As traditional farmers, most of the time we tend to accumulate livestock by customary means.
A good example is when a child is born in our communities, and he or she is given a cow or calf very early on.
Thus, by the age of 20, such person would have accumulated a handful of cattle, minimum 7 to 15, bearing in mind the tough ranging conditions of our fields in the villages, as well as the general mortality of cows.
Of course along the way, sometimes those cattle will tend to support your studies too, depending on the present financial status of the household. Most of these ‘given’ cattle become sacred to the owner, and as a result have sentimental value, despite the modern-day ‘commercial’ livestock farming we are getting into.
But, when looking over at our cattle from year to year, there comes a time when a decision must be made about the fate of a cow, and stimulating this decision is the need to maximize productivity and profitability in modern-day farming. Mind you, livestock farming is no longer as traditional as it used to be.
While we are on this point, let’s quickly look at what cattle are used for in traditional farming set-ups. There are those cattle which represent continuity of a generation as given by the parents to their kids. And then there are those cattle given as tokens from other relatives, maybe because you were a good child, or there are those cows bought from sentimental places/people.
But most importantly, cows in the early days represented a sign of wealth.
In fact, in Namibia, from the history of the OvaHerero and Oshiwambo people, the more cattle you had, the more wives you could marry and the more children you could have.
Cattle are still significantly used for traditional rituals as tokens from in-laws in most African traditions in a symbolic ritual called “lobola”. Lobola is a token of appreciation from the in-laws to say ‘thank you’ for the bride whom the family has raised well.
And then there are some cattle which are kept to be consumed at weddings and funerals. Older men are even known to give instructions as to which cattle will be slaughtered at their funerals. The cattle were also used as means of ploughing the crop fields, especially in the northern communal areas. And of course, how would our villagers survive without their daily milk and milk products such as omaere, traditional fat, oshitaka and oshikandela?
But it is not always that rosy if you consider farming as a commercial and profit-making entity.
For any farmer who wants to improve their profit margin, they have to take the culling of unwanted or ageing cattle very seriously.
Cattle must be culled for various reasons. Profitability in farming does not really consider how the cow arrived in the herd: whether it is a cow given to you by your great-grandfather or your favourite uncle, or even as a token during weddings. When a cow needs to go, it must go.
Profit-driven farmers must reduce all cattle which are not as profitable. Imagine, some of our farmers keep a cow for 15 or even up to 20 years in their herds.
But they will tell you that that one old cow is giving a calf almost every year. Still, come on, that cow needs to go.
Every producer is guilty of ‘let’s give her another six months or a year…’, especially in years when grazing is abundant and the cow is still in fairly good condition.
Safety, productivity and profitability can all be affected by using this approach in culling decisions. If you ‘give her one more season’, she may not make it on and off the trailer during transport, and you have just lost the sale of that slaughter cow, which could be your profit for the year.
Some of these factors can also be applied to the bulls in your herd, as the health and mobility of the bull can have a large impact on the profitability and productivity of your operation as well. Why keep a bull which is ‘useless’, just for sentimental value?
Cows with a bad attitude or the dominant ones can ruin the dynamic of the entire herd, and cause many safety issues.
This characteristic can also be passed on to their offspring, and disposition problems can cause a decrease in reproduction rates as well as other performance characteristics, all of which decrease profitability and safety. That cow must go!
Why would you want to keep a cow which is always poking or bulldozing others half the time?
The pregnancy rate is the most known factor which is considered, apart from other factors which should also be considered like old age, udder problems, low body condition scoring (BCS) or thinner animals, bad temperament, eye problems and whole body structure defects.
The pregnancy rate is a very significant factor to consider when making culling decisions, and animals with low performance rates or those found not pregnant should move to the top of the culling list. They must go too!
If she doesn’t calf, she is not paying her production cost. This is the reason why commercial farmers have veterinarians testing their cows for pregnancy annually after the cows were with a bull for a certain time.
Why keep a cow which is not pregnant after being with a bull for three months, and she was ready for mating? Or why keep a cow which does not give birth for any reason?
The challenge is to keep track of the individual animals, to provide them with the right care and monitor them at an individual level. This usually enhances efficiency in the operational management of profitable farming.
At least nowadays with the Namibian Livestock Traceability System (NamLITS), we are able to keep records and trace our cattle.
Apart from the identification of cattle, we should also be able to keep records of the production, such as how many calves were born to a particular animal or bull per year in order to ascertain the productivity of the farming business.
Farmers need to devote attention to animals which really need it. For example, when an animal needs veterinary care, it should receive it as soon as possible. Otherwise, if there is no hope, better sacrifice it.
The welfare of the animal must be top priority in farming enterprises. Keeping better-quality animals in your herd will definitely improve your profit margins in the long run.
This could be improved by keeping breeds of animals which are of good standard and still well- adapted to your type of farming and the area. Sentimentality is not really a benchmark for profit in upholding business ethics and profit. Thus, buying one good quality bull might gain more money than keeping a lot of cows (sub-standard) with sub-standard bulls.
Another business-related decision which we can apply to improve our livestock farming profit is through diversification. Farmers now tend to also include other animals such as pigs and chicken in their farming activities, and minor activities such as charcoal-making, wood-selling and crop-farming, amongst others, to supplement their income.
This is indeed a great improvement towards making profit and in diversification, farmers don’t have to slaughter their livestock as much for general consumption at home, but rather can market them for better profits.
In conclusion, although in traditional farming nowadays livestock are seen as an ATM or quick cash instead of being kept mostly for traditional rituals and status, challenges to maximise on profitable farming need to be tackled.
This can be summarised as through land and water management, good husbandry practices, keeping good quality breeds, getting rid of non-profitable animals, the maintenance of good animal welfare and health and good record-keeping.
But still, I feel strongly that we traditional farmers should pat ourselves on the backs because we have come a long way from pure traditional farming towards profit-driven business livestock farming. So, let’s get the dollar rolling in with our ‘modernised’ traditional livestock farming.