A changing climate will prompt changes in behaviour across Southern Africa. Swazi farmer Bongani Phakathi is a frustrated man a few steps ahead of his neighbours when it comes to this kind of adaptation.
Traditionally, livestock in Swaziland grazes in the fields during winter, eating what’s been left behind after maize and other crops are harvested. But Phakathi is a farmer who is practicing conservation agriculture on his smallholding a few kilometres outside the capital Mbabane.
For his own cows, Phakathi cuts some of the maize and grass and sets it aside. But the rest he turns into mulch to help preserve both moisture and soil fertility on his plot.
“I don’t allow cattle to graze in my field because livestock degrades the soil – not only by eating all the maize stalks and leaving the soil bare, but also by stamping on the ground,” Phakathi told IPS.
His neighbours are nonplussed to find his field full of tempting fodder fenced off, and don’t hesitate to let their cattle in to graze there.
“I’m always on the lookout for them so that they don’t enter my field,” Phakathi said.
The field system of grazing in Swaziland is quite problematic, according to Dr Roland Dlamini, the director of veterinary services at the Swazi Ministry of Agriculture. He confirms Phakathi’s view that letting the cattle into the field not only damages the soil, and adds that the livestock also overgrazes, eating up all available forage in a short time.
“We’re now telling farmers to make hay and feed their livestock systematically so that they have enough food to last them for a longer period,” said Dlamini.
“Those in the lowveld where they haven’t had good rains for over ten years now are used to making hay because they don’t have maize fields.”
One challenge for those who have taken up the practice of making hay comes from bush fires, which burn the grass that farmers are supposed to make hay with for their livestock.
“This is a serious problem in the country – people are still burning the bush the way they please,” said Dlamini. “Besides that wild fires end up destroying houses and fields, they also mean there is no grass for the livestock.”
Dlamini said there is a need for a clear land use policy if issues of grazing are to be addressed, because precious pasture is being lost to housing. “Right now we’re running out of grazing land because people are building houses in areas previously reserved for livestock.”
Swaziland’s cattle owners could take a leaf from their Namibian counterparts, who have long experience raising livestock in arid conditions.
Ulf-Dieter Voigts manages an 8,500-hectare farm, Krumhuk, some 25 kilometres outside Namibian capital of Windhoek, keeping over 600 cattle, and 1,000 head of game animals.
“It only rains for about three months in a year in Windhoek and that means for nine months you have no grass growing and you have to manage what you have effectively for the livestock to eat,” said Voigts.
Krumhuk produces dairy, beef and game meat. The farm has European Union-certification as organic and where the livestock feed only on grass. It is divided into grazing camps where groups of livestock feed for short periods.
“We monitor the grazing of the livestock so that there is no overgrazing,” said Voigts. “We rotate the cattle after every week.”
Just as important, despite having 8,500 hectares to range over, the farm limits the number of cattle to around 600. In Swaziland – and across most of Southern Africa – cattle are not kept for strictly commercial reasons, and farmers are reluctant to sell them. One result is growing herds which degrade the land.
“We sell our cattle for beef, not only as a way of making money but to keep the herd to a manageable size,” said Voigts.
The problem of wild fires destroying grass also affects Krumhuk, but Voigts explained that the problem has been overcome this problem through the involvement of the whole community living the farm.
“We have about 70 people working in this farm and they own 20 percent of the cattle in this farm,” said Voigts. “This therefore means that the people here will not be careless with fire and if there is a fire incident, everyone comes running.”
Summer lightning still causes occasional fires.
The community;s involvement in managing the farm impressed Zimbabwean agricultural advisor Dr Tobias Takavarasha.
“This farm is a success story because everyone has a sense of ownership,” said Takavarasha, who is a former principal secretary for agriculture. “This is what African countries need to do to manage issues of wild fires and grazing.”
He acknowledged that there are different grazing systems in different parts of the subregion, and said it would help to have policies supported by legislation with specific controls to prevent land degradation in every country.
He said the vast land at Krumhuk allows them to sustainably practice the grass-only system they are using.
“Where there is not enough grass, a farmer can feed the livestock on organic maize and beans,” said Takavarasha.
The farm visit was organised as part of the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Annual High Level Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue, which this year focuses on livestock and fisheries.
Over 200 farmers, agriculture policy makers and researchers are gathered to exchange ideas and develop new solutions to food security.