Get farming … with grass!

Managing a game farm means managing the environment, and that means starting with the basics – literally at grass roots level, with a comprehensive survey and analysis of the carrying capacity of the farm.

Managing a game farm means managing the environment, and that means starting with the basics – literally at grass roots level, with a comprehensive survey and analysis of the carrying capacity of the farm.
In the first of a two-part series, Abré J Steyn explains the requirements of a healthy grass cover.

IT WAS JOHN INGALLS WHO WROTE “grass is the forgiveness of nature”. It doesn’t matter what you do, eventually grass will usually cover it up. But grass is not just grass. At least 967 different grass species occur in South Africa – 10% of all the species in the world. Grasses are the most ­important plant family on earth. Most major crops and all staple diets of humans are the seeds of grasses. All animals we breed for consumption feed on grasses or their seeds. Most wild herbivores are ­grazers and depend on grass to live and multiply. Indeed, we farm with grass.
In recent years many ­successful business people have crowned their ­financial success by buying a game farm or prime bushveld real estate and turned it into a glamour-brochured game ranch befitting their status, which is often an extension of their successful business empire.

Successful management of a game ranch, however, is more than creating ­infrastructure and facilities, breeding wild animals, entertaining clients and making money. It has more to do with managing the environment – and especially the grass on it.

The owners may possess considerable business management know-how, but without the same level of environmental management skills it can now be an uphill battle, unless they start with the basics. For high-flyers it is not easy to stoop to grass roots level, and more often they start at the top.
Many of these properties can be recognised by state-of-the-art fencing and elaborate entrance gates, which provide privileged access to these exclusive domains. Glance through the fence at the interior and, if you know what to look for, you may observe a scene that is not at all rosy.

A few weeks ago, while returning from Zambia, I saw it again while travelling through game country. The signs were evident. The scattered or continuous tracks of bare ground mark the areas where the most luscious and nutritious grasses once grew. The dominant vegetation which now graces the parched landscape is a few pioneer grasses, weeds and an ever-thickening encroachment of young trees and thickets of whatever invader species flourish on that soil type.
It is in stark contrast with the beckoning belt of palatable grass on the road verge, an irresistible temptation to the warthogs to practise their trench-digging skills under the seemingly impenetrable fence lines.

The truth is revealed in an even more dramatic way from the air. While flying over the bushveld areas in the northern part of South Africa it is shocking how many farms stand out as bare, red eyesores among the neighbouring farms – the result of lack of grass cover.

Invariably, upon further investigation, you’ll find they are overgrazed game farms, as opposed to cattle farms which are usually in ­better ­condition. This is especially the case in the drier parts, such as along the ­Limpopo and behind the Soutpansberg. But it occurs everywhere – even in the ­Waterberg. In the Lowveld with its more lush vegetation it isn’t that easy to see, but in many places it is there nonetheless.
It was for this reason in the early 1990s that I helped to establish a consultancy to assist game farmers in veld management. Twenty-one of South Africa’s top experts in various fields of game-farm management assisted, with the bulk of the work done by plant ecologists, Professors George Bredenkamp and Noel van Rooyen. By thoroughly surveying a property and establishing its grazing potential or carrying capacity for the different species present, a practical management plan would be drawn up and implemented. Many big names in game ranching implemented these plans and achieved dramatic success.

The game farmer’s dilemma
Most game species, as well as cattle, are predominantly or exclusively grazers. The number of browsers are ­comparatively small, and except where large numbers of kudu are involved the amount of browse is rarely a concern.
Contrary to popular belief it is much more difficult to manage the plant component (in other words the balance between trees and grass) on a game farm than on a cattle farm. When the rain stays away, a wise cattle farmer can immediately reduce his herd by sending some off to the market. Not a game farmer. He or she must wait until the following winter before marketing the game. By this time the damage has already been done.

The palatable decreaser-grasses have been grazed into the ground and by the next season would have vanished – replaced by tough, unpalatable increaser-grasses. The carrying capacity of the farm is now suddenly severely reduced, and despite a considerable take-off during the hunting season, it will still be overstocked. For the veld to recover may take decades and in practice rarely happens, unless the manager really knows what he or she is doing.

In times gone by, when the animals were free and fences didn’t exist, any concentration of herbivores attracted packs of wild dogs and other predators, which scattered the herds and forced them to migrate to better grazing and so preserved the land and the good pastures left behind.

Today animals are fenced in and forced to subsist on the same tract of land for life, irrespective of how conditions change. Therefore, it is essential for the owner to manage the relationship between the number of animals on a game farm and its fluctuating carrying capacity, and a safe motto with game is never to exceed 60% of the carrying capacity of the farm. But then you must have an idea what that capacity is.
In practice the carrying capacity of a piece of land always fluctuates, and is primarily determined by the quality of grass (the different species) but also the quantity at a specific time, which depends on the amount of rain it received. The main problem on many game farms (and cattle farms) is that farmers don’t realise that they are essentially grass farmers.

Know your grasses
Any attempt to manage a game farm ­intelligently starts with identification of the dominant grass species on the farm. This cannot be done overnight. A competent consultant can determine the carrying capacity which is not a constant, and it can change in minutes when, for example the veld burns down. It is, however, an ideal starting point and will give an indication of how close you are to the correct ­stocking rate at the time the survey is done.
It is far more important to know where you are heading by continually monitoring a trend. Therefore, it is better for the owner or manager to learn how to identify the different grass species, as an annual census must also be done. This is essential and will indicate well in advance how the balance between decreaser- and increaser-­species is shifting
.
At the same time this will alert the manager, seasons before he or she can visually see, whether the management practices are working. Knowing the grasses will help you to look at the veld with new eyes, to evaluate it at a glance and even to read its history. Above all it will enable you to manage your game farm more scientifically and profitably.

To start with the ­identification is not as difficult as it may seem, but a good grass book is essential. ­Specimens of the dominant species must be ­collected, press-dried between newspaper, identified by yourself or a botanist and pasted in a folder for future ­reference. Lesser species can follow once the more common species are well known and can be identified at a glance.

Next week’s article will focus on how grass species are classified, and the significance and value of 84 of the more common species.

Contact Prof Noel van Rooyen on (012) 348 9043. |fw
Credit: Abré J Steyn