Happy cows!

The heritage of our region and people is closely tied to the farming of livestock. In South Africa as a whole, the poorest communal areas are home to half the cattle in the country worth almost R50 billion. Yet low birth rates and high death rates mean that communities like ours are not seeing their wealth grow. In fact in many cases, livestock wealth is shrinking. A quick census we performed at the end of 2016 showed that the calving rate of our cows is less than 10% per year, which is incredibly low when compared to the 70% rate which commercial farmers regard as a minimum to have a viable business. The figures for our goats and sheep are similarly dismal.
With this in mind, the BI has launched a small program to assist farmers in ensuring that their animals get the minimum treatment and inoculations at a low cost. The BI assist buy buying the medication in bulk and each village has elected a committee to manage the distribution of the medication at cost price. By buying the medication in bulk and then dividing it into small doses, we have brought the costs down dramatically to a level where it costs R8 per year to treat goats and sheep and R35 per year to treat the cattle.
Since launching this project in December our livestock have shown a dramatic improvement and there is a lot of optimism that we will see an increase in the calving rates.
We have also partnered with the local Department of Agriculture to improve practices at the local dipping tank and here too there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of ticks aflicting our animals.
We hope that this project will receive financial support in future which will allow our community to fence off designated grazing camps to allow the grass to grow to a nutritious length and thus further improve the condition of our animals. Fee free to contact us if you think you can help!

One Comment

  1. Nigel Brunette

    I do not wish to pose as an expert, since I am not one, but I have farmed with sheep and cattle for the last 20 years and made an acceptable living from doing that. I am a commercial farmer, so my advantage is using a piece of land exclusively, which is divided and fenced into “camps” to ensure that grazing is optimized. In a communal environment that cannot be done, and anyway fencing is expensive. But there are ways of achieving the same ends at least to an extent. This addresses the enormous wastage that arises from patchy utilization of grazing in a communal farming environment.

    In my farming operation, the most important economic factor is successful reproduction of livestock To increase weaning percentages the animals must be healthy and in rising condition when they are mated.

    Your tackling of parasites and diseases as your first priority seems exactly right to me. Your animals will lose their natural immunity, because you will be retaining animals which would otherwise have died. Therefore you will need to continue with your inoculation, dipping and drenching programs, and will become dependent upon them, as virtually all commercial farmers are. But the additional fertility, reproduction and survival rates will more than pay for that. Beware of parasites becoming resistant to treatment.

    The next most important item, in my opinion, is nutrition. I revert to the issue of veld management: you cannot divide up the land by fencing. Therefore your livestock, especially cattle, will graze certain areas flat (the most nutritious and accessible ones) and completely ignore other less attractive areas that contain food. Scientists have done experiments with bees and small birds, showing that they will travel to areas where there is sufficient nutrition to more than compensate for the energy expended in getting there and back again. But as soon as that equation no longer balances, they abandon that food source. They have a built in algorithm that never fails. The same applies to all animals, because if they use up more energy getting food than the food itself gives them, they die.

    Commercial farmers use a very wide array if licks and supplements, all of which significantly improve animal nutrition, but obviously at a cost to the owner, rather than the animal itself, so the algorithm is transferred! These licks and supplements have widely different costs and work in different ways. First, they add nutrients which are missing in the animals’ diets, so that they benefit disproportionately from a relatively small addition to their diet. (Why do cows constantly walk on beaches, where there is little to eat? Because they crave salt.They also need things like selenium, iron and copper.) Second, food can be “redistributed” within a season, so that when there is plenty and food goes to waste, some is stored for leaner times. (Making hay while the sun shines.) Thirdly, animals can be persuaded to walk to areas which ordinarily would not pass their instinctive algorithmic test if additional food is placed in a certain area.

    I want to deal with this last aspect in more detail. Let us just consider cattle for the moment. They are big and heavy. Often the females are pregnant. They need fresh water every day. So they have “resting places” chosen for either shelter from heat or cold (shady or sunny, sheltered from wind or rain) which are as close as possible to water and if possible food too. But water first because they “know” they will die qucker without water than without food. They will naturally choose the accessible food first (in case some other animal gets it) and will avoid climbing steep hillsides or food sources too far from their watering and resting points. If, therefore, a lick or supplement is placed with careful forethought and understanding at the right time and the right place, there are certain benefits. First, the animals will be attracted to move to where it is. Second, it can be chosen so that it contains minerals that benefit the animals by providing nutrients which are in short supply in the natural grazing, so that a small amount has a disproportionately high benefit. Third, and this is the most important aspect in your case (I think), they can be chosen so that they stimulate the intake of roughage. (Roughage is material that is not very nutritious relative to its mass or volume – the bovine and ovine equivalent of ratatouille!). Poorer grazing. But it does have some nutritional value, and is therefore an asset. Where it is poorly located relative to the animals’ algorithmic test it might actually have quite a lot of nutritional value, just not enough to pass the test on its own.

    Therefore there is a really significant benefit to you in identifying where your cattle seldom graze when food is relatively scarce – i.e. in winter. If you place the right supplement or lick there and make sure the cattle are aware of that (drive them to it once), they will eat the supplement. If you have chosen correctly, they will not eat it all and then move away again, but instead will eat some and then require roughage, which will be all around them in the form of grazing that they have formerly ignored.

    There is a wide range of supplements, and since you, not the cattle, are now doing the algorithmic test, you have to choose well. Many licks contain molasses meal, maize etc. They are expensive, and generally better suited to feedlots where animals are required to eat a lot and move a little, like Americans eating popcorn and watching baseball. They are also more expensive. Some farmers mix mineral licks, which the cattle like (as with just salt).

    I suggest you consider chicken litter. It is readily available everywhere, and can be delivered in bulk. It is cheap compared with all other supplements. It contains about 20% protein, so the cattle do very well on it in winter, holding their condition. Best of all, it stimulates them strongly to eat roughage, so they will graze areas which they would otherwise neglect, and you can manage your veld even though you have no “fenced camps”. In effect, you increase your usable land.

    The disadvantage is that it requires quite a lot of effort. An area next to a good road will have to be fenced, where an interlink can park and be unloaded with spades. It does not have to be covered. Each day from mid autumn to mid spring the litter will have to be bagged, and at least twice a week the bags taken to the chosen feeding points and emptied. It is better to use troughs of some sort (we use old tyres turned inside out with a wooden bottom) because that stops the cattle from trampling and wasting the feed, which costs money. All this takes quite a lot of work – each adult cow should get about 1 kg of chicken litter per day throughout winter and preferably in late autumn and early spring too.

    The results will startle you.Cow mated in rising condition, if healthy and free of parasites and disease, will almost always conceive. Your conception rate should rise into the 90% range under ideal conditions, and certainly above the current level.

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