Livestock farmers of the Karoo

We’re currently en route between Kimberley and Upington munching on Drybos and Rusks in true Voertreker style. Making our way into the more arid and remote areas the large number of new graves in the cemeteries also tell us we are in an area where Aids has a strong hold. Although repeatedly warned about criminal activity in South Africa, there has been no time when we’ve felt unsafe and we certainly haven’t stuck to the safe tourist side of town, often there is no tourist side to the towns we wander into.

Even in these more remote areas, it seems there are people coming out of the bushes everywhere as we drive along. Teams of road workers cutting the grass with whipper snippers, women with bundles of firewood on their heads, men standing, waiting for a job, road construction crews that numbered 50 or more. It’s not about efficiency; it’s about job creation. South Africa has 50 million people and 4.5 million taxpayers, how long that can be sustained is the usual topic of discussion around the dinner tables we have sat at.

Farmers that we visited sported a range of philosophies and operating principles from strict cell grazers operating within the Holistic management system, to livestock traders making the most of what they have, to intensive sheep producers who had isolated exactly which part of their business made the most profit and maximised it.

Labour at around $AU 10/day was plentiful, the seasons had been good, land prices were strong and all in all it seemed livestock farming in the Karoo was a strong industry although undermined by political uncertainties which caused a reluctance to invest back into the farm.

The average rainfall varied given the mountainous topography but seemed to be in the general vicinity 250-400 mm. The veldt is a mix of shrubs, bushes and grass, with Acacia Karoo seemingly encroaching in the pastures at a steady rate. This thorny shrub being a legume is a good source of protein for livestock but it’s thorny and invasive nature brings management issues and I can’t help but wonder if it will be more of a problem than they are envisaging at present. There were occasions when it enabled revegetation of eroded areas, providing shelter and litter for grasses to establish in. One farmer we visited was using goats to browse the shrub into a tree, allowing the light to filter into the ground cover and opening up the area to cattle. In a virtually treeless landscape it also provides cooking fuel for the less fortunate spectrum of society.

We’ve visited some great people and the hospitality has been second to none. One memorable overnight stay was with Albie Horn and his family. Albie is the founder of the Kalahari Red goat breed, the home of the genetics from which my Kalahari Red goats are derived. It was amazing to see these goats, which look so much like mine on the other side of the world. Albie’s philosophy on breeding animals is one which resonates with Australians. These animals are out on the veldt, there is none of this hand kidding which is the norm here in Africa when there are more than enough hands to do the job. His goats are hardy and practical and I’m even more pleased to have them at home now that I have seen where they came from. We did cause a bit of a ruckus though when we produced a bottle of rum that I had bought in the duty free in Cape Town. When Bundy couldn’t be found I just picked up another bottle of rum, turned out it was the drink for the real boys, Stroh 60, the 60 stands for 60%. Anyway, it was absolutely freezing there so it wasn’t such a bad idea.

One of the farmers we visited had bought country in Western Australia as a way of spreading his risk. He farms nearly 10,000 angora goats here in South Africa and harvests feral goats off his property in WA so had a really good idea about the issues I was looking into. He felt that the shrubs in Australia decreased under grazing while here in South Africa, grazing caused an increase but the thorns aided the plants protection. He had some great observations on the difference between Australian farmers and South Africans, one that I thought was really useful was the fact that the abundance of labour in South Africa meant that farmers were in fact business managers where in Australia, any farmer not working enough at the coal face was considered not worth his salt.

In Middleburg we saw what well may be the oldest grazing trials in the world having been started in 1937 and run consistantly since then. They measured the long term outcome from continuous grazing, continuous rest, rotational grazing and seasonal grazing. The summer graze and winter graze plots sit side by side and the results can’t be argued with. If you don’t rest your grasses during summer it’s possible to end up with a field of rocks and bushes. I was surprised by the continuous graze versus continuous rest plots that sat side by side on the side of a hill. The rested paddock was in far better shape and the grazed paddock had a large amount of shrub covering it although it’s grasses weren’t in bad shape either. There were plots set up in the better country on the flat and the autumn/winter graze plot had caused quite a bit of a stir many years ago when the Wallaby grass (themeda) had been discovered growing on it. This grass hadn’t been seen in these parts for a long time and the director was telephoned in Pretoria, the discovery was so important that he hoped on the first train to Middleburg and each plant was individually tagged. Now there is a dense stand of themeda but the lack of grazing over the past couple of years has seen in clump up and bare patches are beginning to form in between the clumps. Grazing was stopped on these flat plots 2 years ago due to a major problem with stock theft.

summer graze on right, winter graze on left

continuous graze on the leftsummer grazing on right

It’s been really cold, we’ve been typical tourists and thought of Africa as hot and been absolutely frozen at times. Sleeping in the camper isn’t much fun under freezing conditions although we have always managed to have a few laughs. We had rain one night and the camper, as it turns out, is not water proof on Robo’s side ☺, but the rain had fallen as snow on the mountains. Seriously cold although not cold enough for him to get his coat out of his bag?

Finishing this blog post off we are camped on the Orange River just south of Upington and it is much warmer here and the view from our camp site is amazing. If only there were hippos here…

2 thoughts on “Livestock farmers of the Karoo

  1. I have a very small pre-retirement herd of Nigerian Dwarf goats. I live in Southeast Arkansas Delta. I would like to raise them on pasture but have had a hard time fniidng out what to plant in my pasture. I have 15 acres that was Bermuda hay field and not a lot of browse for them. Also, where to find the seed to plant the pasture. Thanks.

  2. Chrissy, Elizabeth reminded me about your blog – it is a great read. I am so happy for you that your deep thinking and hard work have delivered for you. I hope you are well and safe on your trips. It would be really nice to catch up with one of these days.

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