Optimising grazing on communal land

A new pilot project seeks to help farmers manage communal land grazing more efficiently. Nerpo CEO Dr Langelihle Simela speaks to Stanley Karombo.

Optimising grazing on communal land
Dr Langelihle Simela Courtesy of nerpo
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Could you explain the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation [Nerpo’s] communal grazing project in a few words?
Nerpo intends facilitating the development and implementation of a community-led model for effective management and utilisation of communal land. We’re emphasising the point that farmers should use what they have efficiently, instead of saying that they don’t have private farms and therefore cannot farm effectively or efficiently with available resources. It is possible.

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What are the major strategic objectives of the Nerpo project?
Most smallholder livestock farmers have years of experience in tending livestock but very limited skills at managing the enterprises as business units. The pilot programme of Nerpo’s communal grazing project will draw extensively from existing knowledge and experience, and the commitment of participating communities, while involving the relevant stakeholders in a manner that will ensure sustainability.

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Many communal farmers will tell you that back in the days of homelands, there were controlled grazing camps. Farmers knew that at certain times their animals had to be in certain camps. It was well managed, and stock rangers checked to make sure that everything ran smoothly. Now, however, communal farmers complain of lawlessness in the management of grazing. This includes people building homes on grazing land, or the land being used as a dumpsite.

Simply put, there are no control systems in place anymore. And yet we have legislation and a number of programmes that can manage this situation. For us at Nerpo, the bottom line is this: if you’re the one with the vested interest in the land, you’re the one who should take the initiative to ensure that the land is well taken care of. This is why we need to pilot a system where people in communal areas look after their land effectively for their own production.

Could you please explain how the project got going?
We took this initiative to parliament in May 2013. The members of parliament suggested that Nerpo target one or two districts, and undertake a pilot of the project. This is why the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as well as stakeholders, are on board to implement the project. This is where we are with the project at the moment. Unfortunately, when one is working with the government, things sometimes stall.

What are the benefits of the programme?
Many agricultural development initiatives in South Africa currently have pilots in operation, with various levels of success. The proposed community grazing land pilot project will focus on the efficient management of livestock to minimise losses, optimising production, and improving the contribution of livestock to the livelihoods of the communities. People talk about overgrazing, but it can be managed. It’s not all doom and gloom – the problem is that some areas have no control systems.

My argument has always been if you have a cow that is supposed to produce one calf per year; it shouldn’t matter whether the cow is on a commercial farm, a smallholder’s farm, or communal land. The cow should produce one calf per year! This is where efficiency comes in – using resources to their optimum capacity.

It’s through this that we as a country can use our herds as efficiently as possible to increase the calving percentage and get as many calves as possible to the market. This will help feed our country, as well as provide income for farmers, instead of having a situation where, for example, the cow grazes, falls pregnant and then the calf dies. This is a waste of resources,when we should be using the resources we have for the benefit of our communities.

What are possible pitfalls for the project?

I’ll start with the positives. I’ve heard of some communities in the Eastern Cape saying that the land is theirs – this is their grazing land, and that is their cropland. If someone owns the lands but does not want to farm it, those in the community who want to farm should come to some arrangement with the owner, renting the land to use as efficiently as possible.

The owners, or those owning but not using the land, can then get remunerated. The pitfalls mostly have to do with community cohesion. Unless there’s a spirit of co-operation among people, there won’t be any progress. There is also a sense of dependency as many people think that others should come up with solutions.

In the Eastern Cape, we had a typical example of lack of co-operation. For years, we had discussed the project of communal grazing management but most farmers were reluctant to participate. One farmer, however, took up the challenge. But when he put up fences on his grazing land, the community expressed its disapproval. The situation delayed the project and this continued for several years. Lack of co-operation from the community is the greatest killer of ideas and success.

What are the existing figures for cattle ownership and calving rates?
Eighty-five percent of South Africa’s agricultural land is suitable for gazing. Of the 13,5 million cattle, 60% are owned by commercial farmers. Here the calving rate is at 65%. The remaining 40% (5,4 million) are owned by smallholders, and here the calving rate is 35%. The smallholder sector holds about 12% of the sheep and 67% of the goats.

Email Dr Langelihle Simela at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the 11 April 2014 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.