Rangeland – also referred to as veldt, savannah or grassland – can be defined as any extensive area of land occupied by herbaceous or shrubby vegetation, which is used for grazing domestic or wild herbivores. Rangelands are more generally marginal or sub-marginal agricultural land or areas that are entirely unsuited to permanent cultivation. By some definitions, these lands occupy around 70 % of the land area of the Earth (excluding Antarctica), much of which is located on the African continent: 75% of eastern Africa, for example, is dominated by grasslands.
The world’s rangelands are largely degraded or at risk of degradation. Causes for this include increasing population pressure, harvesting of plants for household fuel, expansion of unsustainable cultivation into rangelands, increasing pressure on shrinking forage resources, poor grazing management practices, inappropriate land use and unsuitable land tenure policies.
Livestock production on rangelands is at severe risk due to conditions associated with climate change and global warming. In many rangeland regions, mean and modal annual rainfall are declining, resulting in decreased plant growth and declining water resources. Drier conditions promote increased wind erosion while occasional high intensity rain storms increase soil erosion. These conditions will result in a downward spiral of loss of soil nutrients, poorer plant growth and decreased soil cover.
One way in which rangeland conditions and plant growth could be significantly improved would be to reduce the numbers of grazing animals. Given the methane produced by livestock, this proposal has also already been mooted as an important contributor to decreasing greenhouse gases. And, although the rate of carbon sequestration on rangelands is likely to be low, the potential for improvement is vast.
From this complex web of interactions, a starting point needs to be found for the protection and improvement of rangeland conditions and the maintenance of rural livelihoods that rely on livestock-grazing rangelands. In order to reduce methane emissions, bring vegetation removal into balance with forage resources, address rangeland degradation, and promote carbon sequestration, there is a need to reduce the number of grazing livestock. The need to reign in over-grazing is particularly urgent in Africa, where over-grazing is thought to contribute to about 50% of land degradation.
This, however, will not be socially acceptable unless financial returns from livestock grazing can be maintained or improved. And this requires improvement in livestock productivity and also, most probably, improvement in the marketing chain. Although the political, economic and environmental context of Africa is unique in many respects, a number of important lessons can be learnt by looking at case studies from elsewhere.
The Jubilee Downs demonstration of improved cattle management of 1987-1992, for example, was established to address the problem of unsustainable cattle numbers on the degraded Fitzroy River frontage country, but can now be seen to have had a significant impact on cattle numbers and methane emissions. The management inputs included:
· Department of Agriculture stocking rates according to land type and land condition
· Introduction of Brahman bulls to cross-breed with the station’s Shorthorn cows
· Pregnancy diagnosis, and culling of cows that failed to produce a calf in two years
· Weaning of calves at three to four months old, and grazing them on the best available pasture
· Injection against botulism
Unfortunately, rotational grazing was not considered at that time, which may have brought about greater gains in rangeland condition and livestock productivity.
Under these conditions, cow pregnancy rates rose from a mean of 50% to 75% in the first year of the demonstration. The weaned calves grew well and the cows quickly returned to suitable breeding condition. As the demonstration progressed, it was found that steers could be ready for market at two years old rather than the usual three or four years old, resulting in reduced numbers of livestock carried on the station and quicker financial turn-over.
The demonstration occupied only two paddocks. By the early 1990s the station owners were convinced that the new management package should be extended to the entire station. In order to reduce stocking rates, the herd was reduced from 17,000 to 11,000, and some years later reduced further to 5,000. Over the years, pasture conditions have improved under the reduced grazing pressure, while the costs of fence and water point maintenance as well as mustering costs have fallen. Jubilee Downs cattle are in high demand amongst the cattle buyers and the grazing enterprise is more profitable now than previously.
This is only a single example but it serves to suggest that livestock production systems can be adapted in practical ways to make flocks and herds more productive. Along with the process of achieving a sustainable livestock population, grazing management can be geared to further improve livestock productivity and sustainable, productive use of the rangeland.
The example from Western Australia suggests that improvements can be made to livestock productivity on rangelands. Increased efforts and capacity building can go into improving livestock productivity so that livestock numbers are reduced in ways that diminish methane emissions, address rangeland degradation and promote carbon sequestration whilst also maintaining rural livelihoods.
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