Last update: March 29, 2012 09:15:18 AM E-mail Print

 

FIFTY YEARS OF PASTURE RESEARCH IN SOUTH AFRICA

 

C.H. DONALDSON

Department of Agriculture (Karoo Region), Private Bag X529, Middelburg, 5900

 

In comparison with other disciplines, the history of Pasture Research and Veld Management in South Africa as an applied and basic science is young. This young science has its origin in the recommendations of the well-known Drought Investigation Commission of 1920. In its final report of 1923 the Commission appealed for the institution of an effective research and extension programme to halt the widespread process of deterioration of our soil, veld and water resources so evident in the country at that time. For a while after the publication of the report very little action followed. However, the catastrophic drought of 1933 provided the final incentive for the initiation by the Government of a national veld and pasture research programme. The Pasture Research Service of the Department of Agriculture is the direct outcome of the Resolution adopted by the House of Assembly on the 4th of May, 1934, viz:-

"That the Government be requested to initiate a proper investigation and take the necessary measures to prevent the drying up of the Union of South Africa and in general to preserve the waters of the Union and to prevent by legislation or otherwise, unnecessary veld burns in the mountains". "This programme stressed at the outset the fundamental importance of instituting research on veld management and veld reclamation as it was felt that in these two subjects lay the key to the whole situation". Pasture Research and Veld Management then became one of the main sections of the Department of Agriculture. The official pasture research programme was inaugurated at the end of 1934 at the Towoomba, Athole, Leeukuil and Rietondale Pasture Research Stations. At the same time a continuous grazing and fixed seasonal rotational grazing trial commenced at the Grootfontein College of Agriculture. This trial is still in progress.

Over the past 50 years, great strides were made in the development of pasture science in South Africa by the pasture scientists of the Department of Agriculture, the Faculties of Agriculture and the private sector as well as the botanists of the Department and the Universities. Their pasture and related research activities have covered a wide field and the results of many of these investigations have yielded fruitful results. The historical development and progress of pasture research in South Africa have been adequately dealt with by contributions published in the 1966, 1969 and 1975 proceedings of the Grassland Society of South Africa and in the October (1974) meeting of the Fertilizer Society of South Africa.

The first pasture officers formulated an ecological pasture philosophy and announced principles concerning veld ecology that are held to this day. It is with the aid of these basic principles combined with the increased knowledge obtained through studies on growth morphology, autecology and the physiology of the major plant species of the veld that we are able today to make definite recommendations. The recommended methods of veld reclamation, utilization and management are capable of effecting considerable improvement in the condition of the veld and the stock and in so doing benefit the farmer.

During recent years pasture scientists have developed and implemented the philosophy of radical veld improvement as a means of improving the natural pasturage. This approach, although capital-intensive, has considerable scope in South Africa.

The progress that has been made in pasture research should however not be considered as a cause for complacency. There are critical problems looming ahead if our natural resources are to be preserved and developed in such a way that they may play their part in supporting the expanding demands of our national economy.

A great deal more and decidedly better research is needed to refine certain aspects of pasture research and to find answers to a number of important veld problems. One of the main research needs for the high rainfall areas is, for example, the development of ecologically adapted low-cost legume-based pasture systems and to look at ways of reducing the costs of intensive pasture-dependent production systems. In the semi-arid and arid farming area it is primarily the moisture factor that limits plant growth and controls plant species composition. Key research in these areas should be directed at the development of ecological and artificial methods of improving the water-use efficiency of the major plant communities.

It is disheartening to know that less than 10 percent of farmers apply effective conservation and veld improvement practices, despite the almost 50 years of effort and expense that has been put into farm planning in an attempt to promote the adoption of sound conservation farming practices.

After 50 years of veld research one can with confidence conclude that had the proven principles of veld management and conservation farming been universally applied over the past couple of decades the current poor state of the veld and the economic plight facing many farmers might never have occurred. The problem of getting farmers to apply the basic veld management and veld improvement principles in practice still remains unsolved and it is highly likely that the status quo will be maintained for an indefinite period of time unless drastic measures are taken by the authorities to overcome this problem.

 

Published

Journal of the Grassland Soc. of Southern Africa 1