In the old South Africa it was a crime to exceed the official stocking rate without permission from the Soil Conservation Committee (SCC). It was against that background that Graaff-Reinet livestock farmer Dougie Stern asked the SCC to visit his farm Rietpoort in 1992 to reassess his stocking rate on the strength of his veld.
“I started farming holistically in 1981 and the change in my veld over 10 years was so exceptional I knew I could challenge the official stocking rate,” says Dougie, (62). “I wasn’t going to be dictated to by rigid bureaucracy.” Situated between Nieu Bethesda and Graaff-Reinet, his 2 600ha farm is divided into 90 camps, where he runs 120 Tuli and Tuli-cross-Brangus cows and 1 000 Dohne Merino ewes.

Back in 1992, his stocking rate was 16ha to one mature livestock unit. He wanted it changed to 11:1. The SCC finally agreed to 13:1.

“It wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but it was a triumph because they were extremely narrow-minded, yet they had to concede that my veld had a far higher carrying capacity than the official rate,” says Dougie.

Since then he’s reduced his average stocking rate to 9:1. His vlei areas are even more impressive at 3:1 and his veld is magnificent.

“When I came to the farm in 1979 there were only 11 camps and we were constantly driving to town to buy food for the 1 200 sheep and 10 cattle we had at the time,” recalls Dougie.

“My wife Liz and I were newly married and I told her that unless we started farming very differently we weren’t going to make it.” The problem was that he didn’t know how to farm differently. Then he met renowned local holistic farmer Norman Kroon.

“Norman explained the principles of high-density grazing to me, which made absolute sense,” says Dougie. “He referred back to when animals roamed free in large herds and would bunch close together to protect themselves from predators.

“He told me if I wanted to make a success of the farm I needed to start fencing it into much smaller camps to facilitate high-density grazing which would improve the veld – and to start farming holistically.”

Dougie subsequently attended a holistic management course presented by holistic pioneers Allan Savory and Stan Parsons. But fencing proved a financial hurdle, because the total turnover of his farm in 1979 was R23 000 and he needed R48 000 to fence the farm into 50 camps.

“Somehow I persuaded the bank manager to loan me the money, which I had to pay back within five years,” says Dougie.

Luckily, he spotted an advert in Farmer’s Weekly for a company selling reject rolls of wire which were perfect for fencing. “I ordered a 22t truckload as there was no electric fencing back then. We started in 1981 and man, did we fence!”

The improvement in his animals and veld was visible after two seasons. Due to the increased availability and quality of forage in the smaller camp system, Dougie’s lambing percentages increased.

“I managed to pay back the bank in three years and we’ve never looked back. We got rid of all our debt, put our children through university without loans and bought another farm, Quaggasvlei,” he says.

Dougie’s son David (31) now farms the 4 800ha Quaggasvlei at the foot of the Compassberg. He runs 270 cows and 900 ewes on the same holistic system.
“He’s been farming for a few years and his stocking rate is now about 11:1. With all the mountain grasses he has on his farm, combined with McCosker Brew, I have no doubt he’ll surpass me and get down to 6:1,” says Dougie.

“One big mistake I made in the early years was to rigidly stick to a 60-day recovery period, irrespective of whether it was a dry or wet period,” says Dougie. “I changed this in 1991 when Allan Savory visited and I realised that even though the veld was looking good, I was buggering up my root reserves.”

That was when Dougie realised the grazing system must be flexible. In a dry time the recovery period needs to be 120 days, whereas in a wet/good season it can be 50 to 60 days.

He also follows the “quick growth, quick move” principle during good, wet periods to make the best use of the grazing.

“What I know after 30 years is that holistic farming has transformed my veld beyond all expectation. Why? Because you’re trying to work as closely as possible with nature. And when you give to nature it gives back to you tenfold,” says Dougie.

Over the years, Dougie has kept a running photographic record to monitor his veld. For example, he’s been photographing two of the vlei camps since the 1980s.

These camps, together with 17 others, all lead to a rectangular cell centre with three water troughs. “The camps were bare, sun-baked expanses of sand when I started working on them in the 1980s,” explains Dougie.

First, he reduced the size of the vlei camps to between 4ha and 11ha. Next, he started working the soil with animal impact – hoof action and dung. To get the animals working the bare areas, he attracted them with lucerne bales. His other camps are larger, up to 40ha, and look just as good.

Dougie is constantly assessing and reassessing his grazing and the condition of his animals. He weighs his animals and has records and grazing charts with the stock days per hectare going back 30 years.

“The number one rule is ‘never stress or starve your animals’,” he says. “You can’t fence in starving animals.”

“You have to look at your animals, your veld and your bank balance at the same time. It’s like a three-legged pot. If one of these aspects is missing the pot will fall over,” says Dougie.

Dougie’s animals are in peak condition. He points out a Tuli-cross-Brangus first-time calver, whose calf weighed more than 40% of her body weight.
Dougie pregnancy tests his cows three months after the bull comes out and any cow that skips “must go”.

He’s using a Tuli bull on his Tuli and Brangus cows. “I like the Tuli,” he explains. “The cows aren’t too heavy – around 450kg – and it’s a hardy indigenous breed.”

“I have a preference for medium-size animals that can walk the mountains.”

Dougie’s animals perform exceptionally well and he has an average weaning percentage of 90% for his cattle and sheep. He’s farming like a stud breeder with his commercial animals, and achieving stud results. “The bulls go in with the herd for two months only, from mid-January to mid-March, and the rams go in for 34 days, or two cycles, in November and May. “Most take in the first cycle so I’m keen to try for one cycle, but so far I haven’t had the nerve,” he explains.

“There’s so much grass here now that we can cope with the dry periods and winters, using McCosker brew for both the cattle and sheep – a hard lick for the sheep and a loose lick for the cattle,” he says. “Over the years the number of cattle in the Karoo among holistic farmers has risen considerably.”

He flushes his animals on the veld. “I don’t believe in feeding them. I simply speed up their rotation by using the best camps at mating, calving and lambing times to boost their condition. Everything I need is in the veld.”

Dougie will be in the US for two weeks in June, as he and Middelburg’s Lukie Strydom are the two Karoo farmers who have been selected to go on a fact-finding mission, sponsored by co-op BKB, to investigate the shale gas fracking process currently at the centre of a regional controversy.

“I really miss the farm when I need to go away and I can’t wait to return to see how everything is looking. There is always something new as each camp and ridge is so different,” he says.