Why read this feature?

  • Are we culling the wrong bulls and heifers through skewed perceptions of ‘ideal type’?
  • Farmers need to think innovatively instead of blindly pursuing outdated conventional methods.
  • You can reap handsome sustainable profits per hectare through optimal veld management and cattle production.

zietsman-1Challenging beliefs, boosting production

One of Southern Africa’s legendary cattle farmers and practical scientists, Johann Zietsman, recently published his book ‘Man, Cattle and Veld’. It’s a powerful, practical, controversial read that inspires cattle farmers to buck the status quo, be innovative and increase your production by 50%.

Every now and then someone special comes along and challenges preconceived notions of cattle breeding and veld management, not for the sake of controversy but for the sake of the farmer’s success and profit.

Johann Zietsman is one of these people – a true cattleman who speaks straight from the heart and straight from the veld. This is a man with dung on his boots and a deep affinity with cattle.

“Many cattle farmers are producing less than 50% of their potential because their animals are not being managed optimally, production costs are increasing, carrying capacity is declining and veld is degrading. But it doesn’t need to be like this,” says Johann who studied at the University of Pretoria under Professor Jan Bonsma, and graduated with a BSc Agric in Animal Science in the early 1970s.

Revolutionised cattle production and grazing techniques

In the mid-70s he started farming in Zimbabwe where he revolutionised cattle production and grazing techniques.

He combines almost 30 years of extensive research and personal experience as a hands-on cattleman in his book. He is currently based in Chinhoyi in Zimbabwe where he runs his consultancy.

He regularly travels to South Africa, other parts of Africa and the world to help cattle farmers – or “ranchers” – achieve optimal veld management and cattle production and achieve maximum, sustainable profit per hectare. This can be achieved without elaborate grazing plans and complex mathematical calculations, which turn off most farmers.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing this knowledge if I hadn’t done it myself,” he says.

Conventional methods that haven’t changed since the 1950s

In his book he encourages all cattle farmers to be innovative and is critical of the many institutions in South Africa that he says are continuing to teach so-called conventional methods of cattle and veld management that haven’t changed since the 1950s.

He believes that institutions and research centres need to be transformed into innovative, model ranches for 21st century, that focus on developing and testing sustainable methods of cattle production and veld restoration.

Johann’s breakthrough in this regard happened on the 12th January 1995. “It is a day I will remember clearly for the rest of my life,” he says.

It was the day he started practising ultra-high density, quick rotation grazing on his 800ha sourveld farm, Pumula, in the Karoi district of Zimbabwe.

Single-strand portable electric fences

He used single-strand portable electric fences – which is the most cost effective system – to divide the 800 hectares into 2000 camps. He initially put 90 cattle on strips of one-third of a hectare each, grazing the grass right down and then moving the cattle every two to three hours.

He emphasises that all farmers need to work out what works best for their environmental conditions within the high density to ultra high density continuum: from his extreme version to several hectares.

“Within two weeks of introducing my ultra high density grazing system I realised that I needed to double my stocking rates – and this was in the driest year on record. Two years later I had trebled my stocking rate,” Johann explains.

Grazing ratio of 1 LU (Livestock Unit)/ha

By the time he had to leave his farm (he was forced off by the land invasions in Zimbabwe) his soil fertility and the diversity of good grass species had increased so much that he could quadruple the number of cattle he was running on the same land with a grazing ratio of 1 LU (Livestock Unit)/ha.

The grass that had been grazed would then be rest for a few weeks to several months.

He monitored his grass species over several years. In 1995, he had 86% unpalatable species, 9.5% semi-palatable and 4.5% palatable. One year later he had 46% unpalatable, 28% semi-palatable and 26% palatable.

Grazing, hoof action, dunging

“The combination of grazing, hoof action, dunging and urinating resulted in the quality of the grass and species diversity improving dramatically, the soil fertility improved dramatically with earthworms and dung beetles increasing in great numbers and my cattle’s body condition and production improved dramatically,” says Johann.

A visitor from the USA commented that he had never seen so much ground cover in the form of grass litter or so many earthworms anywhere in the seasonal rainfall tropics.

“Several barriers had been crossed in respect of animal control on a ranch scale – herd size and stock density. It was ranching on a different plane and I then clearly understood what vegetation doyen and non-selective grazing pioneer, John Acocks, meant when he said in the early 1950s: “South Africa is overgrazed and understocked”.

“This is one of the most profound statements every made in the field of natural resource management,” says Johann.

