Thursday, May 7, 2015

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Lessons from Australia: Change in the Rangelands

How can Africa learn from Australian solutions?
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Jared Zimmerman

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.

Reigning in over-grazing

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.

Jubilee Downs Pastoral Station in Western Australia

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.

Staying sustainable

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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I found this article very misleading and damaging and severely outdated. The key point I want to make is OVERGRAZING IS A FACTOR OF TIME, NOT OF ANIMAL NUMBERS OR SPECIES. Therefore the entire premise of this article is wrong. Please do not pass on this misleading information to the public. In Africa they already know that more numbers moving to new ground more frequently actually increases land health, plant health and means more animals can be carried on the same land with improved water and carbon cycles.

Rodger, your remarks are most unsavoury - particularly the capitalisation, one would think that writing, "the key point I want to make is" would be a subtle enough hint. Given the uncertainty that surrounds the subject, I don't think that the decision is yours to discredit a well written article. The Jubilee Downs example has too long been forgotten. 

Bobby, you're fishing for a response to Rodger but he makes a good point. I think we can all agree that this is a scintillating article on a hot topic, but it simply generalises far too easily from the Jubilee Downs Pastoral Station demonstration. It's too easy and comforting for all of us to look back to those halcyon days of Western Australian alternative cattle management exercises. Whether or not it included rotational grazing! It pains me to say it, guys, but Jubilee Downs was 20 years ago!

That's way the bestest asnewr so far!

I find Rodger Savory's remarks reflect a rather simplistic view of livestock grazing management.  Overgrazing is a function of several factors, of which time may be one, depending on the specific circumstances.  To assert unequivocally that neither animal numbers nor kind of herbivore have anything to do with it is to allow excessive and possibly damaging grazing pressure in a one-day grazing period, and to ignore potential complementarity among different grazers.  It also suggests that a very small group of animals in a very large area will cause overgrazing, irrespective of the kind of animal or the geography of the area.  The article is not outdated; the demonstration on Jubilee Downs took place twenty years ago, so it cannot be judged on the assumption it was implemented in another time or place.  As Adrian Williams says in the article, the failure to include rotational grazing in the new management inputs was unfortunate.  I happen to know that Adrian is an enthusastic supporter of rotational grazing (under any name you want to call it), but it was not adopted on Jubilee Downs 20 years ago, and therefore is not relevant to his report.

 Some of Rodger Savoury’s criticism is justified, and I acknowledge that high intensity, short duration rotational grazing is the best of grazing systems – where it is technically and socially feasible.  However, with climate change, drying landscapes, decreasing water resources and calls for lower methane production by livestock industries around the world, we are moving into a new paradigm where reduction in livestock numbers will be required.  Under such conditions, the Jubilee Downs example (imperfect though it may be), and the unpublished part of the article regarding productivity improvement in Inner Mongolia through correcting mineral deficiencies of sheep and goats, provide hope and a direction for maintaining rural incomes - through identifying and practising techniques that will bring about livestock productivity improvements.  That is the real message of the article.

Unbelievable how well-wirtetn and informative this was.