More cows, moving faster

by August 25, 2013
JJ van Rooyen, "Family" (2013)

JJ van Rooyen, “Family” (2013)

Cattle. Johann Zietsman eats, sleeps, and breathes them. He thinks about how cattle graze, how they convert grass to meat, and how they impact the land around them. Cattle are his world — and they are also the key to saving that world from desertification.

Zietsman has spent twenty-five years perfecting “ultra high density grazing,” an innovative approach to feeding cows that both improves grassland health and allows cattle to transform grass into meat more effectively. He shared his ideas with U.S. ranchers during a month-long grazing tour this summer, with stops in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida, and Missouri.

But his theory originates far from top cattle-producing nations like the U.S., Australia, and Brazil — instead, it started on a ranch in Zimbabwe.

In his ranching days, Zietsman and others noticed that the grassland, or veld, was growing less verdant every year. African ranges that once fed countless wild animals now couldn’t even support small herds of cattle. Decreasing stocking rates (the number of animals per acre of pasture) and government-sponsored culling of wildlife had no effect; in fact, desertification worsened.

“My cattle were performing very well under commercial ranching conditions at the officially recommended stocking rate; bulls were selling at record prices and the country’s economy was strengthening,” he says. “But the veld was visibly deteriorating.”

Zietsman and his fellow ranchers weren’t the only ones experiencing this kind of development. In its latest survey of the world’s land and water resources, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 25 percent of the world’s land is “highly degraded” while about 44 percent is “slightly or moderately degraded.” According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), this degradation affects 168 countries, and about 29.7 million acres of land (12 million hectares) are lost to desertification each year.

Zietsman himself faced two problems: poor grassland health that wasn’t being improved through grazing, and cattle breeds that were ill-adapted to the tropical environment of his ranch, unable to utilize the low nutritional quality of the grass or to resist parasites. “I realized that we have to raise cattle to improve on less nutrition,” he says. “You need cattle of a different type, with a much smaller frame, to allow them to have a higher rate of intake.”

Zietsman came to understand that conventional grazing methods, using high-production cattle breeds and based on philosophies developed by universities and (mainly) U.S. agribusiness players looking to foster dependence their on products and services, were neither economical for ranchers nor ecologically sustainable.

Under conventional grazing practices, cattle are turned loose in large pastures and allowed to graze selectively, choosing the plants they like best and leaving everything else untouched. Depending on the size of the pasture, cattle might be rotated into new pastures on a weekly or monthly basis, leaving the first pasture to recover.

Cattle perform well under conventional grazing; because they consume the most nutritious grasses, their body condition improves and they produce offspring easily. Seeking to maximize meat production, ranchers have opted for large-framed cattle breeds with high nutritional requirements that can only be satisfied by selective grazing at low stocking rates or with nutritional supplements sold by agribusiness companies. Many production-oriented cattle are also ill-suited to their environment, making them prone to diseases that can only be prevented or cured with agrochemicals. Still, conventional grazing has become the standard due to the “efficiency” of big, selective grazers that produce more meat.

The ecological impact of conventional grazing, however, can be serious, as Zietman saw on his land. When cattle are allowed to graze selectively, they overgraze the “good” grass, killing it over time and allowing less nutritious and unpalatable plants to overtake the grassland. Other plants can be harmed by too little grazing; because the cattle don’t choose to eat them, the old, dead vegetation is never grazed off or knocked down to make way for new growth, which kills the plant. Conventional grazing thus tends to increase the area of bare ground between plants — the hallmark process of desertification.

While studies have shown that poor livestock management can contribute to desertification, specifically in low rainfall areas, Zietsman’s method is evidence that properly managed cattle can actually improve grassland health, while also allowing ranchers to stock their land at higher rates and therefore produce more meat from fewer acres.

Moving to ultra high density grazing requires ranchers to adopt several new ideas: rotate cattle much more frequently than under conventional grazing systems (sometimes several times a day), divide large ranges into many small pastures, drastically increase their stocking rate, select a breed or hybrid breed suited to the type of grassland to be grazed, and, as a general approach, tailor every management decision they make to their specific environment.

“We are only implementing a principle,” Zietsman says. “What will differ will be the stock density, the amount of cattle you have, how many paddocks you use, how frequently you have to move them. For example, in the western part of United States we have mostly dry grazing because of the low rainfall. The principle will still be implemented, but the labor will be less intense. You might move the cattle once a day or every few days.”

Ultra high density grazing better mimics the way herds of large herbivores once interacted with the grassland. Because each species favored different plants, no one type of grass was over-selected. The herds aerated the soil with their hooves, trampled down dead vegetation, and fertilized the soil with manure. Driven by predators and the need for fresh grazing, the herds kept moving and rarely returned to the same area before the grass could regenerate, thus giving the land time to recover and preventing plant death.

Keeping cattle in small pastures and rotating them frequently recreates this effect, and the livestock tend to graze the land equally, without favoring certain plants. As Zietsman and others who have implemented ultra high density grazing have seen, giving the land adequate rest time and encouraging even grazing allows a higher number of grass varieties to flourish.

“The improvement of the ecosystem is just unbelievable. My species profile changed within one year,” Zietsman says. “We changed the density of the grasses, the distance between the grasses decreased. In other words, we had twice the number of grass plants growing in just one year. The soil improved tremendously. We increased the population number of legumes on the property. The legumes plants are higher in protein and also fix nitrogen. What we were doing by knocking the grass plants down that hadn’t been grazed was provide a seedbed.”

To solve the problem of cattle that weren’t suited to his ranch’s environment, Zietsman also initiated the development of the Veldmaster cattle breed, originally a combination of the early-maturing U.S.-developed Lasater Beefmaster breed and African breeds such as Mashona, Angoni, and Boran. Veldmasters combine the African breeds’ high tolerance to disease-carrying ticks and worms and ability to thrive on low-nutrient forage with the Lasater breed’s good temperament, high muscle ratio and milk production, and early maturity.

By combining his grazing method with the Veldmaster breed, Zietsman was able to triple his stocking rate while simultaneously healing the grassland and maintaining his herd’s body condition. Other ranches that have implemented ultra high density grazing have been able to quadruple their stocking rate.

Zietsman is no longer ranching — he lost his land and cattle during Zimbabwe’s 2002 land reform — but he continues perfecting his method and gathering evidence of its success by working as a ranching consultant. He helps manage a herd 40,000 strong in South Africa, and plans to provide consultancy services in Zambia next year.

As yet, ultra high density grazing is only being practiced on a small number of ranches around the world, mostly in Africa. The agribusiness establishment and some university agriculture experts have criticized the approach, saying there is not enough evidence to prove it can stop desertification or maintain herd health. Many ranchers, meanwhile, are reluctant to change conventional grazing practices that have been used for generations.

But Zietsman remains hopeful that ultra high density grazing will catch on worldwide. The evidence is there, he says, and the challenge is to spread the word.

“I think it’s really difficult for people to change their ideas, and I can understand that to an extent because I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t done it myself,” Zietsman says. “I think it’s going to be a question of time and people seeing it. It’s going to be many years before it’s common practice. The rewarding part is seeing what happens when they do start implementing these principles on the land.”