Empowering the veld!

Improve productivity all round, especially in mixed farming regions, by looking after your veld.

Veld is surely the most abused natural resource in South Africa, especially in mixed farming areas, where sound management practices are rare. The result? A gradual decline in veld productivity. I would go so far as to hazard that 80% of veld in SA yields no more than 60% of its animal production potential. My mind goes back to the early 1970s, when I was extension officer with the now defunct Ficksburg Co-op.

My very first presentation was entitled Veld Moord (veld murder). It included photos taken on farms in the district, and didn’t win me any friends. In fact it led to a move to get me replaced, which fortunately failed. Because the presentation did motivate a few co-op members to seek help in implementing sound veld management practices. The truth is that, at that time, I didn’t know of a single farmer in the area who had an acceptable veld management system. It was simply a matter of “where there’s grass, graze it off”.

Prof Pine Pienaar taught me the basics of pasture management at the University of Pretoria in the early 1960s. An advocate of controlled selective grazing, he based a lot of what he taught us on a long-term grazing trial done at the Soutpan research station just north of Pretoria.

Desirable species
With this system, only the desirable species are grazed. In summer, animals are removed from the camp as soon as they’ve ingested the palatable species – they’re not forced to utilise the less palatable species. They must be removed when the desirable species still have one-third of their leaves intact. Furthermore, the camp is never burnt or mown.
Controlled selective grazing has two main benefits.

Firstly, there’s a gradual increase in desirable species. Secondly, animal performance is optimum. On the other hand, this system requires a high standard of diligent management, which includes keeping fires at bay. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a few farms where it has worked wonders in terms of top animal performance and in terms of providing better ground cover, which includes all-important mulch. On one farm, muddy streams turned crystal clear.

An easy way
There’s an easy way to apply this grazing management system in summer rainfall mixed farming areas. It fits in perfectly with the planting of perennial low-cost pastures, such as Sericea (prosperity lucerne) and mixtures of bird’s-foot trefoil, crown vetch, cocksfoot and Smuts finger grass. All these pastures can result in excellent animal production in summer and provide high quality hay for winter.

In other words, the veld can be rested in summer and used in winter supplemented with high protein hay, which reduces the cost of expensive winter licks. How does controlled selective grazing fit into this scenario? The key is not to heavily stock winter veld. Animals must go through winter, grazing only palatable species. Unlike in summer, these species can be grazed right down to ground level without doing them any harm. And the no-grazing, no-burning rule still holds.

Unused and ‘unburnt’ grass becomes moribund and eventually dies. In the process valuable soil mulch is increased. The result is improved rainfall uptake, radically reduced evaporation and provision of an abundance of food for the soil ecosystem, which, in turn, is a rich source of plant food for the desirable grass species. This leads to greater grass and animal productivity – true empowerment!

John Fair is a leading expert on pastures and founder and head of the SA Biofarm Institute in Harrismith. Contact John on 058 622 3585 or at [email protected]. Please state ‘Biological farming’ in the subject line of your email.