"Many cattlemen produce at less than 50% of their potential because their animals are not being managed sustainably. Production costs are increasing, carrying capacity is declining and veld is degrading. In addition to this, politics in Southern Africa creates economic and social consequences that farmers can’t ignore.”
This was the introduction to Johann Zietsman’s sustainable cattle production course, attended 20 farmers, and held over three days in January in Middelburg in the Karoo. He has a BScAgric degree in Animal Science and 40 years of cattle ranching experience in Zimbabwe where he tested his methodologies.
In addition, he gained considerable sustainable farming knowledge in South Africa, Namibia, the US and Australia. He also credits Jan Bonsma, Tom Lasater, Allan Savory and Stan Parsons for the knowledge he has gained.
Johann’s 800ha farm in Karoi, Zimbabwe, which had an official carrying capacity of 4MLU/ ha, was taken away from him. He continues to live in Zimbabwe on a smallholding outside the town of Chinoi. However, because he could no longer farm, he started presenting courses and consulting farmers in Southern Africa on how to achieve the maximum sustainable profit per hectare.
Johann provided encouraging alternatives for farmers to double, treble and even quadruple their cattle numbers, at the same time rehabilitating their veld with ultra-high density grazing (UHDG).“A low stocking rate can produce nice-looking individual animals but is not good for the veld or the pocket,” said Johann.
“The beauty of sustainable production is that a farmer can increase stock numbers without renting or buying more land, which is not a secure option in the current political climate.
The capital invested in farm land in South Africa is extremely high and a farmer should be cautious of depending on an increase in the land price as the main investment, which has been the trend. Using what there already is more productively, or selling some of it and introducing a far more productive system on the remaining land, is a better option,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable standing here talking to you if I hadn’t done it myself.” Johann’s analogy and rationale for UHDG is as follows: "If you have a certain number of cattle in a feedlot and give them all the food they can eat in one pile, they will eat ‘x’ amount per animal. However, if you feed them every two hours, they will eat ‘x-plus’ per animal because the food is fresher."
“In the north of Zimbabwe, where I come from, we would get 1 000mm rain in four months. The grass grew incredibly quickly and there was a lot of it, but 86% of my farm was covered by the unpalatable and fibrous grass Sporobolus pyramidalis. The far more palatable grasses, such as Setaria species, were in the minority. Severe capping of the soil also took place in the dry season,” he explained.
“I had to find a non-selective grazing method to graze down the grass, soften it and break the capping of the soil to give the palatable grasses in the seedbed below the space, air and sunlight to emerge and establish themselves. At the same time I needed to maintain condition and production of my cattle.”
“The problem is that when animals that are accustomed to grazing selectively are put into such a system, under pressure to graze non-selectively with the aim of improving the veld, their condition declines.”
“I realised that my commercial Beefmaster herd needed indigenous African genetics, such as Nguni and Angoni, to develop into a smaller, hardier type that copes well on less nutritious veld and has a natural resistance to parasites and disease.
“This would produce a smaller but heavier cow (250kg to 450kg) with a higher intake relative to its size. In other words, an animal that can take in a lot of grass in a short grazing period.“
This went against conventional selection which favoured large, 600kg cows. “The problem with selecting for large cows is that it goes against efficient growth and weight gain – the larger the animal, the more energy it requires for body maintenance and only then does it start gaining weight. Because of this, large-framed animals lose condition more quickly,” he stressed.
“Performance, whether for a stud breeder or a commercial cattleman, is not about feeding animals so that they grow big. It’s about animals that perform well on the veld at lower nutrition levels. It’s about bulls that sire fertile female progeny that can gain condition under less nutritious conditions.
While thriving under more nutritious conditions, animals that can’t cope in a less nutritious situation lack adaptation and will lose condition under anything but optimal nutrition,” said Johann.
“We should therefore rather select for hardiness, efficiency of growth, parasite and disease resistance, easy care, suitability to climate and, most important of all, fertility.”
Johann put a Mashona bull, similar to a Nguni, on his cows and subsequently introduced Angoni and Boran. The hybrid vigour from cross-breeding African breeds with British or European breeds produced strong, resistant cattle that gained weight well.
