Animal health crisis in the Northern Cape

Sexually transmitted animal diseases and a lack of vaccines are the foremost challenges facing Northern Cape livestock producers. Annelie Coleman asked Dr Koos Louw, chairperson of the provincial Red Meat Producers’ Organisation’s (RPO NC) Animal Health Forum, to explain.

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Currently, how big is the livestock industry in the Northern Cape in terms of the area occupied by smallstock and livestock?
This is a very difficult question to answer since little or no recent data is available. The provincial Department of Veterinary Services is currently conducting a census of the animals in the province, but it will be quite some time before this data becomes available.

Moreover, livestock imports from Namibia, and the fact that a considerable number of animals produced in the Northern Cape are slaughtered in neighbouring provinces, makes it exceedingly difficult to determine the full extent of the province’s livestock industry. Having said that, the Northern Cape certainly has the largest population of smallstock in South Africa.

Has the province’s livestock herd increased or decreased over the past 10 years, and why?
There has definitely been a sharp decrease in stock, especially smallstock, numbers. This has been due mainly to predation and stock theft, which has forced smallstock farmers to switch to cattle and/or game farming. The boom in exotic game breeding has also resulted in many farmers changing their stock operations to game farming.

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The severe drought of the past three years reached its peak this year, and 2016 has been the province’s driest year since 1905. This has had a devastating effect on livestock farming. The fact that both emerging and commercial farmers received scant government drought aid has also added to the decline in stock numbers.

Considerable hectares [that could have been used] for smallstock farming were lost to the expansion of the Tankwa Karoo, Kgalagadi and Karoo national parks. The SKA [Square Kilometre Array] project also resulted in the loss of 130 000ha of prime stock land between Williston and Carnarvon, which represents the loss of 16 000 breeding smallstock units and effectively means a production loss of 288t of red meat per year, and an annual loss of R16 million to the provincial economy.

The problem of dwindling stock numbers has been exacerbated by the current drought, which followed the Rift Valley fever outbreak in 2011, in which thousands of animals died.

What are the most pressing animal diseases facing livestock farmers in the province, and what is being done to combat these?
Brucellosis in smallstock is out of control. In certain provincial areas, up to 30% of rams recently tested positive for Brucella ovis. Cattle diseases such as trichomoniasis, vibriosis and Brucella are also out of control. Sheath rot (ulcerative balanoposthitis and vulvovaginitis) is also prevalent in the province.

Countrywide, there’s an acute shortage of veterinarians, and while the community service requirement for veterinary graduates is a step in the right direction, South Africa remains burdened by this shortage. The Northern Cape is the country’s largest province, but has the smallest budget. Unfortunately, this means it also has the smallest veterinary budget. Because of this, the provincial government cannot deploy enough veterinarians and animal health technicians to combat these diseases effectively.

The shortage of animal technicians is a particularly serious problem for new and emerging farmers, as they are dependent on state veterinarians. Emerging farmers also desperately need the advice of skilled animal technicians to farm sustainably and profitably. While an emerging farmer may farm on the best and largest recapitalised farm, success is highly unlikely without enough support and healthy, reproducing animals.

How can producers protect their herds and flocks against animal diseases?
It’s crucially important that every producer has and adheres to a biosecurity plan. As every region has its own diseases and parasites, biosecurity strategies should be designed in consultation with a veterinarian. The Northern Cape has implemented a code of best conduct in this regard, and I would encourage all livestock producers in the province to stick to the code in order to ensure healthy and productive animals.

It’s also very important that producers determine the health status of animals before they purchase them, and it’s crucial that they ask for veterinary certificates to verify the animals’ health before the animals are allowed on the farm. It’s also highly advisable that these newly purchased animals are kept in quarantine before being introduced to the existing herd.

Sheath rot is a serious problem for smallstock farmers. Can you elaborate on the history of the disease in the province, and what is being done to contain it?
Sheath rot is a severe problem countrywide. The cause of the disease is not known, and it’s very difficult to detect and manage. It’s therefore important that buyers ensure that the animals they intend to buy don’t suffer from the disease.

They should also be on the lookout for old and healed lesions, as well as active lesions. Newly bought rams should be inspected and quarantined with a few ewes for at least 21 days [to test the rams’ mating ability], and should subsequently be examined for any signs of the disease. It’s crucial that animals are inspected regularly during the breeding season and quarantined and treated if any sign of sheath rot is detected.

A few years ago, the RPO NC requested Stellenbosch University’s assistance in sheath rot research. Dr Hilette Lambrechts, from the university, is the research project coordinator. More than 700 different, potential sheath rot-causing organisms have been identified so far, which far exceeds those identified in previous studies. The Mycoplasma group still remains the main suspect, but in this study, a variety of strains that could play a role in sheath rot were also isolated. We appreciate the local Directorate of Veterinary Services’ financial support for the research project.

How has the lack of vaccines from Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) affected the health status of animals in the Northern Cape?
It might sound strange, but the drought saved us from a national livestock disease catastrophe during the past few years, as dry conditions prevented the outbreak of diseases like Rift Valley fever.

We all know that OBP is restructuring, and despite its promise that there is enough stock available to cover major animal disease outbreaks, such as bluetongue, in South Africa, producers are still struggling to obtain vaccines. [At the time of going to print,] farmers in Calvinia and Kuruman were struggling to find Brucella vaccines for young rams.

The availability of effective and affordable vaccines is one of the most important cornerstones of a thriving livestock industry. While the RPO is motivating producers to improve productivity, this is impossible without vaccines.

The good news is that El Niño is apparently waning, and we can [hopefully] expect a rainy summer. However, should OBP fail to supply enough vaccines in the new season, we’ll be in for a rough time, especially as far as Rift Valley fever is concerned.

What measures have the RPO NC taken to manage animal health in the province?
We’re the only provincial RPO structure that subsidises its members – to the amount of R500 for a bull and R50 for a ram – to have their animals tested for venereal diseases. Participating members pay a voluntary levy to the RPO NC to participate in the testing programme. This is a valuable tool in our efforts to increase livestock productivity in the province.

Email Dr Koos Louw at [email protected].

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Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.