Stacking in regenerative agriculture
In stacking, in regenerative agriculture, we concentrate on making the soil more resilient to drought, improve water penetration and retention. We aim to build up soil carbon and the soil organic matter to the benefit of the microbial health in the soil as well as the health of the plants, animals and humans. We produce nutrient dense food, because we have taken care of the soil.
It does not matter if you are a secondary producer like a feed lot or a chicken farmer producing broiler chickens or layers or a pig farmer. The better the quality of your food, the healthier your animal will be and the better quality your product will be.
There are a few things that all farmers who farm with animals and who practice regenerative agriculture regret when changing over to UHDG. Firstly they regret that they did not start earlier. They regret that they did not reduce the grazing area quicker, to be able to move more frequently every day in order for the animals to get fresh food serval times a day.
The second regret is that they did not increase their animal diversity earlier. Adding more animals to your farming enterprise increases the interaction on more biological systems than we can comprehend.
We are working with three living systems, that are so closely interlinked, and interdependent on each other for survival.
These systems are:
- The soil
- The plant
- The variety of animals, and with this I mean all living species that live above the ground
All three systems are biological systems where the bacteria, through various systems, release the necessary chemicals on an on-demand system.
Everything revolves around diversity. Nowhere in nature do you find a monocrop with no animals. We have changed this to suit our limited mindset. Humans cannot comprehend the complexity of natural systems therefore we have reduced our production systems into something that we can comprehend. Monocrops with pesticides and herbicides, to eliminate everything that stands in the way of our crop production. The same can be said about animal production. We want to eliminate every internal and external parasite, but we cannot comprehend the unforeseen consequence and effect that our management systems have.
How can stacking positively influence our production unit? One of the first advantages is that you are harvesting more than one protein source of the same piece of land. The other advantage is that the parasites are often host specific, meaning that the parasites cannot survive on the other host.
Remember that in nature there is always a predator-prey relationship. These systems must be restored, so that the natural predator becomes stable again. That is where the diversity of insect and bird life is enhanced. We cannot wake up in the morning and wonder what to kill next.
The stacking of various animals on the soil has different effects. The digestive tracts of the various animals are different, either monogastric, ruminants, or hind-gut fermenters. The faecal material of these three different digestive systems each has a different effect on the soil.
The different forms of grazing methods also vary within the different digestive systems. A cow tears, the sheep nibbles, and the goat is more of a browser. Each method has a different effect on the grass plant or shrub.
The positive effect grazing has on veld recovery, especially if it rains, is well documented. The increase in root exudates, which is the sugar that is excreted via the roots of the plant. That is part of the process of photosynthesis. This is also a symbiotic relationship between the soil microbes and the plant. The plant gives food to the microbes, and the microbes make minerals more bioavailable to the plant. This in return increases the aboveground biomass of the plant.
Various animals can be used for stacking like cows, sheep, goats, chickens both broilers and layers, pigs, just to name a few.
Pasture raised chicken, are highly effective fertilisers of the soil, especially where they sleep. There are enough examples on the internet of various egg mobiles and chicken mobiles where the birds are kept inhouse during the night. These mobiles must just be moved daily so that the concentration of dung is not on the same spot every day. This will burn the soil.
Chickens are also great in parasite control since they are omnivores. They will consume animal protein including various insects and parasites, from the animals that were on the veld previously.
Pigs are destructive and not suitable for all application, but they are also one of the best tools to build soil through their burrowing and their faecal material.
Green Bio products provide all the probiotics your animals need.
Everything in farming revolves around soil health. No farmer is exempt from looking after his soil. Using various animals on the same plot of land is crucial, and remarkably effective.
Gandhi said – “The future depends on what you do today”
Chasing the disease
Salespeople can be very convincing that our production is at risk of various production losses due to threats if we do not use their products. Therefore, we often blanket treat our production herds before a threat has even emerged. This management practice is one of the biggest drivers of increased production cost. The question is, “How do we build resilience into our herd so that we do not have to blanket treat our herds annually or even weekly as is the case in some intensive production systems?”
Is it possible to produce animal protein without the use of antibiotics, antibiotic growth promoters, internal and external parasite control? When will the consumer demand it? When will we realise what unforeseen effects we cause with our chemical controls that we continually use?
Chemicals work, and they are a tool in the management toolbox that is available to the producer to achieve his goal of producing healthy nutrient dense food. However, where the environment is regenerated, the animals become more resilient. This ultimately enhances human health rather than causing harm if managed correctly.
Chemicals are fortunately not the only tool. Chemicals should not be used indiscriminately. We must determine what management practices increase our risk of disease, and really enhance those that promote health. Unfortunately, those that promote health are very seldom a quick fix. It takes time to reverse years of chemical abuse – be this in animal or crop production.
You might think I am mad for saying this, because genetic advancements are what keeps us in business. If it were not for our yield, be it piglets/sow/year, or the number of tons per hectare or liters of milk per cow per day, we would not be in business anymore.
Banks do not bank yields.
We cannot run our production systems on a knife’s edge. We must build resilience and robustness into our food production systems. This means that we will have to build up our biological services that nature has provided for centuries already in the following areas:
- Soil biology
- Immune system
One of the most devastating effects of conventional agriculture, is that we try and control everything with chemistry. Soil has three main attributes namely biological, chemical, and structural. Regrettably, until recently, we have ignored the biological attributes of soil, probably because we did not understand it. It is not like chemistry, where the elements that were present before the reaction, are still there after the reaction, in whatever form these may be present.
Biology is the only science where multiplication and division give you the same result. We cannot and will probably never be able to simulate every pathway and biological interaction within soil, the rumen, the small intestine or even between the various predator prey relationships or copy the immune system reaction to all the beneficial bacteria and pathogens in and around us.
By the time research is published it is already outdated. Research is about pushing the knowledge frontier. You can never be on “the other” side of the knowledge frontier, only on the known side of the frontier. So, when research is published, it is already outdated since the frontier was moved, you are now “this side” of the frontier, and new opportunities have emerged as a result of the increase in knowledge. These are not always good or benign opportunities.
The complexity of nature
We cannot comprehend the complexity of nature, and the biological services nature provides. Instead of trying to improve nature with a reductive mindset, we should rather enhance it with biological principles that have been shown, even if only anecdotally, to be true – where farming practices have reduced the input costs on cash crops and even animal production units. Just because we cannot prove something, or the instrumentation is not accurate enough to give us a result, this does not nullify the observations of the farmer, who has the best local knowledge about his area, and his farm.
A simple example is a penetrometer. After a certain hardness is measured, it states that roots will not grow in such hard soil. However, when a profile pit is dug, there are roots deeper than the penetrometer indicated. Why?
How can two neighboring farms have a disease profile that is so different that the one farmer must dip his cattle every 14 days during the peak tick season and the second farmer has not dipped for the last 15 years?
Why are some animals more resistant to internal parasites than others? How can we breed more resilient animals? How can we make sure that the newborn animals get the right profile of antibodies through the mother’s colostrum, from all the pathogens that are present on the farm?
Antibiotics, anthelminthic, tick remedies and other chemicals are part of the management toolbox any farmer should be able to use. The problem is that it is used indiscriminately or as the only tool. The principle of “the bigger the doubt, the bigger the hammer” is then applied. This is not sustainable, and only increases your input costs.
Everything in nature is about survival and this is also true for the pathogens. Through the indiscriminate use of antibiotic growth promoters, and the incorrect use of antibiotics when a disease does breakout, we have created resistant pathogens in all aspects of animal production.
The problem is also experienced in human health where many doctors still prescribe antibiotics at the slightest aliment. Producing food ethically and with integrity is something to strive for. This should be the role of the consultants; they should provide management solutions. Selling a product for every problem is not a solution. This only turns consultants into salesmen and not somebody that has the farmer’s best interest at heart.
We should view the solution of the production system holistically, and not only at a product level to solve our problems caused by pathogens. This principle does not only apply to animal production, but is also applicable to cash crops, vegetables, and fruit production.
If we only look at a short-term solution, and a cure for the problem now, but do not change anything in our management systems to try and prevent the disease outbreak for the next year, we will have the same disease challenge again and again.
If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
So how do we build a more resilient food system? The short answer is: Enhance your soil biology. If you understand that fact and pull the value chain from the soil through to plant health, animal health and ultimately human health, you will understand how important it is to become a custodian of the land again. Enhancing the soil biology, improving the predator prey relationship, in order to use natural predators instead of killing the food for the predators, and even the predators themselves. That way we will not have to wonder why we have an antibiotic, pesticide or herbicide resistance problem. We must enhance our soil biology, and the biological and immunological systems in our plants, production animals and ourselves.
Allergies, food intolerances, asthma and other disorders like ADD and ADHD, are on the increase. This is the result of how we produce our food, how we raise our children and how we have been raised.