“If you are a stud breeder, you would want to keep your breed pure. But the same criteria for cow and bull selection apply,” he added. “When it comes to bull selection, what you need is a ‘short wheelbase 4×4’ bull. In other words, a shorter-legged, stockier body type masculine bull that gains weight fast and reaches sexual maturity early – its frame stops growing, but it continues to gain weight.
It will not grow into a big bull, the type that has come to be regarded by far too many breeders as the ideal. But this is not as efficient on veld. I am convinced that some of the best bulls have been slaughtered and some of the best genetic material has been lost because of breeders who don’t regard them as ‘big enough’. This ‘bigger is better’ trend is based purely on perception and fashion rather than on performance.”
Oxen and productive cattle can be used in all systems, provided the condition of the productive cattle is maintained. If they start dropping in condition, productive cattle must be moved to more nutritious camps or supplemented with a bypass protein such as copra. Supplementary protein licks are necessary if cattle are run on dry winter veld or on veld with a high percentage of tough, lignified and/or moribund grasses.
In terms of heifer selection, Johann follows the same principle: shorter, stockier animals, early sexual maturers. “I suggest that a cattleman puts all the heifers to the bull at 15 months. The ones that calve at two years and quickly reconceive and calve again are the best heifers. This is what I consider a true performance test – it focuses on growth relative to size and fertility. Most performance tests do not even look at fertility. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
He introduced an ultra-high density, quick rotation grazing system on his farm in January 1995. “I used single-strand portable electric fences – the most cost effective system – to divide the 800ha into grazing strips of 0,3ha. I used 95 cattle to graze the grass right down in the strip, moving the cattle to a fresh strip every two to three hours,” he explained.
He would then leave the grazed strips open for cows with calves to come through at their own pace, but because of the fresh grass ahead, the herd kept moving forward. He would then rest each grazed strip for a period of time, depending on conditions.
“The African grasses have evolved under a natural system of heavy use by vast herds of grazing animals, but they need time to recover. This is essential. If a plant is grazed again before it has had time to recover, it becomes weaker, as is what happens under continuous grazing or poorly managed rotational grazing.”
The time grasses need to rest depends on the environment, he stressed. Drier environments require longer recovery periods. “Within one week of introducing my UHDG system I realised that I needed to double the stocking rate,” continued Johann. “Two years later I trebled it.
Then 10 years ago, when I left the farm, I grazed the cattle in small camps at a stock density of 1 000 – 5000 MLU/ha for about one to two hours, resting them for three weeks to one month in the growing season with one grazing in the non-growing season. As the soil fertility and diversity of good grass species had improved so much, the cattle’s condition improved accordingly.”
He monitored his grass species over several years. In 1995, 86% of the species were unpalatable, 9,5% semi-palatable and 4,5% palatable. One year later, 46% were unpalatable, 28% semi-palatable and 26% palatable.
“The combination of grazing, hoof action, dunging and urinating on the soil improved species’ diversity and soil fertility, with earthworms and dung beetles increasing in great numbers,” said Johann. “More arid areas such as the Karoo would take longer to rehabilitate, but the potential is greater,” he added.
Using his farm as an example of the system, Johann emphasised that a farmer had to work out what worked best under the specific environmental conditions along the high to UHDG continuum. He recommended that a farmer create grazing strip tests to experience the results firsthand. He acknowledged that many SA farmers had labour problems, but explained that once the system had been established, it is so simple that the farmer or one good worker could manage it.
Some Karoo farmers have derived significant benefit from subdividing large camps into 20ha to 40ha units, grazing herds of 300-plus cattle on each for two to five days in the growing season and longer in the non-growing season, then resting it for several months. This is regarded as high density grazing.
Other farmers use a combination of systems, using ultra-high density grazing as a tool to strip-graze sections of the land with unpalatable species. Johann urges cattlemen to time breeding seasons so that the cows calve as close as possible to the month after the rainy season.
“Cows that calve at this time of year will be in better condition and will reconceive faster for the type of inter-calving period you want to achieve,” said Johann. He is no slave to high weaning weights. “A 45% to 50% weaning weight is fine. Cows with too much milk may sacrifice body condition and can take longer to reconceive,” he explained.
“If you follow these tried and tested sustainable livestock production principles, you gain more than you would ever have believed possible. It’s very exciting and it works.”
Contact Johann Zietsman on 00 263 772 365 515 (Zimbabwe) or 083 356 4008 (SA) or email [email protected] •FW