In a collaboration project between the Agricultural Research Council and the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, researchers identified and interviewed 100 farmers who are regarded as champion veld farmers by their peers in South Africa, and survived times of drought more effectively than many others. These farmers are distributed in different biomes and farming systems and Ngoako Letsoalo shares some of the lessons learned from them.
The number of farmers who lose animals due to persisting drought is dramatically escalating in South Africa. However, it has been observed that some farmers managed to mitigate the impact of the drought better than their neighbours through certain management measures and best practices.
In South Africa, prolonged droughts affect livestock production systems and local livelihoods across diverse rangelands. Farmers’ vulnerability is often exacerbated by a lack of progress in effective drought management. For instance, the economic damage of drought during the period 2015/2016 in South Africa cost livestock farmers up to 250 million US dollar, stressing the urgency to explore options to manage droughts effectively.
Drought is a factor that affects commercial, emerging and subsistence farmers, not only during the drought period, but also during the following years.
The previous year’s low and variable rainfall influences forage availability and profits for the next few seasons.
Based on data from the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT), the 2015/2016 drought in South African affected 2.7 million people, which led to serious economic, natural and societal damage. It implies the need to address drought in a larger context and to consider mitigation strategies which could counteract the impacts of water shortages.
In response to drought, studies show that some livestock farmers have dealt with low and variable rainfall and recurring drought, and have developed different management practices to mitigate drought impact on livestock dynamics.
Livestock farmers hold multi-generation social, economic and ecological knowledge, skills and management strategies which they have adapted through trial and error over time.
Livestock farmers also have extensive personal experiences in coping with drought, which can serve a “local” example for future scenario planning for drought adaptation. Furthermore, many livestock farmers have not relied on any government drought relief programmes to overcome drought.
In a collaboration project between the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, we identified and interviewed 100 farmers who are regarded as champion veld farmers by their peers in South Africa.
These farmers are distributed in different biomes and farming systems and I share some of the lessons learned from these farmers.
- Planning for drought (during non-drought periods) in terms of saving money, forage or other resources is of upmost importance.
- Farmers also monitor seasonal climate forecasts and are largely aware when an area will experience drought. As such, their number of animals are reduced through sales to reduce dependence on supplementary feed, which is expensive. There is great need to destock livestock and to remain with a manageable breeding herd. Farmers 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.
- 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. Through our research we have observed that during drought, animals often die due to a weak immune system and not hunger.
- Regardless of whether or not you have a veld management system, keep the number of animals low so that the impact on the veld is not too great and droughts (seasonal, annual or multi-year) can be more easily handled (under-stocking a farm with about 30% fewer animals is a good guideline).
- Implementing a rotational, herd mobility or holistic grazing programme will allow grazing lands to rest as long as possible during the critical growing season within a geographical area.
- Look at the condition of your animals and their breeding. If livestock are in a bad condition, give them pen feed with high crude protein to gain weight. If in a good condition, maintain them with a maintenance diet and make sure that they do not lose the status of that good condition.
- Inspect veld for condition, forage and water availability and poisonous plants before moving animals back after drought.
- Move your animals away to areas not affected. It might even be in other provinces. This could be done through leasing land or making agreements with those land owners in terms of in-kind payments.
- Lastly, record the amount of rainfall you receive on your farm using tools such as rain gauges in order to better prevent and prepare for weather-related natural disasters.
Dry spells here to stay
Drought seems to have become a permanent part of Southern Africa’s weather patterns, but many farmers are still caught unaware, and suffer accordingly.
Drought-related livestock mortalities cause severe economic losses and impacts livelihoods of many households. More studies are needed that document these kinds of strategies practised by farmers during drought.
Such information will help farmers mitigate drought impacts, but most importantly, it will assist policymakers in formulating appropriate policy interventions to support livestock farmers against the peril of drought, which is threatening food security, economic growth, human survival and the living standards of farmers.
Ngoako Letsoalo is a Research Technician employed by the Agricultural Research Council under the Range and Forage Sciences group. He has over 8 years’ experience in rangeland management research. His interest is around understanding the socio-economic factors that drive the current state of rangeland conditions, especially among resource-poor emerging and communal farmers.
Sign up for Mzansi Today: Your daily take on the news and happenings from the agriculture value chain.