The convenience of ready-made meals, our obsession to keep up with the Joneses and trying to keep everything sterilised, just out of fear that we might catch a disease, has resulted in our immune systems never being triggered – not even by probiotics – to function properly. Our immune system must be primed to withstand pathogens. If we always kill everything, our immune system will not be triggered nor will it develop to withstand the various antigens that is all around us constantly.
Dr. Christine Jones of Australia often talks about enhancing the biological service to such an extent that you get quorum sensing. When this happens, the bacteria (probiotic bacteria, normal flora) can trigger certain gene expressions in the host animal, or plant. This is directly related to the immune system as well. Where the immune system is triggered to perform optimally. If the immune system is primed optimally as an infant, a lot of the food allergies and food intolerances would not be recorded.
There are more and more reports and scientific articles being published where the relationship between soil bacteria, the mental state and a healthy gut system are described as being part of a whole. We have lost our relationship with soil.
When was the last time you walked barefoot on healthy nutrient rich soil? When was the last time you got your hands “dirty” planting or seeding your own vegetables or fruit trees?
We are part of nature, and not above it. The biological systems that enhance our immune system are neglected.
How do we produce robust, more resilient production animals, where we can rely on the immune system of the animal to protect themselves and their offspring against various diseases? Can we chase the disease and make our mother animals produce better colostrum for their newborn? The answer is yes.
How often do we hear farmers say that a camp is infected, when animals give birth in the camp and the newborn animals get sick?
One of the most critical defense mechanisms of the newborn animal is the antibodies produced by the mother animal and passed on via the colostrum to the newborn. It is critical that every newborn animal gets its share of colostrum as soon as possible. The shorter the time from birth until the first sip of colostrum, the better protected the newborn animal is. After a certain time frame the small intestine of the newborn “shuts down” and no IgG antibodies can pass through the villi. It is useless to feed colostrum after that time. Six hours after birth is already pushing the boundary of inefficiency.
Commercial colostrum can be used for very specific diseases. For diarrhea and other gut related ailments, it is better to prime the mother animals so that their colostrum is of such a nature, that the various pathogenic antigens are covered by her antibodies produced in her colostrum.
There is a fine balance of controlling the pathogenic load on the farm and keeping the production animals healthy. Disease outbreak, and your management practices are crucial to keep the balance between production and disease. The various production systems also determine what kind of animal management system you should follow. When comparing a TMR system and a pasture dairy system, the pasture system is more robust and resilient to price fluctuation than a TMR system. Any intensive system is more prone to disease.
As far as the proximity of the animals are concerned, it should be determined whether the proximity of the animals causes the disease or whether it is the animal management system that causes the disease. We are working with life systems from the soil, to the gut and what we produce is organic material on which bacteria and other pathogens can thrive. If we sterilize everything every day, we destroy the immunes system’s ability to react to a pathogen. What if the pathogen becomes resistant to the antibiotic or the disinfectant that we try and kill it with daily?
How often have farmers’ problems started as soon as they started dipping for ticks? We will not be able to farm without ticks. They are part of the system. The important question is: How can we minimise our losses due to tick-borne diseases? At the beginning of the article I mentioned that neighboring farms, at the peak of the tick season, one farmer dips every 10 – 14 days, whereas the neighbor has not dipped in 15 years. Does the neighbor not have red water? The answer is no, far from it. True, some of his animals do succumb to red water every year, and sure, it is a loss, but it is never more than 10 animals on a herd of 1300 animals.
The production loss of walking the herd to a dip every 10 – 14 days, is probably greater than the 10 animals lost annually. The other advantage of losing the 10 animals is that they did not adapt to the specific disease on the farm. If they did, they would keep the ticks alive and therefore the disease alive.
The same happens with sheep and internal parasites. If you constantly blanket treat you animals for internal parasites, all you are doing is weakening their defense system. Once again, you cannot farm without internal parasites. They will always be part of the system. Doing the FAMCHA test before dosing sheep and only treating those that need to be treated is already a step in the right direction. If an ewe or mother animal must be treated constantly, discarding that animal from you farm is probably the better option, as she will only produce resistant parasites for you.
Mother animal vs baby animal
As far as diarrhea related diseases are concerned, it is often the mother animal that is the host of such diseases or pathogens. She is the carrier of the disease and the baby animal is then infected and the multiplier of the disease. This is part of the life cycle of the pathogen. It will not kill the mother animal, but the young animal. Something will eat the carcass of the young animal and this way the pathogen will find a new host.
It is therefore crucial to breed animals that can withstand the onslaught of the various pathogens on the farm. Priming the mother animal to produce effective colostrum is essential in your overall disease management system.
There are various factors that influence colostrum production. Heat-stress has a huge negative effect on colostrum. Nutrition can influence the colostrum either negatively or positively. Always ensure that your feed is toxin free. If there are toxins in the feed it will have a huge negative effect on the colostrum production. Do not ever think that it is only one bale, or only one bucket of silage that is contaminated. Toxins affect everything in your production system negatively and weaken your whole breeding herd.
Always make sure that the animals have access to clean, fresh drinking water. It is, after clean fresh air, the most important mineral that has huge effects on the overall health of your production unit.
There are certain diseases where we cannot protect the animals through management systems – be they the production animals or the newborn animals. Vaccinations must be a crucial and integral part of every farm’s management healthcare system. In South Africa we must vaccinate against certain diseases annually. The vaccination program for each farm must be developed in co-operation with the local vet. Never think that you do not have to vaccinate if you have not had a specific disease problem before. Many of the diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can infect humans as well. You do not want to be the reason for disease infected humans, because of your lack of understanding of the disease.
At Green Bio we specifically look at management practices where we enhance the production of colostrum. With our various natural products, we aim at giving the mother animal the best chance to produce effectively, improving the gut health and reducing the pathogenic load on the farm. We strongly suggest implementation of management systems. Through effective management systems, the young animals are given the best chance for survival.
By Gerry Weber
Regardless of our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil, and the fact that it rains.
We cannot survive without water. In Southern Africa we realise this on a daily basis. We have prolonged droughts and unusual weather patterns, where our seasons are ever changing.
Healthy robust topsoil can retain more water than degraded “moeg geploegde” soil, where the water penetration and the water retention leave a lot to be desired.
How often do we say our prayers of thanksgiving, because it is raining? But we have done nothing in our management system, to prepare for rain, and prevent our topsoil from being washed away.
Our climate is changing. Irrespective of whether you want to call it global warming, or if you deny that it is happening. We cannot carry on with our destructive agricultural management practices, and think we will remain profitable.
Our ways and viewpoints should change from where we currently farm and manage our natural resources as if this is the last harvest we’ll ever need. We should come to a viewpoint and management practices where we secure the resources for generations to come.
The following section is taken form the book Chicken Nutrition – by Rick Kleyn
“Water is often called the fundamental nutrient. Whereas animals may survive for considerable periods without food, without water they would soon die.
Water is required by the body for the maintenance of body temperature and for almost all metabolic processes. In nutritional terms, water is the single most important nutrient that we feed to animals, yet in most instances, it is taken completely for granted and therefore often neglected. Water usually receives attention only when mechanical problems occur.”
The role of water
Water constitutes the major component of both cells and the extra-cellular environment.
It does, in fact sustain life by performing the following important functions:
- Transportation of nutrients (glucose, amino acids, minerals, vitamins)
- Transportation of gas, in particular oxygen and carbon dioxide
- Transportation of wastes towards the liver and kidney
- Transportation of hormones
- Regulation of cellular hemostasis
- Adjustment of body temperature
- Maintenance of mineral homeostasis
- Excretion of end products of digestion, anti-nutritional factors ingested with the diet, drugs and drug residues.
The quality of water offered to animals may have a direct bearing in their ultimate performance. Extremes in pH, bacteria, nitrogen levels, hardness and excessively low or high naturally occurring elements can adversely affect water quality.
Its chemical and microbiological content determine water quality.
We must employ management practices where we preserve our water, regardless of our profession. Everybody must look at water and air as the most important resource. We must protect it, because our life depends on both these natural resources.
Water contamination is often not taken into consideration when certain management practices are applied. This is probably the most fundamental issue in today’s industrial area. For example, applying chemicals, in the various forms, in modern agriculture, but also in other industries.
There are always unforeseen consequences when contaminating water.The price we are already paying, and the price future generations will pay will be too high for the short-term benefits.
It is not only chemicals and its applications that can contaminate water, but also organic waste, resulting from the various industrial farms. A proper waste disposal plan must be put in place for the discarding of faecal material and other organic waste, including dead animals.
We cannot afford that organic waste be the source of a disease outbreak on your farm just because the waste management system failed.
We must look after our natural resources – air, water and soil – and how we can benefit optimally from these resources. Not exploiting them, nor contaminating them, but for the benefit of all living creatures.
Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, will we find out that we cannot eat money.
Photography: Gerry Weber
The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare
By Gerry Weber
It is a well-known fact that production animals will produce better in a stress-free environment. In every production system, this is true for all living organisms. As soon as there are any signs of stress the production drops, or the animals or humans get diseased.
