Southern Africa has always experienced droughts, but in the past they didn’t seem to linger for as long as they do these days.
Spring rain seems to have largely disappeared, while summer rains appear to be arriving later and later.
Many areas now receive rain only in late December, and by February the rain has stopped falling.
In the Eastern Cape, where I am based, renowned commercial farming regions such as Adelaide and Bedford that were once prosperous grassland areas are today crippled by drought, and the same can be said of the former homeland regions of the Transkei and Ciskei.
Rangelands are losing good grass at an alarming rate as the plants struggle to deal with less water. In addition, the grasses themselves are losing feed value because they grow as fast as possible to form seed before the growing season ends.
When grasses eventually emerge, ravenous animals graze them so vigorously that the plants are damaged. The shorter a grass plant is kept, the shorter its root system becomes, to the point where the plant is easily dislodged.
Some scientists think that grassland biomes may eventually change to Karoo-type biomes, where coarse woody plants become the predominant vegetation. This is bad news for selective grass grazers such as many of our wool sheep or beef cattle breeds.
Considering the seriousness of the situation, farming communities need to do their best to introduce grazing methodologies and plans that conserve grasslands for as long as possible.
Another problem is that, despite these changes in weather, many farmers are still caught unawares by droughts and do not have important management practices in place, such as supplementary feeding.
When droughts linger, feed prices skyrocket as demand for fodder such as lucerne increases. Sometimes, entire regions run out of feed, which can prove disastrous.
As mentioned in previous articles, communal farmers should work collectively or in large groups to plant crops such as Smuts finger grass as summer feed or oats as a winter feed crop.
Here are some additional strategies to help your farming enterprise through a drought:
- Whether you farm as an individual or a community, save enough money to buy supplementary feed. Stockpile this feed before prices start to rise and feed becomes scarce.
- Budget properly. Work out the exact daily cost of the supplementary feed. For example, one 25kg lucerne bale a day will keep 10 sheep and two cattle in reasonably good shape. But if used as a supplement during grass scarcity, one bale can feed 20 sheep and four cattle a day. (Remember, though, that the animals will start losing condition if they are fed only this.)
- If your funds are depleted, cut grass where you can find it and lay it in an old bath. There, cut it into 10cm pieces with a hedge clipper. Use a watering can to add a light sprinkling of a molasses supplement such as LS 33 and a sprinkling of crushed maize.
- Start supplementary feeding before the animals become too thin. If they can no longer stand, they seldom recover.
Reduce livestock numbers before the grass is depleted. If necessary, sell old female animals and all male animals (younger male animals can be marketed to feedlot enterprises, while older ones can be sold for slaughter).
Keep young female animals as they can help you rebuild your flock/herd. Funds from the sale of the other animals should enable you to buy supplementary feed or plant feed crops.
Finally, ensure that all your livestock are vaccinated, dipped and dewormed before the drought arrives. This will help prevent opportunistic infections and diseases from afflicting your animals when they are nutritionally compromised.