The current drought is hitting farmers hard, particularly in the already-dry interior of the country. And as usual, we wait until the disaster has hit before making any plans for how to avert the next one.
South Africa is already a dry country, and is subject to substantial fluctuations in rainfall from a variety of drivers, including the current El Nino. One recent paper by Justin du Toit of the Grootfontein Agricultural Research Institute in the Karoo and Tim O'Connor of the South African Environment Observation Network showed how rainfall at one site was subject to cycles laid upon cycles laid upon cycles. They found evidence of an approximately 20-year cycle, superimposed on another cycle of between 44 and 70 years. How these cycles will be influenced by climate change is difficult to predict, but most researchers agree that we will see more extreme events - more severe (and longer) droughts interspersed with more intense floods.
More importantly, droughts often last several years, and the cumulative effect of a multi-year drought can be far more devastating than a drought lasting just one year.
So, with or without anthropogenic climate change, southern Africa is a drought-prone region. And yet we always seem to be taken by surprise when a drought hits.
The most severe impact of drought on livestock farmers is, of course, fodder shortages. The lack of moisture causes substantial reductions in forage production, and animals starve to death in their thousands. I've seen plains covered with bare soil and carcasses and the stench of rotting flesh is not an experience one forgets.
So how does a farmer avoid this situation the next time around?
Creating a fodder reserve and using it as an early-warning system
The fodder reserve is, simply put, a bank of stored food put aside for the lean times. That bank can take the form of veld set aside for winter, as well as hay, pastures, and other forms of intensively managed fodder. For this discussion we'll focus on veld reserves.
Veld reserves come with their own problems. In the sourveld parts of the country (high-rainfall areas with acidic soils where the protein content of the winter forage drops below animal maintenance levels), a range of strategies are needed to allow animals to cope with the poor quality of the forage, including protein supplements and additional feed. And of course, there's the ever-present threat of unplanned fires devastating the ungrazed veld. In the sweetveld areas of the country, where animals can be grazed year-round (but at much lower stocking rates), winter veld is more useful.
One of the most important principles of veld management is that veld requires adequate rest in order to recover from grazing. By adequate, most researchers advocate a year or more. In fact, depending on the environment and the amount of grazing applied, veld may need 400 days or more to adequately restore nutrient reserves to the roots of the plants. With good rest, the productivity of the veld in the following seasons will increase, relative to veld that hasn't been rested.
The simplest way to apply this system is to set aside a portion of the farm to be rested for the entire year. Dividing the farm into multiple camps (by fences or by herding) allows the farmer to systematically graze each camp only as much as the veld requires, before moving on to the next area. The trick, however, comes in moving back to the first camp when the grass is tall enough to be grazed, rather than blindly following a schedule of moving the animals around all of the grazing camps.
In good years, where the forage production is greater than the animal requirements, the last camps in the grazing schedule will be almost untouched. In bad years, all the camps in the grazing schedule will be grazed and the farmer might start eyeing the reserve camps long before winter.
In either case, by mid-season, the farmer should have a good idea of his fodder budget for the remainder of the year, and can adjust accordingly. If there is more grass than the animals require, the farmer has a range of options. He can buy in more stock to take advantage of the surplus, or lease grazing to neighbours, or simply leave the additional rested veld to provide extra productivity in the following season. If the animals are outstripping the supply of grass, the farmer can destock or buy in fodder early, before the rush for food sends prices sky-rocketing.
A good summary of the system can be found on page 119 of the 2015 National Wool Growers' Association Guidelines for Livestock Farming by Aumie Aucamp and Arno Moore (disclosure: I also contributed a small article to the publication). But the system is something that has been advocated for many years, including by farmers in sourveld such as Clive Buntting in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal.
Drought is a reality in southern Africa, and is likely to get worse. Rainfall is beyond a famer's control, but the farmer can control stocking densities and fodder banks and plan for the future to ensure that when disaster strikes, he is prepared for it.
EDIT: Corrected the link to the Clive Buntting paper