The question is “How can we produce animal protein that is crucial for the wellbeing of humans without increasing the stress levels of the animals?”
Animal welfare is a topic that is not often talked about at farmer level, and it is often ignored instead of being tackled proactively. The consumer is demanding that the food that he eats is produced by producers that have taken animal welfare and the environment seriously. The problem is that this issue is not addressed properly. Good nutrient dense food is the next step. It has a positive effect on the human health, and in reality, consumers are already demanding certain Brix values of their fruit and vegetables.
Is it only a matter of time before we’ll have to change our farming practices in order to take the whole value chain into consideration – Farming practices that improve soil biology and the effects that it has on the environment as well as the quality of the feed and food that we produce. We should have an audited animal production system in place that specifically looks at animal welfare and the five freedom principles of animal welfare. We should monitor what effect produced food has on human health – whether it improves human health and resilience or whether humans are more disease prone because there are certain chemical residues in the food that contain known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
It is of crucial importance that we change proactively instead of being blinded and so entrenched in our ways that we cannot comprehend what effects we have on the environment, the health of our production animals and eventually the health of humans.
What are the five freedoms of animal production?
Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition
This is self-explanatory and it is unthinkable that farmers would not feed their animals or not give them water to drink.
It is however more than that. The feed we provide should always be free from toxins. Toxins are probably one of the main causes of disease and often go unnoticed. It starts with the purchase of the maize. If the maize is so much cheaper than commercial maize prices, don’t think you are buying a bargain. It will come back to haunt you, in either disease or production losses, lower conception rates, or reduced daily weight gains.
Antibiotic growth promoters (AGP) – for how long will we be able to feed AGP? They have been banned in Europe and in some African countries already. Should we not breed animals that are robust enough to withstand the pathogenic challenge that they are exposed to on farms? Has COVID19 shown us how fickle our food production and food distribution processes really are? What will happen if one of the large chicken or bacon suppliers close because of a virus? We have had our first scare last year already with Listeria.
The problem with any pandemic or disease outbreak is misinformation. Wrong information can so easily be distributed nowadays with social media. It is of importance what is not said rather than what is said.
The other side effect of AGP is the pathogen resistance to antibiotics. We must produce animals that can produce regardless of the pathogenic load on the farm, whether it is bacteria, internal or external parasites. Farmers should use management systems which limit exposure.
“Water is the fundamental nutrient without which animals soon die. It is taken for granted and, therefore, often neglected” in the words of Rick Kleyn in his book Chicken nutrition.
We must give our animals clean, fresh drinking water. There is so much at stake in any animal production system, that we cannot afford to mess it up with contaminated water that might cause diseases within the herd. Too often there is only one water source, and if this is contaminated, you risk infecting your whole herd.
2. Freedom from physical and thermal discomfort
This once again is an obvious statement. Why would any producer want to cause his animals to be in a state of discomfort? It affects the farmer’s production and income. What is not obvious to the consumer is that the animals are not as sensitive to temperature as humans are. Free range or pasture raised animals are normally more robust, or it could be that the environment is just more animal friendly for the pasture raised animal than factory farmed animals. That would beg the question, why spend so much money in trying to control the environment? Pasture raised animals don’t need to be pampered to such an extent as industrial farmed animals. Is the cost of industrialisation worth it?
Farm with Nature not against her.
It is important to retain trees and natural shade for your animals, for them to move out of direct sunlight. They must have access to direct sunlight too, if they choose to stand or forage in the sun.
3. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
It is very seldom that a producer deliberately causes pain or injury to his animals. What this refers to though is the handling facilities must be of such a nature that they don’t cause pain or injury. A mercy killing has to be performed when an animal is injured or has chronic pain and cannot be helped anymore . The welfare of the animal must be considered over the money that might be lost by the mercy killing.
Freedom from disease – this is where the veterinary consultant must be used on the farm. You cannot think of animal welfare without having a resident vet who inspects your animals at least twice a year. The farmer and the vet should also have a discussion on disease prevention. Prevention is better than cure. This should be an all-encompassing discussion including quality feed, water, animal handling, breeding, disease tolerant animals for your specific area, vaccination programs, and what treatments should be followed if there is a disease outbreak. Antibiotic growth promotors should not be part of the disease preventative discussion. We are fooling ourselves if we believe it doesn’t cause pathogen resistance to various antibiotics.
Antibiotics are however part of every farmer’s tool box and must be used according to the vet’s prescription, to blanket treat a herd for a disease that might affect production, with antibiotics is not an option. Using vaccines or boosting the immune system of the animal is a more sustainable option.
4. Freedom from fear and distress
This is easier said than done. Farming in Africa is not for sissies or the faint hearted – if we take all the predators in consideration. Controlling predators will always be a contentious issue between conservationists and farmers. Relocating programs for predators, from leopards, cheetah, to wild dogs and hyena should be more coordinated across Africa. Some countries would welcome the reintroduction of predators and others feel they have too many. Because of various restrictions, rules and lack of funding, these relocations aren’t happening. If the farmer then shoots a predator, he is made out to be the villain, but the problem is that he has no system to support him in predator control.
The Mamre Intensive Lambing system, where the ewes lamb in pens that are predator proof, was specifically developed to prevent lambs from being killed by predators. The expense farmers have incurred to protect their animals from various predators are astronomical.
As far as freedom form distress is concerned, I just want to highlight air quality. This is often ignored, especially in baby animal enclosures, where the baby animals must be kept warm – usually at a temperature higher than ambient temperature. The air circulation is critical in these rooms or facilities, in order to have enough oxygen in the room. This circulated air must be clean.
5. Freedom to express normal patterns of behavior
This is an interesting principle as most of our production animals have been domesticated. Their genetic selection is such that they can produce or grow in a certain time frame in order to be harvested for meat under various conditions. In the chicken industry for example, the chickens have been genetically selected to grow at a certain rate, but they must be kept in a specific environment to maintain that growth. Take them out of that environment and the chicken would not produce and probably die. With all genetic selection, if you only select for growth and production, the immune system will be negatively impacted.
Pasture raised production animals must clearly have a different behavior pattern than factory farmed animals, be that poultry or pigs. Dairy is the same. You cannot expect an animal that is bred for a TMR system to have the same behavior pattern as a pasture raised dairy cow.
The interesting questions about the five freedoms are:
- Who is the judge and the jury?
- Who is the accused and the accuser?
- Who determines how these principles should be monitored?
- Who determines whether an animal is in discomfort?
Joe Salatin, in his book “Folks this ain’t normal” describes how he was reported to the animal welfare office because his ducks were swimming in a pond during winter. The charge was that his animals were cold. The ducks went into the pond on their own, wild ducks were also swimming in the same pond.
We must be very careful not to judge wrongly and in ignorance.
Animal production has advanced scientifically over time. It is fascinating what the genetic achievements have been in all the various animal production systems.
The farmers must also take into consideration that they can push their animals over the limit. Take any intensive reproduction system where the success rate is measured in number of pigs weaned, per sow per year. Having ewes lamb three times over a period of 24 months and the yield that has to be achieved in a dairy cow. In a TMR system, to produce a calve yearly and average over a certain yield of liters per day to cover costs. We are still working with living systems and they are wicked. Life happens and things do go wrong, be it with feed, water or other environmental factors such as heat. We must not run our herds on a knife edge. The production cost is just not worth it. We have to build more resilient management systems where we have better control of our input costs.
The broiler industry must be nearly sterile to produce their results. This is not for the biosecurity of the humans, but rather for the broilers. If there is a disease outbreak, the fatalities are high. There is no more robustness in our animal production systems. Take cryptosporidium for example and how devastating it has been for both beef and sheep farmers.
Animal welfare: Farmers versus Vegans versus Animal Rights Activists
Talking about animal welfare from a farmer’s perspective is something totally different than talking about animal welfare from a vegan’s or an animal rights activist’s perspective. These are two totally different conversations.
Animal rights activists and vegans only take the animal into account, everything must revolve around the animal. The financial aspect of the farmer does not feature in the argument. Some controversial animal rights activists vandalised farms and cut electricity cables. This resulted in a malfunction of the ventilation and 700 pigs died. This is not fighting for animal rights – these are criminal acts that should be dealt with as such.
The farmer however cannot ignore animal welfare and think he will achieve optimal production. Think of how strict the various industrial farming setups are and take animal welfare into consideration like group housing in the pig industry.
The farmer must make money, but he cannot do it at the cost of animal welfare, and he must be made aware of any short coming with his management practices.
Consumer pressure is mounting to produce animal protein ethically. More and more farmers are starting to tell their stories on how their animals are treated ethically. They use no antibiotics or harmful chemicals to control internal and external parasites.