Profits per hectare and not on individual animal performance

“Low stocking rates can produce nice-looking individual animals but they are not good for the veld or the pocket,” he explains. Profit from cattle is about improving your veld through well-managed, high intensity, fast rotation grazing. It’s based on good, sustainable profits per hectare, and not on individual animal performance.

Detractors despite visible veld benefits and excellent condition of cattle

His high stocking rates and ultra high density grazing method, despite the visible benefits to the veld, excellent condition of his cattle and profits, did not come without detractors, as he describes in his book.

A group of academics and scientists from South Africa were openly hostile to his approach, without taking the opportunity to visit him and see it for themselves. He adds they are not alone and that most academic institutions, organisations and breed societies are more interested in defending the status quo than in innovation.

“Academic bull”

He is openly critical about “academic bull” that is passed off as convention or science.

Of conventional cattle management, he says: “Conventional cattle management where cattle are placed in a paddock for a period of time, cannot be described as management. This is more like a hunter-gather situation. Management, in terms of grazing, means controlling each hoof and mouth relative to animal impact, selectivity of grazing, as well as time on and off a piece of land. This sort of control requires that decisions be made on an hourly to daily basis. This is the essence of management.”

He goes further and says that conventional management and breed society standards, that are presented as “best practice”, are really just contrived perceptions about what a group of people think is the ideal bull, ideal cow, ideal calving weight, weaning weight, carcass weights etc.

“Amongst cattle breeders in the 1950s the ideal type of animal was an overfed dwarf. In an overreaction to this, the ‘ideal type’ of the 1980s was a lanky slab-sided freak (‘draadkar’) whose progeny had difficulty fattening in the feedlot, not to mention on the veld. Now they seem to prefer a ‘middle-of-the-road type’, whatever that means.”

Fashion, disconnection form nature and man’s ego

Leading from this, he is dismissive about cattle judging competitions and herd inspections, which, he says, have nothing to do with cattle. “They have everything to do with fashion, man’s disconnection from nature and man’s ego, but the consequences are negative and far-reaching.”

Visual appraisal does have a place, he says, but practical fertility (inherent body condition in addition to hormonal balance) is paramount.

“What logic is there in culling good, fertile bulls and cows simply because they do not conform to the ‘ideal type’ or discriminating against a certain colour, colour marking (or lack thereof) or twist of the scrotum (when investigations have proved no relationship with fertility? Worse still, the culling of the most veld-productive cattle on the basis of man-made growth measurements (weaning weight, weight for age, average daily gain…”

He cites the discrimination against short, masculine, sexually early maturing bulls with high testosterone levels. Because they reach sexual maturity earliest their frame stops growing, but they continue to gain weight. They will not grow into large bulls, which have come to be regarded by far too many breeders as the ideal, but which are not as efficient on veld, Johann explains.

Some of the best bulls have been slaughtered

“I would argue that some of the best bulls have been slaughtered and some of the best genetic material has been lost because of breeders who do not regard them as ‘big enough’. This ‘bigger is better’ trend is based purely on perception and fashion rather than on performance.”

He adds that there is also a big difference between veld cattle and stud cattle, which are too often raised to look good in artificial conditions. Veld cattle have to produce in a natural environment under the jurisdiction of natural law, notably survival of the fittest.

High praise for deep-thinking, innovative cattle and veld pioneers

He has the highest praise for deep-thinking, innovative cattle and veld pioneers across a range of approaches, who recognised this, such as Bonsma, the United States’ Beefmaster pioneer, Tom Lasater, South Africa’s father of veld, John Acocks, and holistic management practitioners Stan Parsons and Alan Savory.

At the same time he does not put any of these men on a pedestal where they cannot be questioned. He interrogates policies and practices of theirs that he believes are contrary to good cattle and veld management, and he condemns the use of their good names in practices that have damagingly departed from what they espoused.

He is a major proponent of Lasater’s emphasis on fertility (calving annually from the age of two years). This is the common denominator upon which all other traits are built, resulting in balanced cattle that are adapted to particular environment.

Johann was also greatly influence by Bonsma’s thinking – and considers him and Lasater to be “the greatest cattlemen of our time”. At the same time he recognised some serious flaws in Bonsma’s approach to breeding.

Flaws in Bonsma’s approach to breeding

“My first inkling came when I witnessed an extremely well muscled young Bonsmara bull being culled at the Irene Bull Testing Station solely on account of a small white spot on its forehead,” he explains.

“I am convinced that this legacy of unwarranted sensitivity to colour, shape and type has had, and is still having, a detrimental effect on the productivity of the Bonsmara breed,” he says. “The obsession with colour, I believe, excluded the Nguni in the composition of the Bonsmara. Had this been done, the resulting Bonsmara would be far more productive today, particularly in respect of veld adaptation and fertility.”

