Historically, beef cattle farming in South Africa developed on the veld. Veld was the only food source for beef cattle and the evolutionary development of the ruminant enzyme system unlocked the potential energy value of cellulose. Cellulose remains one of the most prolific natural organic compounds on earth and is a relatively inexpensive source of energy for ruminants. Technology development in crop production, particularly since the fifties of the previous century, increased grain production astronomically worldwide. The availability of grains and the by-products of the grain industry has allowed for the intensification of beef production; currently more than 70 % of the total South African beef production comes from feedlots. A major shift from extensive to intensive production occurred to meet the increased demand for beef. The rapid and drastic changes in world markets and commodity prices increase the risk of intensive production systems that present particular challenges for remaining profitable. However, projections by various economists indicate that the price of grain, and maize in particular, will remain reasonably high in the foreseeable future. Against this background the cost of production from the veld is still the lowest, although the sharp increase in the price of land significantly raised interest cost. Since the earliest times stock farming on the veld has had two major limitations, namely veld production (quantity) and variation in quality (nutritive value). These two limitations remain relevant in the current farming environment and the challenge is to manage these deficiencies (gaps) in such a way that their detrimental effect on animal production is reduced.
Veld production and management methods to improve production
It is generally understood that veld management practices cause either the deterioration or improvement of the veld. The effect of veld condition on a number of production parameters are well documented by Snyman (2003). Veld in a good condition with a basal coverage of 8.3 % was compared to reasonable veld (6.4 % basal coverage) and poor veld (2.9 % basal coverage). The dominant species on good veld are T. triandra (Rooigras) and D. eriantha (Finger grass); on reasonable veld E. chloromelas (Curly leaf), E. lehmanniana (Lehmann’s Love grass) and S. fimbriatus (Bushveld Dropseed); and on poor veld A. congesta (Tassel Three-awn) and T. Koelerioides (Common Carrot-seed grass). The production of dry matter on the good veld was 1 238 kg/ha; on reasonable veld 768 kg/ha; and on poor veld 368 kg/ha with respective grazing capacities of 5.2, 8.3, and 19.4 ha/LSU. The carrying capacity of good veld is approximately 270 % better than that of poor veld, and other criteria such as evapotranspiration, rainwater runoff and sediment loss are much less on good veld. Income on good veld is R173/ha as opposed to R108/ha and R46/ha on reasonable and poor veld, respectively. Veld in a good condition is also much less sensitive to droughts, and proper management practices will reduce drought risks. Various veld management systems are advocated and there certainly is no one ideal system that applies to all veld types. A practice that undoubtedly improves veld production, veld composition and animal production is the implementation of a full rest in the growing season every second or third year. Seasonal rest not only allows plants to rest, but also to recover by building root reserves. Kemp et al. (1994) found that the production of Rooigras in sour veld areas improves by 170 % after a seasonal rest, compared to Rooigras that was normally grazed the previous season. In sweet veld areas it might even be necessary to allow the veld to rest for two consecutive growing seasons to promote vigour and production. A final comment on veld management is that various practice studies showed that a stock load in line with the production ability of the veld yields the highest profit per ha. Over-grazing can be advantageous over the short term, but has disastrous financial consequences on the longer term. In contrast, a conservative stock load and good veld management reduce drought risk.
Veld quality and guidelines for supplementing nutritional deficiencies
Du Toit, Louw & Malan drew the following conclusion as far back as 1940 after a comprehensive survey on the composition of pastures, “Judged by the estimated requirements of cattle and sheep for growth, all South African pastures, composed mainly or wholly of grasses, are deficient in phosphorus, crude protein and in certain areas sodium, for a period ranging from five to nine months of the year, depending on the area. There are indications that in certain of these regions the pasture may be deficient in phosphorus throughout the year. Provided sufficient food is available, an intake of phosphorus, crude protein or sodium below the optimum requirements for growth, will seldom occur on pastures composed mainly of bushes.” The nutritional value of pastures thus differs as drastically as their environments and it is obvious that there is no one recipe to correct the nutritional deficiencies and/or imbalances in all types of pasture. Voermol, that has become the leader in the field of supplementary feeds for ruminants over the past 50 years, has developed systems and products that correct deficiencies and/or imbalances in specific areas. So, for example, Voermol’s three-phase lick programme was developed for a cow-calf system in areas where big differences occur in the nutritional value of summer and winter pastures and where acute to moderate deficiencies in phosphorus occur. The purpose of the Voermol three-phase lick programme is to ensure that the cow herd’s condition and nutritional status is adequate during the critical stages of the production year to ensure a high wean percentage and acceptable wean weights for the environment. The three-phase lick programme briefly entails the following:
Phase 1: Summer licks (approximately 150 days)
This period starts approximately four to six weeks after good rains. The veld is abundant, green, high in protein, highly digestible and palatable. Phosphate and trace elements are the most limited nutrients on green natural veld and the purpose of the summer licks is to maximise growth. Depending on the area and infrastructure on the farm, one of the following products may be used: Voermol Superfos (V17422) or Voermol Rumevite 6P (V11995). Both these products are ready mixed. In areas where salt is readily available mix Voermol Rumevite 12P (V11994) with 50 % salt. In high rainfall areas, consider the Voermol Phosphate block (V10264) to limit lick losses.
Phase 2: Winter licks (approximately 150 days)
This period starts in autumn when temperatures start dropping, rainfall declines and the veld grows more slowly. It is recommended that beef producers bridge this period with a transitional lick, particularly in sour grass veld areas where summer and winter pastures vary considerably. The advantage of this practice is that the last phosphate supplement can still be given and animals become accustomed to the urea contained in the winter licks. Voermol Superfos is a transitional lick; or a transitional lick can be mixed with Premix 450 (V4676) or Dundee lick concentrate (V10737) (refer to the Voermol Product Manual).
As soon as frost sets in, winter licks must be provided. Winter veld is dry, low in protein, less digestible and less palatable, causing lower veld intake. Protein is the most important nutrient in winter licks and the purpose of winter licks is to prevent a loss of mass. Various licks are available, depending on individual farmer’s environment and preferences; among them Premix 450, Dundee lick concentrate, Ekonolick (V11147), Highveld lick (V16150), Protein block (V10448) and Winslick concentrate (V17865) (refer to the Voermol Product Manual).
Phase 3: Late winter supplements (approximately 60 days)
In late winter, veld is usually very dry, very low in protein with a low digestibility; intake is low with little volume. The purpose of a supplement is to limit a loss of mass and both energy and protein must be provided by a production lick. This period is the most expensive and producers must therefore be very selective when putting out licks. Cows calving in this period must be given a production lick. Products to consider are Voermol Production lick (V 10108) or Voermol Super 18 (V355). Production licks can also be mixed with Premix 450, Highveld lick, Dundee lick concentrate or Winslick concentrate (refer to the Voermol Product Manual).
Various farmers implement the principles of the three-phase lick programme very successfully; an example of this is the Bester Brothers of Vrede who were one of the finalists in the National Cattle Farmer of the Year competition. They use Voermol Phosphate block in summer, Premix 450 in winter and Premix 450 mixed with maize-meal as a production lick. Their weaning percentage in a commercial Bonsmara herd with more than 1 000 breeding cows was 93.8 %.
Veld is by far the most important food source of breeding cows in South Africa. Good veld management that provides for a growth season’s rest every second or third year significantly improves both veld production and animal production. The Voermol three-phase lick programme was developed to supplement nutritional deficiencies in the veld, to make adjustments for environment specific differences in pastures and to ensure that the profit potential of a cow-calf enterprise is achieved.