We must start looking at our animal production systems where biology plays a major role in all aspects. We cannot reduce our farming systems just to mechanical and chemical processes. This is just too simplistic and the production costs will escalate. Management systems where the biological services are enhanced will result in more control of our input costs. The undefined advantages, like animal health, soil health will reduce the production costs even further.
Animal protein is essential to the human wellbeing. We are omnivores and we as consumers have a choice in our buying power and choose how the animals that we eat, are raised. This is applicable in all aspects of animal protein from dairy, poultry and the various meat products.
Photography: Gerry Weber
Life Creates Life
This philosophy is instilled in all of our products, to enhance every part of your agricultural ecosystems so that all life in it reaches its genetic potential, naturally.
Creating regenerative, holistic agricultural systems sustains successful business; rich and fertile soils, abundant crops, strong livestock, genetically superior ecosystems as a whole and healthier humans who will eat the the most nutritious, hormone and antibiotic free foods.
By: Gerry Weber
“The right to search for the truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true” – Albert Einstein
How can we as humans get it so wrong, so often? And when people warn us about the consequences of our actions – we still want to defend our right to make money and to further destroy and harm the environment along with ourselves? Humans cannot function without nature or the natural systems that support all living organisms, from the tiny bacteria in the soil through to the largest mammals. Everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent on other species for survival.
There is a meme that showcases a pristine beach, captioned “Animals were here.”
The second picture shows rubbish in all forms: plastic bottles, bags, cigarette butts – basically a mess. It states “Humans were here.” Let’s behave like animals…
We live in a disconnected world where the number of friends we have, are counted as a figure on social media and the number of likes a post gets, determines our popularity. It’s a world where the farmer produces food for somebody he doesn’t know, and the consumer buys food – even ready-made food – that is mass-produced and has a list of ingredients that nobody cares to read because they are not comprehensible.
In much the same way, the farmer has become disconnected from the soil and uses management practices that inherently harm the soil. He is locked into a system where, if he continues with the various management practices, he will have to continue buying the various products that destroy the soil biology. This makes him more dependent on the use of chemicals and mass-produced seeds. In the end, he has no control over his input costs, nor over his selling price.
Farmers know this already and gripe about it, but do not necessarily know what to do about it. Their fear of change eclipses possible solutions, often right at their doorstep. Will Rogers once said: “If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”
The Emperor’s Clothes
There’s a classic yet fitting fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson called The Emperor’s Clothes. In this tale two weavers conned the emperor into believing that they make the best clothes. Only people who really appreciated their work, could see the clothes. The Emperor paid large amounts of money to the two weavers for his new wardrobe.
He wanted to parade his new wardrobe to his subjects, so he got dressed in his magnificent ‘’invisible” clothes. Everybody praised the emperor for how wonderful he looked. That is, until a small boy in the crowd mentioned the obvious: The emperor had no clothes on – leaving him embarrassed and knowing that he had been taken for a ride.
Is this what has happened in the agricultural sector? That science thought they can produce crops with chemical usage, the various herbicides, pesticides, and GMO crops better than what the natural, evolved system can – with all its diversity?
We must stop fooling ourselves and start realising the unfavourable effects we have on the natural ecosystems through our modern, destructive agricultural systems. We are destroying our soil and are becoming more and more reliant on a handful of companies for the answer. Like the weavers in our story, these are the companies who are making the farmer more and more dependent on their products whilst convincing them that without their products, they cannot feed the world.
No single farmer can feed the world. It’s not happening now, and it will never happen. We are already producing enough food – it’s just that 33% of all produced food is wasted. The consumer must reconnect with his/her food source, and the farmer with the soil.
Our human minds are always reductive. When we see a pest, we want to kill or destroy it, but in the natural world, there is always a stable predator-prey relationship. When we kill the pest, we also indirectly kill the predator. However, we then only replant food for the pest and we must, once again, apply a pesticide to kill the pest. Subsequently the pest becomes resistant and we must change to a different, much harsher pesticide or start applying more than the recommended dose onto our crops. Ultimately, the predator will not return because we always take away its food source.
We are already applying neonicotinoids to the seeds, while the pesticide and herbicide cocktails are becoming harsher for the crop to withstand the onslaught of pests and weeds. The neonicotinoids and various other chemicals we use in agriculture are destroying our insects and specifically the pollinators which will have a catastrophic effect in the long run.
Chemical manufacturing companies have no answer to the weed, pest or disease resistance which is so evident in all modern agriculture. Think of the chemical cocktails used for various diseases, pests, and weeds. It is only a matter of time before resistance builds up again… what then?
What about GMOs?
They have been heralded as the epitome of agricultural science. Anybody who has ever spoken out against GMOs and its safety risks, has been criticised as ‘not for science’ and that they have no idea what they are talking about (similar to the weavers’ influencing of the emperor). The method of inserting a gene code from a different species to achieve a certain result is not accurate and will never be, due to the makeup of the double-stranded DNA helix.
Scientists have sold it as though there is no difference between this unnatural gene manipulation and what happens in nature.Like when DNA matter is interchanged between certain organisms or when an egg gets manually fertilised by a sperm.
There are checks and balances in the natural world that prevent certain DNA combinations from surviving or certain gene sequences from expressing what they are coded for – unlike the GMOs we produce in a lab. We cannot correctly determine where the inclusion of a specific code will be inserted. No GMO has been tested or trialled for a long enough period to be recognised as safe.
Let’s take the BT gene for example, a GMO corn plant engineered to withstand army worms. In nature the toxin is expressed when there is a threat, which is normal. The toxin is denatured when it encounters UV light, and when the threat passes, the bacillus spores stop excreting the toxin. This means a genetic code is in place to stop the excretion of the toxin.
In the GMO plant, however, this does not happen. The gene is encoded into the plant’s genetic makeup so that the plant continuously excretes the toxin – even if there is no threat – not so normal. Scientists could not have predicted the unforeseen consequences : not only do we have army worm that is resistant to the BT toxin, but the energy consumption of the plant is higher because every cell of the plant excretes the toxin continuously. The other unforeseen consequence is environmental contamination via the continued excretion of the BT gene, in both aquatic and soil biology.
Another unforeseen consequence GMOs have, is that plant roots are losing their relationship to the soil. We already face problems with the nutrient density of various cash crops. This decline in nutrient density has been well documented, in both plant and meat harvests.
The soil biology provides a plethora of micronutrients on an on-demand basis. We must believe in the ability of nature which has provided these nutrients over millennia, to carry on doing so. We must not destroy these systems that sustain all living creatures.
How often do farmers say “we cannot farm without GMOs or the use of glyphosate; how would we make money?” The chemical agriculture industry has managed to lock farmers into a cycle where they do not see any alternative other than chemical agricultural management systems, where yields are the only determining factor. Banks do not bank yields!
Why, in the 21st century should we have laws that monitor chemicals in our food? Have we regressed with modern science to such an extent that we now feed chemicals to all our production animals and ourselves? The argument is always “we must manage the risk” – that’s no argument! The environmental, social and economic cost is so distorted, that the price we pay for a few companies to profit from an industry they are exploiting far exceeds the benefits we receive from their products.
We know what the consequences are when consuming these chemicals and what result they have on all living systems, from the bacteria in the soil to the most isolated individuals and predators in the world. Carcinogens and endocrine disruptors have affected all of us; diseases like diabetes and auto-immune diseases are on the increase. How far must we contaminate the environment, and all in the name of science?
The chemicals affect the fertility and the gut systems of our production animals, pollinators and in the end, us humans. We must stop thinking that our conventional farming management systems have no effect on the environment.
Jane Goodall once said: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
The price we pay for our human actions:
- Diversity decline in the form of wildlife, birds and insects
- Human health issues like chronic conditions, auto-immune diseases, cancer
- Wasted tax money
- Increased input costs
There is a lot of talk in South Africa about soil erosion and the detrimental impact it has on land and water resources. It is critical to understand that although soil erosion is a naturally occurring process, humans have the potential to accelerate or counteract soil erosion through land management practices. For example, vegetation clearing, overgrazing and soil tillage will accelerate erosion, whilst using cover crops, rotational grazing and no-till practices can halt soil erosion.
Soil is a critical resource to all land-based practices, particularly agriculture. It is important to realise that soil is a finite and non-renewable resource, with soil formation a very slow process. Estimates show that the soil formation rate in South Africa is around 5 tons/ha/year, while the average soil loss rate is around 12.5-13tons/ha/year on agricultural land. Clearly, this is unsustainable.
The impact of soil erosion is large and far-reaching. The loss of fertile topsoil not only results in an increase in food production costs and loss of arable land; it also pollutes water resources through sedimentation and contaminants, such as herbicides and pesticides. To grasp how much of an issue this is, consider the Welbedacht dam. Siltation resulted in the storage capacity of the dam dropping from 115 million cubic meters to 16 million cubic meters between 1973 and 1993.A horrifying decrease of around 86%. Considering our reliance on dams during the dry season and droughts, it is crucial that we are able to store as much water as possible when we receive good rains.