In praise of Bonsma

In praise of Bonsma he says that he played a very positive role in popularising the concept of hormonal balance and its influence on practical fertility.

“There is a big difference between academic fertility and practical fertility. A very masculine bull with a perfect hormonal balance possesses an extremely important determinant of fertility, but which is only of value if he can also sire female progeny that, in addition to being very feminine (hormonally balanced), are genetically predisposed to good body condition.

“Practical fertility requires sexually early maturing heifers that are also physiologically (fatness) early maturing and capable of maintaining body condition. This allows for calving at two years on the veld and high re-conception rates with minimal assistance from man. Such fertility has a positive influence on the bottom line.”

The good and bad of Savory

He praises Savory’s innovative high-intensity, fast rotation approach to grazing that mimics the movement of migratory herds, but he strongly criticises him for neglecting to focus on body condition and production under different environmental conditions and seasonal variations, in order to ensure that farmers breed nutritionally adapted cattle. He says that Savory alienated many farmers and independent thinkers with his obtuse holistic vision and goals, instead of focusing on these very real issues.

“Where I come from, in the north of Zimbabwe, we would get 1000mms of rain in four months. The grass grew incredibly fast and there was a lot of it but 86% was a very fibrous grass called Sporobolus pyramidalis. while the far more palatable grasses, such as Setaria species were in the minority. There was also severe capping of the soil in the dry season,” he explains.

“I had to find a non-selective grazing method to graze down the grass, soften it and break the capping of the soil but at the same time I had to make sure that I maintained good condition and production in the cattle.”

Putting animals under pressure

When animals that are used to grazing selectively are put into a system where they are put under pressure to graze non-selectively (to improve the veld) their condition drops.

“To compensate for this I realised I needed a hardy, 250 – 450kgs cow with a higher grass intake relative to its size. Smaller framed cattle with African genetics, such as the Nguni and Angoni are ideal for this,” continues Johann.

“I realised my Beefmaster herd needed indigenous blood to achieve this smaller size, hardiness and natural resistance to parasites and disease. I believe in adapted genotypes rather than dipping and dosing, which is not only expensive, it is detrimental to the environment, killing off not only the parasites but also critical ecosystem workers like dung beetles. All we have been doing over the past 100 years is breeding dip-resistant ticks instead of tick-resistant cattle.

“I put a Mashona bull on my cows”

“I put a Mashona bull on my cows, which is similar to an Nguni (which, without any doubt, is the hardiest and most parasite and disease resistant breed in South Africa). I subsequently introduced Angoni and Boran. There are so many fascinating breeds of African cattle,” says Johann adding that the hybrid vigour from crossbreeding African breeds with British or European breeds typically produces strong, resistant cattle that can gain weight well.

“If you are a stud breeder, you are obviously going to keep your breed pure but the same criteria for selection applies.”

He also urges cattle farmers to time the birth of their calves as close as possible to the month after the rains begin each season: “Cows that calve at this time of year will be in better body condition and will reconceive faster and show the kind of inter-calving period you want to achieve,” explains Johann who is not a slave to high weaning weights. “A 40-45% weaning weight is fine. Cows with too much milk may sacrifice body condition and can take longer to conceive again.”

While Johann is highly conscious of the condition of cattle, he remains equally conscious about the condition of the grass.

Our grasses in Africa

“Our grasses in Africa have evolved with severe grazing from the massive original herds of wildlife, but they take time to recover. If you start grazing before the plant has had time to recover it becomes weaker, which is what happens with continuous grazing or poorly managed rotational grazing. The length of time grasses need to rest depends on the environment. Drier environments require longer recovery periods.”

He recommends that farmers create grazing strip tests to experience the effect firsthand. He acknowledges that many South African farmers have labour problems but says that once the system is established, it is so simple that the farmer or one good labourer can manage it.

Supplementary licks containing urea to feed the rumen bacteria are necessary if cattle are on veld with a high percentage of moribund or lignified grasses or bushes.

“Successful cattle farming is all about keeping your eyes open, being observant of your own cattle, your own veld and your own wallet to see what works for you. There are so many perceptions dressed up as facts that mislead farmers and block common sense from prevailing. The problem with common sense is that it is not so common,” he concludes.

To contact Johann Zietsman:

Email address: barzed2013@gmail.com

Tel: (Zimbabwe) 00 263 778 073 349

To order ‘Man, Cattle and Veld’:

Colour – https://www.createspace.com/4902394

B&W – https://www.createspace.com/4812478