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Southern Africa: Farmers balance healthy soils and healthy animals in a changing climate (IPS TerraViva Africa)

Rains have been poor in Swaziland for over ten years now. It has been a challenge to feed livestock through an ever-longer dry period, while maintaining soil health. Farmers like Bongani Phakathi need to be one step ahead and adapt to the changing climate.

Traditionally, livestock in Swaziland graze during winter. They eat the stalks and stubble left behind after maize and other crops are harvested.

Mr. Phakathi practices conservation agriculture on his smallholding a few kilometres outside the capital Mbabane. He harvests some of the maize and grass and sets it aside. He turns the rest into mulch. He uses the mulch to preserve moisture and soil fertility on his land.

Mr. Phakathi says, “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.”

Dr. Roland Dlamini is director of veterinary services at the Swazi Ministry of Agriculture. He confirms Mr. Phakathi’s view that letting cattle into the field damages the soil. He says the livestock also overgraze, eating all available forage in a short time.

Dr. Dlamini says, “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.” Many farmers now make hay every year.

However, bushfires can cause problems by burning the grass that farmers set aside to make hay.

Dr. Dlamini says, “This is a serious problem in the country – people are still burning the bush the way they please. Besides that wildfires end up destroying houses and fields, they also mean there is no grass for the livestock.”

Swaziland’s cattle owners could learn something from their Namibian counterparts, who have long experience raising livestock in arid conditions.

Ulf-Dieter Voigts manages an 8,500-hectare farm called Krumhuk, some 25 kilometres outside the Namibian capital of Windhoek. He keeps over 600 cattle and 1,000 game animals.

Mr. Voigts says, “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.”

Krumhuk is divided into grazing camps where groups of livestock feed for short periods. Mr. Voigts says, “We monitor the grazing of the livestock so that there is no overgrazing. We rotate the cattle after every week.” Mr. Voigts maintains cattle numbers at around 600, selling extra animals for beef. This prevents overgrazing and soil degradation.

The problem of bushfires destroying grass also affects Krumhuk. Mr. Voigts explains that the problem has been overcome with the involvement of the whole community living on the farm.

About 70 people work on Krumhuk. They own 20 percent of the cattle on the farm. Mr. Voigts says, “This therefore means that the people here will not be careless with fire, and if there is a fire incident, everyone comes running.”

Dr. Tobias Takavarasha is a Zimbabwean agricultural advisor. On visiting the farm in Namibia, he notes that the vast land at Krumhuk allows them to sustainably practice the grass-only system they are using. Dr. Takavarasha was impressed with the community’s involvement in managing the farm. He says, “This farm is a success story because everyone has a sense of ownership. This is what African countries need to do to manage issues of wild fires and grazing.”