Have you ever tested soil compaction due to tillage? In simple terms, the first rainwater penetrates the soil but depending on the rain, the surface is sealed, and the next rain event cannot penetrate as effectively, causing run-off and further erosion. There are many videos and examples where it is shown that water penetration and water retention are improved when using no-till and minimal disturbance both mechanically and chemically. How often are animals blamed for soil compaction, and left out of a cash crop field? Yet the compaction caused around the drinking and feeding troughs is mitigated by the biological processes that the animals stimulate when grazing either cover crops or harvest rests on the cash crop field.
Our dependence on fossil fuels and chemicals is at an all-time high. When will the system collapse? Every time we try and control nature, our input costs increase. This is true in all spheres of life. Chemical agriculture also tried to control nature with its whole arsenal and lost. Yes, farmers’ yields have improved, and it is mind boggling to see by how much. Worldwide the yields have probably doubled. But, have the farmers profited? No, they have not. No matter how TV shows like Mega Boere paint a picture of the effectiveness of these farmers, their risk of producing a crop increases yearly with every rising input cost and the decline in profit margins. Furthermore, if we take the changing weather patterns such as prolonged droughts and less (but stronger) rainfall events into account, we are conning ourselves into thinking that we have food security.
Can we farm with mother nature rather than against her?
The short answer is yes. But, to get there will be a lengthy process as we would need to turn around years of destruction and plundering that are so evident in conventional agriculture. We cannot expect to heal the land within one season, nor can we only implement no-till and think we’ve arrived.
Nature is a wickedly complex system. We must maximise the biological processes that she supplies with our limited knowledge of the soil and the effects, relationships, and interactions that all living species have with (and on) each other. From the soil microbes, interactions with various plants, the symbiotic relationships of its exudates and which bacteria they stimulate, to the effect that the largest mammals have on the soil microbiome. We as humans with our finite thinking don’t know everything; and we cannot control what we don’t know. Besides, if you want to control it, you still cannot predict the unforeseen consequences that your actions might have.
Changing over to a biological farming system takes time – you really cannot think that everything will change in a year. Changing over is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a lifelong commitment that revolves around the understanding of soil health and how to increase the carbon levels. There is no end game. Don’t stagnate, and never think you’ve arrived or “I’m now at the pinnacle”. We don’t yet know what the pinnacle is, and I doubt we ever will.
What are our tools and what management practices can we use?
Let’s take the five principles of soil health as described in Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil:
- Minimum disturbance both chemically and mechanically
- Armour through soil cover
- Build diversity
- Living roots
- Integrate animals
To achieve these five principles will take time. Management systems must be improved gradually, so that all five components can be achieved and implemented successfully. Doing everything at once will lead to a disaster. You will blame the system and not your application of the principles. There is no silver bullet in any business – especially not in a system that we don’t fully comprehend or understand.
We have to start somewhere and understanding why we must change is far more important than how we apply it. We need to fully comprehend what effects conventional agriculture has alongside all the unforeseen consequences. We also need to acknowledge the fact that we can improve soil health and find out what the benefits and biological advantages are.
One of the quickest ways of improving soil health on a cash crop field is through cover crops and animal integration. Just planting a cover crop for the sake of a cover crop will simply lead to frustration. You also need to know what you want to achieve with that cover crop.
Benefits a cover crop should offer:
- Increase soil organic matter
- Parasite control – nematodes
- Recuperate mineral deficiency
- Improve predator-prey relationship
This can be achieved by looking at how many hectares of cover crops can be planted during the normal cash crop period, followed by another cover crop in the off season. If this is done over a period of two years, it can break the parasite cycle for the next cash crop. The cash crop can then be harvested with animals, in turn justifying the cost through their growth.
When changing over, realise that your management system will intensify. There is no program or a chart that you can implement from your neighbour. You have to build your own unique management system and see how your management style affects your implementation and rate thereof. Continuously educate yourself. Nobody’s education stops when they finish school, university or college; we must learn something every day to improve on what we knew yesterday.
Regenerative agriculture is nothing new – it has been done for centuries. Finding information nowadays is the easiest it has ever been. If you just take to Google, YouTube or social media, it’s easy to find people sharing their experiences on rebuilding their soil. There are many fascinating books written about this topic. It is amazing how much farmers love to tell stories about how they rebuilt the soil and their profitability, how they heal the land, their relationships, their community and their people.
Your mindset must change to see that everything you do agriculturally, has an influence on soil health. The healthier your soil becomes, the lower your input costs will be, ultimately driving your profitability. Most farmers get stuck in the fear that their yields will drop. Yield has nothing to do with profitability, but we have swindled ourselves into thinking it is the measure of success or effectiveness.
Dr. James Blignaut mentioned at the Reitz Landbou Weekblad conference in 2019, that the west of South Africa will have to change over to regenerative agriculture, or their profit margins will decrease over time. The sooner you start with your own education process to see what has been done in certain areas and, more importantly, what must be done in your area to improve soil health, the better for you and the future of your farm.
It does not matter what farming enterprise you run- you are dependent on soil health.
We should view the five principles of soil health collectively and not as five individual points implemented independently.
Minimal disturbance: This is probably the most self-explanatory; certain farmers have successfully implemented the no-till practice years already. Where they do fail is that they don’t realise chemical inputs are also part of this equation. Inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have a huge detrimental effect both on the soil microbes and the environment at large. Inorganic fertilisers have an enormous effect on agricultural water contamination. The use of inorganic nitrogen when planting, shuts down the root exudates that are vital to the soil bacteria. Basically, your all-round effort must be aimed towards soil health and water retention.
Armour: Keep your soil covered with organic matter. This cools it down, so that the microbial life has a better chance of survival. Fallow fields that are ploughed or disked for weed control are detrimental to both the soil microbiology and water retention.
Building diversity: This is relevant in all aspects from plants, animals, insects to birds and wildlife. Life creates life, we should embrace this instead of following our destructive habits. Soil and the environment are living beings which are destroyed by killing everything other than the cash crop or the production animal. The unforeseen consequences that have been unleashed by the use of chemical agriculture, as is evident today, are frightening.
Diversifying farming operations where crop rotation, intercropping or inter-seeding, pollinator strips, cover crops and a variety of animals are integrated to control both weeds and pests, will result in minimal input costs and healthier food for the consumer. Importantly, we must also sustain and regenerate the predator-prey relationship on farms. We have tried to destroy our pests with chemicals for far too long, yet we have failed. How many resistant pests (weeds, fungal, bacterial) have we created in crop production, animal production and in human health? We have lost the war against the microbial world.
Through building diversity, the whole system becomes more robust and the immune systems of plants, production animals and ultimately human health, will improve. The water harvesting capability of soil improves, along with water retention, so that cash crops can withstand the droughts and increased temperatures.
Furthermore, building diversity among animals through a stacking technique will improve resilience by having ruminants which are followed by monogastric animals for pest control. This can be used to achieve more than one income stream, but also uses animals to contain certain pests. It kills two flies with one swat (pardon the pun).
The biological processes that are activated when combining animals, cover crops and cash crops in various rotations on a cash crop field are incredible. Several farmers have already implemented the five principles of soil health and have successfully reduced their diesel usage per hectare by a massive 70% – all without dropping their yields!
Living roots (cover crops): These are probably the cheapest and easiest way to improve soil health. Simply plant and give them a fair chance to grow, so they can reach their full potential. Planting the cover crop only in the off season and hoping for a game changer is not the answer. Plant a section of your cash crop fields in the rainy season so that the soil can start regenerating. Remember – keep a mindset of what is beneficial to soil health.
Employing a multi-species cover crop onto the field is also more beneficial than just adding a mono-cover crop. The various root exudates stimulate a larger diversity of micro-organisms. In the long run, it increases soil carbon, organic matter, various mineral cycles and, most importantly, the water cycle (both water retention and penetration).
Integrating animals: Nature doesn’t work without animals. To really appreciate the biological benefits that the appropriate animal impact provides both on the natural veld and on cash crop fields, it must be experienced. Using grazing methods where cattle forage non-selectively has a very positive impact on the veld, increasing species diversity both in grasses and forbs. Many farmers whom have seen natural legumes return to their veld just applied the correct grazing method.
One of the biggest mistakes in the South African beef industry is to understock and overgraze. Why is beef farming not as profitable as it should be? The answer is simple: we have bred animals according to the “you must feed to breed” mantra. Because of the long history of mismanagement like understocking and overgrazing, the natural veld has lost its vigour. Biological processes have declined to such an extent that farmers now have to feed their animals to produce any offspring.
Cash crop farmers also use cattle as a bank. When the cash crop fails, they then sell cattle to make up the short fall. Stocking rate is the number one profit driver for profitability in cattle. Cattle get sold to make up the short fall, of the cash crop income. An alternative option: Increase your herd, combine cover crops for spring and autumn grazing, natural veld for summer grazing. In winter either use the harvest remains, or natural veld again. The risk of cattle farming is lower than cash crop farming, and the rewards are larger. Cash crop farming must be the only business where money is loaned from the bank every year before planting. Is this really sustainable?
