Natural veld: the backbone of beef & mutton economics

Complementing his pastures on marginal lands, Llewellyn Angus employs the Ermelo veld-management system to improve his livestock carrying capacity and grass yield, writes Annelie Coleman.
12 September 2008

- Advertisement -

Proper veld management is crucial for successful livestock farming,” says Simbra, Simmentaler and Merino stud breeder Llewellyn Angus from Arlington in the eastern Free State. Llewellyn’s veld and pasture-management system has had a major influence on his enterprise, placing him in the top 10 in the national Voermol Simdex Competition for Simmentalers over the past 10 years, and, winning him the national Voermol Simbradex Competition for Simbras for three years.

He also received the Breedplan Stud breeder of the year award in 2004 and was judged the SA Agricultural Writers’ Association Free State Farmer of the Year in 2005. “SA farmers have been blessed with abundant natural veld and there’s no reason it shouldn’t play an integral role in any farming enterprise,” he says. “It’s the most economical way to produce beef and mutton.” T he 2 000ha of natural veld on Llewellyn’s farm Whispering Willows is intensively and scientifically managed as the value-adding basis of his livestock enterprise. “A farmer should farm in rhythm with nature,” he explains. “Planning calving and lambing seasons accordingly to natural cycles stands a livestock farmer in good stead.”

Proper veld management
The 4 000ha farm Whispering Willows is situated between Arlington and Senekal. It consists mainly of Avalon and Westleigh soil types, with Kroonstad and Estcourt to a lesser degree. The mean annual rainfall is 640mm, but can fluctuate from 400mm to 900mm. Temperatures from as high as 36ºC to as low as -10ºC have been recorded. Some 30 years ago, Llewellyn decided to convert marginal arable lands to permanent pasture. “I realised the folly of cultivating crops on marginal land a long time ago and decided to focus on livestock farming, establishing permanent pasture and developing the natural veld to its full potential,” he says.

- Advertisement -

 “Proper veld management has increased the carrying capacity of my veld from 6ha per mature livestock unit (MLU) to 4ha/MLU. My records of grazing periods and stocking rates on natural veld go back to 1980 and I have seen a marked increase in carrying capacity.” The veld consists of mainly Themeda triandra (red grass) and Eragrostis species. Half of the farm is natural grazing, divided into small camps averaging 20ha, while the other half is under perennial pasture. Llewellyn initially followed a controlled selective grazing system on Whispering Willows, but changed to a modified Ermelo system after a visit to the Nooitgedacht Agricultural Development Centre in 1999.

 “Kevin Kirkman – now a Professor at Natal University – gave a talk that made me see sense,” says Llewellyn. “I went home and applied the Ermelo system immediately. It provides for three groups of equally-sized camps. One group is grazed heavily by sheep (primary) and cattle (secondary) during the first growing season, then only by cattle in the next growing season, and it’s rested in the third growing season. The rest season is followed by a season of heavy grazing to start the cycle over again. When cattle farming is primary, the second camp is grazed during spring and summer, and the third during winter. This rotation is reversed the following season.

Nature’s remedies
It’s important to graze the veld heavily in winter after a rest period, advises Llewellyn. This will stimulate new growth in spring. In some sour, higher rainfall parts of the eastern Highveld, the veld is burnt in late winter or early spring to stimulate new growth. However, burning is impractical and downright dangerous in the Arlington area. Llewellyn rather recommends intensive grazing during winter to get rid of excessive plant material. “There has been a marked increase in Themeda triandra in particular,” he says. “The system also leaves me the option of using rested veld for emergencies such as drought. This effectively enables me to soften the blow by keeping livestock instead of having to sell it.”

The calving and lambing seasons on Whispering Willows are synchronised to coincide with spring, when the veld has regenerated after winter. This provides optimum nutritional value. The stud Merino ewes’ lambing season now runs from mid-September to mid-October. The commercial ewes lamb in September until the end of October. The primary calving season is also in spring, from September to November. “I’ve benefited economically by working with nature and in the process addressed various other problems,” explains Llewellyn. “I’ve greatly increased the reconception rate and with a strict breeding season the so-called passenger animals can be taken out of the system early.

Breeding seasons are the most important management tool in a livestock-production system, and this applies to all grazing systems. “I’m worried that many farmers don’t have proper veld-management systems in place. They graze and rest on an ad hoc basis and usually over-graze closer to the homestead, and where the workers’ livestock are permanently run – usually close to their houses. They also often overutilise veld near abundant water, and underutilise it at other times. The workers’ livestock must be part of the overall system and shouldn’t stay in one, two, or even three camps year round.” Contact Llewellyn Angus on 082 8055 101. |fw