Springbok ranching: better than smallstock?

Many smallstock farmers toy with the idea of adding springbok to their operations, but information on managing commercial herds is scarce. A new study shows springbok have great commercial potential, but offer a whole new set of complex challenges.

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Beset by Stock theft, costly labour problems, drought, rising input costs and unpredictable markets, smallstock farmers in the arid and more marginal regions often wonder about the feasibility of switching to springbok farming, or at least incorporating this antelope into their sheep or goat operations.The relative scarcity of scientific information on this matter makes it a very difficult decision. However, a recent study aims to develop decision-making models to help game ranchers make production decisions, and improve yields and product quality in efficient and sustainable commercial production systems.

The study was conducted by Dr Francois Lategan, senior lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension at the University of Fort Hare, and Prof Pieter van Niekerk, head of the Department of Agriculture and Game Management at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth.

Their findings suggest that springbok have great potential in extensive domesticated production systems. Dr Lategan explains that commercial springbok production systems have already been established with varying degrees of success.
“There are just too many interdependent factors which we can’t properly define or measure yet,” he says. “This is exacerbated because, while game farming and extensive stock farming might be similar in terms of risk, the different regulatory, marketing and production scenarios available tend to promote initiative, leading to greater individuality and more independent functioning among farmers.”

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Comparing species and biomes
The study was conducted among game ranchers who keep springbok commercially in the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape, in the four major production biomes: Grassland, Nama Karoo, Savanna and Thicket. These areas are particularly well-suited for springbok herds’ habitat requirements (see map).

The data collected was used to estimate the value of the income derived from springbok, compared with other more commonly selected game species (see Table 1). In the table, land size and animal numbers only refer to the area and game numbers included in the investigation, not the actual size of the total production area. “Note that the values may not project the true potential incomes, or be a good measure for planning purposes,” says Dr Lategan.

“What the figures do indicate is these species’ estimated current gross income value. For springbok, the income indicated is from all the different types included in the game ranching enterprises.“The variation in the estimated gross income in the different biomes is largely due to the type of springbok kept and the market serviced. It’s also possible that the small sample sizes may bias the values to either side.” The study showed that venison is a very strong income earner, although good prices are achieved for trophy animals. Table 2 indicates the average prices for the more prominent types of springbok utilisation. Table 3 summarises the prices asked for the different types of springbok.

These prices are average, irrespective of the type of hunt (trophy or biltong) but may indicate the relative economic importance of the different types of springbok. The incomes also aren’t limited to, or even characteristic of, any particular biome, but occur across them all. The cost of non-performanceDr Lategan emphasises that production decision-making plays a vital role in fully realising the economic value of a game-ranching enterprise.

“We were particularly interested in how game ranchers perceive the effect of various management and ecological factors on production decisions, as well as the associated risks. As in other farming enterprises, the cost of non-performance resulting from the wrong decision and/or inadequate implementation poses a real risk. There’s always the danger of underestimating the probability of very likely events, as opposed to overestimating the probability of very unlikely events.”

But it will be some time before practical management questions can be fully answered. “Farming with springbok might demand more focused management, innovation, decision-making and skill than traditional stock farming systems do,” says Dr Lategan. “We need far more research before economic and environmental efficiency can be judged or even significantly improved, because of the complex interactions between herd structure, territorial and mating behaviour, grazing patterns and integrated social behavioural patterns in herds, together with rather sophisticated market influences. Until then, farmers will continue to struggle to decide whether to switch from smallstock to commercial springbok production.”Ranchers are painfully aware of the influence of these interactions on production and economic efficiency, and some already have considerable expertise in managing them.

However, Dr Lategan believes there’s a clear need for extension and research structures that will reliably provide commercial springbok farmers with relevant, accurate information.“This isn’t only for ranchers’ sake, but also because the market values of many wildlife species worldwide have reached an all-time high – an encouraging but also alarming phenomenon as commercial markets and natural ecosystems tend to be uneasy partners,” he says.He also suggests the dwindling natural resource base increases the need for studies into managing those resources for economic purposes. “Production potential is determined by economical, biological, ecological and environmental laws, so sustainable farming is only possible when these principles and ratios are followed,” says Dr Lategan.

Other findings
The study found that game ranchers regard herd management as crucial (see box: The many variables of springbok farming). This includes making decisions about sex ratio and age structure management, breeding programmes, and higher reproduction rates.

Closely following in importance are decisions about factors that influence the production environment – particularly infrastructure, handling facilities and grazing conditions. Decisions about products and harvesting methods are also high-priority.
All this helps define a market-orientated production plan that will ensure optimum efficiency and satisfaction. Contact Dr Francois Lategan on
082 314 9083, fax 086 628 2452, or
e-mail [email protected]. |fw

The case for a national game meat strategy

Commercial game ranching urgently needs a national management strategy focused on game meat production, says Dr Wilhelm Schack of wildlife services company Eko Wild. “Wildlife is a national asset but totally undervalued as a food source,” he says.
“A national strategy should be formulated around game meat production because there’s a pressing need for local food security, organic and free-range products are in high demand, and the industry may have reached a ceiling in live sales of common species. Alternative utilisation patterns and harvest methods are begging for attention, as production of old-style products such as biltong and venison is at capacity and markets are limited. Food production is something politicians will understand.”

Dr Schack believes a national strategy can raise operating standards, promote growth and ensure sustainability. “It can develop skills such as professional harvesting, and build abattoirs and cold storage facilities. But government will have to help establish wildlife production programmes – also on state land.”

Dr Schack advises ranchers that ranch management is an exercise in risk control, and the monitoring of soil erosion, bush encroachment and animal health is crucial factors. “The average small commercial game farm represents a capital investment of anything from R6 million to R12 million. This demands a world-class, holistic business approach based on market research, marketing plans, and strength, weakness, opportunity and threat (SWOT) analyses.”

The many variables in springbok farming

  • Commercial springbok farming appears to be highly susceptible to interactions between the following factors:
  • The physical condition of the animals.
  • Degrees of stress.
  • Animal species composition.
  • Social and spatial structure – mostly the function of home range, territoriality and social maturity – and typically characterised by hierarchical ranking.
  • Abundance and quality of food supply, expressed as carrying capacity and influenced by the stocking rate. In a restricted environment this is very challenging for the ranch manager, and complicated by the social and spatial needs the habitat must be able to fulfil.
  • Animal density, which depends on animal numbers, land size and species interaction and is reflected by the stocking rate applied by the ranch manager. This will dictate the regulation of population growth through culling and other harvesting practices, and live sales.
  • Habitat, climate and veld condition are essential, to facilitate the minimum refuge, feeding and social activities the animals require.
  • Sex ratio and age structure. Unfavourable ratios lead to sub-optimal mating behaviour. However, optimal ratios (herd structure) in confinement are very difficult for the ranch manager to determine. Reproductive success is also sensitive to environmental pressure.