It sounds like a tall order, but we need to change our mindsets, management systems and the way we farm. We need to revive nature’s biological processes that have evolved over centuries to sustain all living beings. We have destroyed and ignored these biological systems – and only we can bring them back to life again. Let’s start by implementing the five principles of soil health because in the end, “Restoration pays” – Dr. James Blignaut.
Photography: Gerry Weber
The Importance of Fertility in Ultra High Density Grazing
By: Gerry Weber
More and more farmers are seeing the benefit of using Ultra High-Density Grazing (UHDG) to rejuvenate their veld and to increase their stocking rate at the same time. There is no doubt that when applying this management system, the veld is rejuvenated. The diversity in all aspects increases, from grasses, legumes, forbes, insect life and bird life.
So why is not everybody doing it? Don’t we all want improved soil on our farms with improved water penetration and improved water holding capacity? Don’t we all want improved diversity including insect life, bird life and life in the soil, from dung beetles, earthworms, and microbial life? Don’t we all want to improve our predator-prey relationships, where the natural predators and the animal immune system provide the self-defense system for the internal and external parasites? It is not that there are no parasites, but rather that the animal can actually produce, regardless of them.
Farmers who have not managed UHDG, mob grazing or high density grazing correctly or their expectations were different to what the results were, often say it does not work. One negative result is a decrease in conception rate. One cannot expect to change grazing management without it influencing conception rate.
Why do we have to breed for fertility if we want to increase our stocking rate, and increase the number of kilograms of meat sold per hectare (or profit per hectare)?
Everything in cattle breeding and management revolves around body condition.
ALL breeding and management decisions affect body condition.
Body condition affects ALL breeding and management decisions.
Starting with UHDG on your farm sounds easy. The only thing you need to do is go to a farmer who is already doing it and copy what he does and apply the same principle to your own farm… Will this work? Probably not. The conception rate will drop, because animals are not used to utilising all the various grasses and forbes. That is if there were any forbes and legumes in your system.
Utilising smaller camps without adding any animal numbers to your farm does not increase your stocking rate. You will still have the same number of animals on your farm. You are just utilising your grass better. This, however, will probably result in having too much grass after one year and result in you having to burn it if you are in the sour-veldt region. All this is to ensure that you have any form of nutrition for the animals.
Buying in animals can be done, but adaption takes time, and this will not necessarily address your fertility problem.
Building your herd organically, and correcting genetics so that the mother animals can give you a calve from the age of two years and then annually after that, and wean that calve between 42% and 50% of her body weight, will be more profitable in the long run.
Selling a cow only needs to be done because of age and for cash flow reasons. Alternatively her calves can be used to increase the stocking rate. There are, however, certain criteria that the cow must fulfil for you to use her bull calves for your herd improvement, and weaning weight is not one of them.
As far as the profit drivers of beef farming is concerned, stocking rate is the highest profit driver, then fertility and then growth. Both stocking rate and growth have a negative influence on fertility. It is always a balance between these three components to become profitable. It does not help to have a high stocking rate and a low conception rate, nor having a high conception rate but not enough animals. The problem with weaning weight is that they are no indication of profitability either.
Bull breeding and selection
Using the wrong bull does more damage to your herd than using the wrong cow.
Let’s look at the veld-master principles for bull selection:
From the cow side – she must calve the first time at two years of age and reconceive to give the second calf at 36 months and every year after that.
Only bulls that have been reared by such a cow should be considered as breeding bulls in your herd. The bulls that have the highest maturity index, hip height to weight ratio at a corrected 12 months age in their age group, should be used for breeding for the next 14 – 15-month heifer breeding season. DNA testing can be used to determine which calve was from which bull and which bull breeds the most calves. This bull should be used for AI on the rest of the cow herd the following year.
The most crucial factors for the bull selection are hormonal balance, masculinity, and his testis. The bull should have the largest testis circumference proportionate to his maturity index in his age group (class the bulls in monthly age groups, don’t use the whole breeding season).
Factors that determine hormonal balance are:
- Shiny coat
- Bull-like head and neck
- Well-developed epididymis should be visible from at least 25 meters
- Avoid thin cylindrical scrotums with long hair
- A tight sheath in the South African veld context is advantageous
- The bull must be able to control his scrotum
Give your heifers the better veld, let the bulls work for their condition and score the bulls at the end of the dry season in order for you to choose bulls that can maintain their condition through the most challenging times.
Changing the genetics of your animals in order to have proper veld adapted animals, takes time, but the results achieved by the farmers who have taken the time to do this, are priceless. Some farmers have increased their stocking rate through probably the worst recorded draught in history. It also does not make a difference what breed you use. Some farmers have crossbred certain breeds to suit their environment. Others have done it with breed specific animals with the same success rate. The type of animal is far more important than the breed of animal.
In 1987, Ben Fyfer, the father of DF Fyfer, of the Bhejane Cattle Company, started using the principles of only using cows in his herd for bull rearing that calved at 24 and 36 months.
DF shifted his focus from production per animal to profit per hectare and subsequently changed his production system by deregistering his stud, moving to UHDG and started to breed a composite that fitted in with his management, and environmental goals.
To ensure that the final animals had 75% African blood and 25% Beefmaster blood, DF used four breeds as the basis of his composite:
- Nguni x Boran
- Beefmaster x Mashona
This animal is a highly functional animal with the various benefits of all the different breeds for the specific needs of the African veld.
This composite is named the Adaptor as his main focus is to breed a veld adapted animal that is early maturing, fertile, tick and heat resistant, has good carcass qualities and is able to fatten on grass only.
He breeds this composite specifically to suit his low input ultra high density grazing, where through the non-selective utilisation of all the grass, coupled with an adequate rest period, his soil biology will improve. This in turn will increase grass production and aid him in his goal of maximum sustainable profit per hectare.
Gerrit Van Zyl of Hanzyl Bonsmara’s has, over the years, improved the fertility of his herd by applying the principles of only using bulls where the mother calved at 24 and 36 months. It is fascinating that by doing this he has consistently bred mother animals that can produce a calf from the age of 24 months. Gerrit also started changing his grazing management where he now has daily moves and as a result has doubled his stocking rate per hectare, compared to the conventional norm.
To see the effect of this breeding management, you should visit the Mid-Vrystaat Bonsmara production sale, should you have the time. Most of the bulls sold by Hanzyl Bonsmara’s are bred from mother animals whose ICP is around 365 days. That is the role of the cow, to give you a calf annually from age 24 months.
I want to re-emphasize the fact that it is not about what breed must be used, but rather what type of animal must be used. The mother animal must be a grass efficient animal, with a huge rumen capacity, that is capable of giving you a calf from 24 months and every year after that, and that weans a calf of 42%– 50% of her body weight
When changing over to UHDG, you must consider what effect the lower conception will have on your cash-flow. If managed incorrectly, UHDG is one of the easiest ways to lose money, but if manged correctly, it is the only way to increase your profits, through increasing your stocking rate. You must work with a system. There is no one size fits all approach, nor is there a silver bullet that corrects every wrong management decision. You can change between the various grazing management systems depending on the nutritional needs of your mother animals and your veld conditions as well as the use of cover crops or harvest rests. All this must also be incorporated into your management system.
Improving your soil health should be the goal, but this must fit into a system where you don’t compromise your profitability of your farm. Changing management systems is a marathon not a sprint, and you must understand why you are doing it before you implement the how.
Will our world ever be the same again after COVID-19? What next?
After all is said and done will the realisation of what we have done – our destruction of the environment and where we have gone wrong – be enough to motivate us to actually change our actions, our relationships, and ourselves?
Nature is resilient if we just look at the various disasters that have affected humanity over the last couple of decades:
- The wildfires in Australia
- The tsunami in 2004
- The floods in both North and South America in 2019
Nature always creates life again, even after the most horrific natural disasters.
Regardless of how severe the storm was, a bird will always sing the next morning.
How can we change our agricultural systems in order for soil, plant, animal and human health to become more resilient against the ever changing environment and the ever increasing threat of disease? We have seen the writing on the wall for a while now and we have been warned numerous times in publications like the following:
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962
- Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Meyers in 1997
We know what the unforeseen negative effects are when we use conventional agricultural and management systems:
- Increased input costs
- Decreased profit
- Decreased water infiltration, and retention
- Topsoil erosion – South Africa loses 13 tons of topsoil pa. on agricultural land alone
- Nutrient deficient food
- Loss of diversity – Insects and predator prey relationship
- Decreased soil health
- Increase in pathogen resistance – Human and animal pathogens, weeds, internal and external pathogen control
We don’t use our biological services that nature provides for free – we have destroyed these.
Rebuilding resilience into our food system again
Will we reflect deep enough so that we see that we can build resilience into our food system again?
