Farm mapping (1)

It can be both rewarding and fun to draw a picture of what your enterprise looks like now and what it could look like once you have made some well-planned changes. Ecologist and farm planner Ben Breedlove told Roelof Bezuidenhout how to go about it.

If you do not have a ‘plan’ for your farming operation, you will probably work harder than you need to, without making more money. However, it’s not easy to switch from a ‘doing’ mindset to a ‘planning’ mindset. To make planning easier, you need a detailed, bird’s- eye view of your entire farm. This must show the land’s current condition, and the condition of the veld about 1km from your boundary line for uplands, and about 5km out along watercourses and floodplains. A farm is not an island – it’s affected by events beyond your fences.

What you need
You could sketch a simple map on a piece of paper, but putting more effort into the exercise can bring unexpected rewards.

To do this, you’ll need at least four maps of the same scale, as large as possible:

  • The pre-farming map – This map should show what your farm originally looked like. The best option to use is a detailed soils map, although such maps can be hard to come by. On the other hand, much of South Africa has been photographed, starting back in the 1930s. If these aerial shots are unobtainable, you can go on-site and draw your own rudimentary map. 
  • The current view map – This should show what your operation looks like right now, and depict how the land is used – or not used. Remember: ‘land use’ is very different to ‘land cover’. Golf links and pastures are examples of land use; grass is the land cover in each instance. 
  • The thought map – Now do your thought map, indicating what actions (such as plant, graze, browse, fence, drain, rehabilitate or capture water) you want to take at various places on your map. Write these down as a list on a separate sheet of paper and number the topographical features so that you can act later. 

As you do this, you will begin to realise that these ‘thoughts’ are no longer merely ‘plans in your head’, but, by this single action, are on their way to becoming discrete pieces of ground, each requiring particular actions. You can also call this your ‘ideal condition’ map, because cost, affordability and other factors are not considered at this point. You are simply putting down what you would like to have in a perfect world.

Compare
Now, compare this map with the other two. You’ll probably be surprised by the differences. If properly done, each of the three maps is an independent effort based on different criteria. They should have a certain level of similarity, yet be quite different in some respects.

Put the maps side by side on the wall, and note what looks the same across all three and what is different. The property outlines remain the same. Streams should have changed course in some places, but stayed the same in others. Lands have probably become less arable over time. Veld condition has possibly degraded. Land-use intensity might have increased or, maybe, improved.

Don’t make any decisions yet. Simply change the map in your head to match the new reality pictured and summarised on the wall. By doing this, you’ll start working at an owner/manager level, as opposed to an ‘I change the tyre’ level, empowering yourself to change your way of doing business.

In the next issue, we’ll look at the fourth map, and discuss how you can take the process one step further for better profits.

Email Ben Breedlove at [email protected].