An ecological cattle farming enterprise comprises a demarcated area in nature, developed into camps, for the purposes of utilising the veld in a grazing system. In such an area, plants exist in symbiosis with the climate, wildlife, soil type and micro-life in the soil.

The demarcated area also accommodates a cattle herd, the size of which is mostly determined by the area’s carrying capacity.

The ultimate objective is the sustainable production of optimal beef yield per hectare from the veld.

The efficient utilisation of ecological systems, that is, effective and sustainable red meat production in harmony with nature, is the cattle producer’s greatest challenge.

It can be attained only by a sustainable cattle production system, the best-adapted cattle breeds and a holistic management structure. This forms the foundation of cattle production.

However, because of so-called scientific advancements and the disregard for ecological and sustainable cattle production, the values of the beef cattle industry have become warped.

Intensification, considered ‘scientific’, forms the core of modern beef production as we know it, and the integrity and inherent worth of ecological cattle production is not recognised in South Africa.

Know your breeds
A prime example of the industry’s warped understanding of beef cattle farming is breed selection.

If the South African authorities had forbidden the importation of cattle breeds from the northern hemisphere 100 years ago, and encouraged creative beef cattle farmers to select only indigenous breeds, today we could have boasted the finest ecologically sustainable beef production systems in the world.

Indigenous African breeds do not fare well under intensive cattle breeding practices. With the importation of exotic breeds, South Africa lost the opportunity to focus on low-cost practices at farm level.

Instead, billions of rands were wasted by breeders importing these large animals. These breeds are not suited to ecological cattle farming and their presence shifted the focus away from sustainable, ecologically responsible production.

This subsequently caused a move away from the true objective of beef cattle production: the optimal production of beef per hectare.

The most acceptable beef breeds for ecological cattle production are those cattle types adapted to deliver the maximum number of kg/ha of beef under South Africa’s extensive farming conditions.

Optimal performance is not a factor and the large imported breeds are certainly excluded from this list. The importation of exotic breeds is the direct result of the cattle industry’s inability to grasp this basic principle.

Profit from within
Producers need not look outside the borders of their own farms for opportunities to increase profitability. Profitability does not depend on extra licks, new cattle breeds, crossbreeding or highly rated breeding bulls.

Rather, it relies on proper management based on resource, product and money conversion. I believe that the combination of proper veld management practices with adaptable animals, such as Nguni-type cattle, is the answer to long-term sustainable and profitable beef production.

The beef cattle fraternity is overwhelmed by propaganda about breeding traits and advice on animal improvement based on breeding values and images of stud animals, more often than not representing grain-fattened animals.

All this has nothing to do with red meat production per hectare, and only results in bigger, more gluttonous animals. Feedlots, embryo clinics, animal improvement schemes and stud cattle sales represent the highest level of artificiality possible in cattle husbandry.

This is where most of the money in the industry is circulating, and the most important entity in the structure and value chain of cattle production, the cattle producer, is subjected to distorted information.

Time for change
The current situation of intensive and, to a certain extent, industrialised beef cattle production cannot be allowed to continue unabated.

The time has come for the establishment of an organised structure to promote ecologically sustainable red meat production in South Africa. A structure such as the SA Grass-fed Beef Association and the international Slow Food movement will play an enormous role to inform and educate producers about the merits and long-term sustainability of ecological cattle production. – Annelie Coleman