Small farmers, and not factory farms, produce 70% of the world’s food supply
Have you seen how fickle our human society is when disaster struck, toilet paper was sold out, as if that will give us a sense of security?
Can we reverse our chemical dependence in the agricultural production system, so that we don’t have to have minimum chemical allowance in our food? Our greed has caused this pandemic, the droughts, and chronic diseases.
What is needed?
We must realise that we have lost the war against Mother Nature when we changed over form a biological system to a chemical system. She is fighting back in all aspects. We must reflect and change our management systems so that we build more resilient soils, which will result in more resilient plants, which will result in more resilient animals and ultimately in more resilient humans.
The 5 principles of soil health have been discussed numerous times in previous articles and blogs. The negative effects of all the various pesticides, herbicides, external and internal parasite controls, and various inorganic fertilisers on nature, are well documented.
We cannot continue to turn a blind eye and play innocent.
Talking about the five principles of soil health. We cannot adopt only one of these principles and think we are now doing regenerative agriculture. On the other hand, we cannot implement all five principles at once and think that we will survive economically. As far as the principles go, nobody can give you a recipe and tell you this is how it’s done. It is not a one size fits all, it is also more management intensive than conventional farming, but it is more rewarding, and sustainable.
Mega farms must plant or produce more animals or cash crop produce every year, because their profits are declining. Their risk for producing more food produce is increasing every year. It is only a matter of time before the bubble bursts. They must hide their inefficiencies by volume and that is not sustainable.
Starting off with the Five Principles of Soil Health – these are taken form the book “Dirt to Soil” by G.Brown
• Minimum disturbance – Mechanically and chemically
• Armour – don’t leave the soil bare
• Living root – cover crops
• Integrating animals
We must work with the end goal of the implementation of these five principles in mind. By applying the five principles of soil health you improve the robustness of the soil and you activate the biological services that evolved over centuries and are provided for free. These are symbiotic relationships between the inorganic materials, elements in the soil, the micro-organisms, the root exudates and the plants where each species relies on the other to supply specific needs of each other on an on-demand basis.
Our soils are degraded even if we have done no tillage for years. Although water infiltration has improved and your soil is more resilient, this is only the first step. Everybody that has read about, or seen any YouTube videos on regenerative agriculture, knows that we must establish Mycorrhizal fungi. What is not explained in detail, is how, and why it is not possible in degraded tilled soil.
Mycorrhizal fungi is a network of hyphae that extend from a living root to increase the root zone of the living root. The hyphae are much smaller than a root hair and can penetrate much smaller cracks and holes between soil particles to get access to water and various minerals and elements needed by the plant.
The Mycorrhizal fungi is destroyed with tillage. They also cannot survive without a living root – that’s why cover crops are so important. When the cash crop starts ripening the root exudates don’t get excreted anymore, because the plant does not need nutrients anymore. This causes the mycorrhizal fungi to start using its own energy reserves to survive. It can survive for about one month after the root exudates are shut down. For the next cash crop to have Mycorrhizal fungi again, you have to have Mycorrhizal spores in your soil to start the production of Mycorrhizal hyphae again. With the continued tillage, and due to our long dry seasons, where we do not have any living roots in the soil, and doing this year after year, we probably don’t have any spores left in our soil. Even if we started using no-till, we still don’t have spores left in the soil.
If we don’t plant cover crops to keep a living root in the soil for the Mycorrhizal hyphae to survive, we can inoculate with Mycorrhizal fungi spores for each cash crop planting, but we will have to inoculate every new planting.
If we can only keep a living root in the soil for a period of 18 months, because this is typically when the Mycorrhizal hyphae have developed to such an extent that they start producing spores. To establish the Mycorrhizal population in our soils again, the easiest way will be with a perennial pasture that is grazed by animals. The other microbial life will explode because of the inoculation from the fresh dung that is deposited on the field.
If we can build a perennial pasture rotation into our cash crop system to re-establish Mycorrhizal fungi, you will have gone a long way to drought proof your farm.
Farming with the Sun
Energy cannot be created or destroyed; this is the first law of thermodynamics.
It is often said that beef farmers farm with grass! Cash crop farmers think they are at the pinnacle of science and food production, and farm with external inputs, ignoring the biological inputs that they could get for free.
We get free energy from the sun constantly, and if we don’t have a living plant that can photosynthesize, we are wasting energy. We are also losing out on feeding our soil biology.
If we have bare ground however, the energy is transferred to the soil as heat. Not only does this not feed the soil biology, it also kills it with the heat, if the soil gets hot enough.
That is where the second and third rule of soil health are so important. We should change our mindset of seeing bare ground, fallow fields, and think of all the energy that is not used optimally, due to agricultural management practices. We would benefit from utilising the energy in the form of root exudates to stimulate our soil microbiology, making our soils more resilient against pests and drought.
Beef farmers don’t only farm with grass, they farm with the sun, the soil microorganisms, then the grass and finally with the animals. The animals produce what we as humans need so desperately to survive like meat, milk, leather, wool and all the various other animal products. If we however constantly destroy our soils with our advancements, we will ultimately pay the price and lose the war against Mother Nature.
Enhancing our biological systems
Earlier I have mentioned that we have tried to change our biological systems to chemical systems over the last several decades. The effects of these have been documented and described, not only by me, but by people that have a much better understanding of all the negative unforeseen consequences that occur when trying to change the various biological systems, including soil health, plant health, animal health and ultimately human health.
It all starts with the soil health. The rise of chronic diseases is not a coincidence but rather a result of modern living. Since Kellogg’s started the saying, ”Breakfast is the most important meal”, animal protein and animal fats were given the raw deal.
It is a well-known fact that every time a scientific journal peer reviewed and published what does not suit a certain industry, a scientific paper will be peer reviewed and published that states the exact opposite. Greed wins in the end, the one with the most money pays the advertising and sells the product. Just take the butter versus margarine reviews or animal products versus carbohydrates. The list carries on and on, even with chemicals and auto makers, everybody is trying to prove that they are the victims, and they are being bullied. We have lost our sanity long ago.
Bringing back our soil life, and our soil robustness will go a long way towards healing our land and our people. Why is diversity, the fourth principle of soil health, so important? It brings everything together, as diversity is the epitome of the whole principle of regenerative agriculture, including:
- Soil biology (the whole soil food web)
- Bird life
- Production animals
If we start with a multi species perennial pasture, which is inoculated with the various nitrogen fixing bacteria, mycorrhizal spores and we integrate production animals to harvest the perennial pasture, our soil biology will start doing the magic for us.
Once the soil biology reaches a certain threshold, and we have reached a quorum of various bacterial species, the magic really beings. This is when the microbes have the ability to stimulate gene expressions in the host plants. The same happens in the digestive tract of animals. This gene expression is mostly related to a better immune system and immune responses, to various chronic diseases like asthma, allergies, and certain intolerances.
By disrupting our soil or gut microbiome we destroy the ability of the symbiotic relationship between all the different living organisms in the soil and in our gut. If we can boost our immune system by strengthen our probiotic bacteria in the gut and in the soil, we have enhanced one of our primary defense systems against pathogens, be they viruses, mycoplasma, bacteria, yeasts or fungi.
One of the best ways of improving your soil health, be they pasture or cash crop fields, is with the integration of animals. The animal production usually outperforms the input costs of the cover crop or the perennial pasture. In the long run it will also outperform the risk of a cash crop especially in the more brittle areas. Animal numbers and a diversity of animals however play a big role in the profitability of the cover crop. You must have enough animals to graze the cover crop.
The symbiotic relationship between ruminants and plants is also well documented, that when a plant is grazed, there is an increase in root exudates, and a boost in carbon sequestration in the soil. This in turn causes an increase of biomass, if the plant has enough rest period before it is grazed again. This is true for both the cover crop and pasture. An important aspect of animal integration is that the pasture is grazed non-selectively, and rested adequately.
What have we done for efficiency – if we look at beef lots? Let’s do a cooperative analysis.
To plant a cash crop, we need the following:
- Disk – if we not doing no-till
- Plough – if we not doing no-till
- Crop Sprayer
- Top dressing
- Combine Harvester
- On farm Silo’s
- Truck and trailer or more tractors to transport the cash crop from the field to the silo.
- Weighbridge (this is becoming a necessity with corporate corruption)
How many times we till spray and top dress depends on the on-farm management – every time this happens though the CO2 footprint increases.
If we plant Silage, we need:
- Top dressing
- Disk – if we not doing no-till
- Plough – if not doing no-till
- Silage cutter
- Tractors and trailers for removal of silage or
- Truck and trailer for the removal of silage
- Frontend loader to remove silage from pit
When we cut hay, we need:
For a feed factory, we need:
- Feed mixer
- Hammer Mill
- Feed store
- Mineral packs
- Cash crop
For a feed lot, we need:
- Water troughs
- Processing infrastructure
- Truck and trailer
- Transport steers
- Feeding wagon
- Trailer for slurry or manure removal (to spray onto cash crop fields)
We have done all this in the name of efficiency, but what would the alternative be?
Perennial warm and cold season cover crop pasture that is grazed in rotation under UHDG with veld when the veld is at the optimum nutritional level. When the veld is in a dormant state during winter the veld cannot be overgrazed and can be grazed using UHDG management system to improve the regrowth and the diversity of the veld once the rainy season starts.
For finishing off the cattle we could fatten them on a multispecies cash crop, where the nutritional needs of the animal are met, with a lick supplement and the various cash crops that are normally harvested are inter seeded, and the animals do the harvesting for you. There is no need for all the capital equipment that is described at the top.
If we inter seed with, what the Native Americans called the three sisters, maize, cow peas, and pumpkin we could fatten our steers cheaper and more effectively. We build our soils as we are doing this, instead of mining all the nutrients every year and removing everything for the cattle in the feedlot.
We could also do it with perennial pastures, where we inter seed the warm season grasses for the summer period, to fatten the animals on warm season grasses. We have then reduced our oil dependency, and we are producing a much safer product, where the biological services are constantly enhanced by the various symbiotic relationships between the soil microbes and the root exudates, the plant and the herbivore. The animal is in its natural surroundings, and all the biological services to remove the dung are enhanced, completing the circle where dung beetles bury the dung again and stimulate the soil biology again.
Our list of capital equipment has been reduced somewhat, we still need some mechanical equipment, but our input costs have been reduced, and our risk of producing food has decreased.
This is just one example, the sheep, dairy, pig and poultry systems could all be integrated onto pasture, where all the various biological services that nature provides for free can be utilised optimally. It is only the human mind that thought it could outperform nature, but we are fighting a losing battle. Our input costs are rising and the risk of producing food is becoming a bigger challenge.
A lot will have to change for us to succeed, and it is not only the agricultural system that will have to change, the financial services supporting agriculture will have to change as well, where they finance farmers that actually farm with nature rather than against it.
Why is the integration of animals onto our cash crop fields so important, not only for the health of the soil but also for the animals? We have reduced our nutrition of most of our production animals, and have tried to supplement the various diets with minerals and vitamin. We cannot comprehend the symbiotic effect the soil and the soil microbiology has on the gut health of the animals. Taking micro-minerals into account, we analyse certain amino acids, minerals and organic acids, and a feed gets formulated – yes the animals perform well and above the genetic potential of yester year, but why aren’t the various animal products not as nutrient dense as before? Are we missing certain biological symbiotic functions between the soil and the host animal on all levels, specifically on the immunological side? The same goes for humans, are we so sterile that our immune system is not primed to handle a certain disease?
We should find a way to improve our nutrient density of our food, for both production animals and humans. We must also find a way to enhance the symbiotic biological systems between humans and animals and between humans and plants, and between humans and soil.
We are part of the system, and we must enhance the systems rather than destroy them.
Photographer: Gerhard Weber
The COVID -19 pandemic has unearthed many questions. How will 2020 play out? Has the world changed forever as we know it? Will we get through this pandemic sanely? What will the end result be and what will the death tally be before we get our freedom of movement back? Will we ever be able to explore, travel and see so much of the world as we did before COVID-19 struck?
In my opinion, the most important questions are, “Will humanity learn anything from this, or will we try to eliminate the past, and not reflect on it once everything has passed?” Chances are that history will repeat itself again and again in the future. Most importantly, “What can we learn and what can we change to improve our current situation?” and “Can we work with Mother Nature rather than against her?” Fact is, nature will always win!
The other nagging questions are: Have our modern systems destroyed our ability to function with nature? As a human race we assume that we are the pinnacle of evolution, or from a Christian point of view, we were created to be the custodians of the land. Have we failed in this task? The interesting thing is that Buddhists see the destruction of the nature as thé original sin. Do we as humans fit this description and constantly sin against the creation, or Mother Nature, depending on your religious beliefs? The ultimate question is, Can we change or will greed overwhelm us once again?
We do not realise how much we sacrifice for humanity’s greed and convenience. Not only have we sacrificed our freedom long before the various COVID-19 lockdowns occurred but also sacrificed our health long before COVID-19 struck. The younger generation in the US has a shorter lifespan than the previous generations. We naïvely believe that politicians care about the next generation. Their only goal is to be re-elected. No political party has the courage to do what is really necessary. They all play popularity politics.
We have also sacrificed our ability to think long before COVID-19 was even on the horizon – everything we wanted was for our convenience and ease of use, regardless of what it did to our wellbeing or the wellbeing of others.
Can we now already reflect of what went wrong before COVID-19 struck?
On 20 February 2020 Dr. J Blignaut wrote an article in Daily Maverick titled Meat, messiness and management: “Our planet is a disaster waiting to happen. We know that our systems are broken, be it in politics, in our policies or in our economy. This is a time to reflect and see how we can do it better than in the past, how we can improve and regenerate. A time to be inclusive in our economy regardless of race, religious belief or background. A time where the poorest of the poor have the same opportunity as the richest of the rich.”
We were warned numerous times that if a pandemic strikes, Africa would be hardest hit – so we are playing Russian Roulette with our future, waiting for the everything to crash, not necessarily as a pandemic, but the economy as a whole. The banks were bailed out in 2008 already, but has anything changed? How many more farmers must go bankrupt until we notice that our agricultural system is broken and dysfunctional, in contradiction with various TV programs that show industrial farms as successful?
Can we reflect on how to change and get our house in order again? First on a personal level, then in the family, the community, the country and finally the world. How will my actions affect me, my environment, my partner, my family my community the country and the world? Do we ever take our thought process that far or are we all just narcissists where everything is all about our wealth and wellbeing, without any thought spared for anything or anyone else?
Have we lost the ability to work with nature? With all the various lockdowns, the decreased movement of people and transportation, we hear daily how the CO2 levels are dropping. Is agriculture really the big pollutant that all the vegans, and various celebrities make it out to be? Does it justify our use of all our chemical inputs in the various agricultural systems?
Probably not, but remember, you are what you eat. Now in the time where everybody has time to reflect on what they have done to create this mess. On how we can improve and work with Mother Nature rather than against her, regardless of profession. The agriculture sector will have to reflect on their actions and the role they play in harming nature.
How often do you see nostalgic memes where kids play outside and then it says “Share if you remember playing in the mud” or whatever. The question is, who changed this?
We were led to believe that everything dirty, was wrong.
How has advertising affected us?
Our whole mindset is reductive and focused on how to kill everything that we don’t want.
Bacteria, other microscopic organism, ants, insects, be it a pest or beneficial. The problem is that we don’t want to see them as beneficial and useful.
We are destroying our world with chemicals. We have to change our thought process to where we would rather regenerate the biological services that nature provides for free, instead of trying to reduce it to something that we understand. We can never comprehend the unforeseen consequences of our actions. How often have our actions been proven to be negative rather than beneficial to the natural process?
We must reflect on our food production services – what will happen if, due to the various lockdowns, we cannot produce mangos or strawberries or any other fruit for that matter, throughout the year? Our food system has evolved into such a logistical food web that it is astounding how we have developed a system so that Europe can get any exotic fruit throughout the year, and this without blemishes. The question is, What has the impact on the environment been? Can we even put a price to the biological services that have been destroyed by conventional agriculture to achieve this goal? South Africa loses 13 tons of topsoil per hectare on its agricultural land per year. This is not sustainable, and it is no wonder that so many farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy – They are wasting or disregarding all their biological services that had been provided for free by Mother Nature, services that would reduce their input costs, and all this just in the name of science and greed.
Biology trumps Chemistry
Soil health, the digestive system, and organic waste disposal systems are all biological, but we have tried to convert all three systems to a chemical system and are only now looking at how we can enhance our biological systems again to function optimally.
If we take the various systems that have evolved in nature, where plants and animals protect themselves from pathogens, we realise that we have ignored the role micro-organisms play in the health of all living creatures. We must use management systems where we enhance these biological systems.
The 5 principles of soil health have been described before, all these principles are designed to enhance the microbial life in the soil. The healthier your soil, the more drought resilient it becomes and the lower your input costs will become. How many farmers are already planting test plots, where they are reducing the inorganic fertiliser amounts? The plants also become more resilient against pests. We must get our predator prey relationship in order again, we cannot just kill everything, and think we will improve our end-product.
There is enough knowledge and information available regarding cover crops and that certain crops, feed various microorganisms that make certain minerals and elements more bio-available to the next crop. Thus resulting in a more nutrient dense cash crops, which will benefit both the animal production and human health.
We know that our food is not as nutrient dense as it used to be – we also know that with the correct application of the five principles of soil health, we can get more nutrient dense food again.
Can we comprehend this – or must nature throw us another curveball, until we finally realise that we might win a battle, but we will never win the war.