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M. Vorster

Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute, Private Bag X529,

Middelburg CP 5900



Stock farming in the areas now comprising the Karoo Region started at the beginning of the 18th century, when the Free Burghers, as a result of dissatisfaction with the administration of Governor W.A. van der Stel and poor product prices, were forced to trek from the Cape into the interior.

As a result of frequent overgrazing and droughts, the spreading of farmers into the interior was accompanied by the development of a trek stock farming system. This system was the beginning of a system of subsistence economy which lasted until the discovery of diamonds and gold during the eighties of the 19th century. With the establishment of the mining industry and the accompanying industrial development, an interior market for food and other agricultural commodities was created. These events laid the foundation for commercial stock farming where farmers had to shift from a subsistence economy to the commercial production of agricultural products (Anon 1970).

The granting of land to the Free Burghers in 1657 was also the start of private land-ownership in South Africa. The occupational process was completed by the 1920s. Today more than 80 % of the agricultural land in the Karoo belongs to private farmers. Other agricultural land consists of municipality commonages and other trust lands.



Agro-economical justification

Although the contribution of agricultural products from the Arid Karoo as compared to that of the national agricultural gross geographic product (RSA  and self-governing states) is about 3,7% (H.C. Venter 1993, pers. comm.), mutton and goat meat are important contributors to the national meat supply. (About 13,6 % and 6,8 % of the value of controlled slaughtering in the RSA and TBVC countries respectively.) (Bester 1993: pers. comm.) Apparently, substantial numbers of sheep are also slaughtered for the local markets.

The gross income earned from wool and mohair in this area, is about 16 % and 39 % of the total earnings of the RSA and TBVC countries respectively (Bester 1993, pers. comm.).


Socio-economical justification

Commercial stock farming was the major and sometimes the only contributor to establishing a rural society with a modem infrastructure (roads, towns, schools, churches, etc.) as well as to providing jobs on the farms and in the towns. Some people say that the Arid Karoo is overcapitalised while other people, especially visiting foreigners, hold the view that the Karoo is one of the most developed deserts in the world.

During the early part of this century the number of farmers and their families, "bywoners" and labourers was much higher than today. Since the depression of the early 1930s there has been a steady decline in the population on the farms. Today (1993) about 4 749 farmers on 6 694 farms in the Karoo Region are entirely dependent on commercial small stock farming.

The vast majority of the total human population of approximately 255 000  settled in the 24 towns and districts of the Arid Karoo, is directly and indirectly dependent on the economics generated by commercial stock farming, while 74 498 (about 29,2 %) are directly involved with the farming activities (Anon 1991).



From the foregoing it is clear that, although the economic importance of commercial smaIl-stock farming in the Arid Karoo has declined as a result of low product income, it will be a gross mistake to underestimate the socio-economic importance of stock farming in the Arid Karoo. It is of cardinal importance to strive for a healthy farming community in order to stabilise the rural areas.



In seeking greater stability and profitability for their small stock farming enterprises, farmers have over the years implemented certain practices. Some of these have over the long term resulted in certain trends which were detrimental to the environment and small-stock industry as a whole. On the other hand, the State, by developing and propagating new technologies (e.g. supplementary feeding) and supplying financial aid (e.g. soil conservation and drought relief schemes) to stabilise the small-stock industry, has also contributed to a certain extent to the creation of some trends detrimental to the environment and small-stock industry.

This situation lead to the creation of a semi-artificial environment which has given the small stock farming community a false sense of security and has lead to trends which are not compatible with the natural environment.


Creation of semi-maladapted farming systems

One of the most serious results was the creation of semi-maladapted farming systems in which supplementary feeding, either through irrigated pastures (mainly lucerne and winter cereals) and/or concentrates, were over-emphasised.

This semi-artificial environment contributed to the breeding of animals adapted to such an environment and not to the natural environment. For example, there are indications that the large majority of fibre-producing breeds, especially the Angora goat and certain types of woolled sheep, cannot produce optimally under the extensive conditions of the Arid Karoo, unless they are supported by supplementary feeding or irrigated pastures or concentrates are provided. This is because most breeders and stock farmers over the years emphasised an increase in the amount of fibre produced per animal, because of economic considerations. In the past this was no problem, because the relatively high product prices for fibre and meat justified the relatively high input costs of supplementary feeding and irrigated pastures. At present the situation has reversed: input costs of supplementary feeding as well as of irrigated pastures are excessively high, which make these practices uneconomical.

Stock production systems have developed (especially ewe-lamb production systems) which do not allow for large adjustment of stock numbers during periods of droughts, because the flock composition is of such a nature that there is a lack of surplus dry animals (e.g. wethers and culled ewes) to sell. This is further aggravated by the fact that stock farmers prefer to sell stock when market prices are relatively favourable and the condition of the stock is good. Another important reason is that if a farmer reduces his stock numbers significantly during a drought, it frequently happens that he is forced to purchase stock before the end of the financial year, in order to keep his income-tax level acceptable.

The afore-mentioned considerations obviously lead to a situation where many farmers retain their stock in the hope that rains will come soon and that the situation will return to normal. In this regard it should be noted that there are more years with below average veld production than with average production, resulting in regular over- stocking of the veld during these subnormal years.

Management practices have developed which are not in phase with veld production. As a result of a significantly higher reproductive rate achieved with an autumn mating system, as compared to a spring mating system, the lambing season of most of the production systems is out of phase (spring) with the peak production and nutritional supply (autumn) of Karooveld. This leads to a situation where maximum stock numbers on the farm coincide with the period when veld production reaches a nadir.

In addition, the nutritional requirements of these animals also reach a peak during this seasonal dry period. In an attempt to counteract these problematic situations, most farmers resort to supplementary feeding practices with the objective of correcting the nutritional deficiency mentioned. For this purpose irrigated pastures (mainly lucerne and winter cereals) or the feeding of concentrates in the form of either licks or alkali-ionophore treated whole grain are commonly used.


Veld degradation

In the earlier periods of settlement, there was from an economic point of view and because of a lack of knowledge, a tendency to seriously overstock the veld. This tendency has lately decreased considerably.

As a result of this overstocking and periodic droughts, large scale and often radical vegetational changes have taken place. These changes largely embody the thinning out of the vegetation, decrease or destruction of perennial grass, and an increase and spreading of undesirable karoobush and woody species (e.g. Lycium spp. Rhigozum trichotomum and Prosopis spp.) (Roux & Vorster 1983). This phenomenon has a very detrimental effect on commercial stock farming. Except for the continuous decrease of the grazing capacity of the veld, the ingestion of toxic plants and one-sided diets cause severe losses and/or physiological disturbances in small stock.

To combat this veld degradation and to rehabilitate the veld, the State has in the recent past introduced several financial aid schemes where farming on the official grazing capacity or reduced stock numbers were and still are a prerequisite for aid. Examples are the Veld Rest Scheme (1968), Stock Reduction Scheme (1969-1972), Soil Conservation Scheme (since 1983) and latest Disaster Drought Relief Scheme (since 1989).

All these schemes and massive extension efforts by departmental extension personnel and soil conservation committees have helped to make the majority of farmers aware of the dangers and consequences of veld degradation. As a result of economic pressure and in some instances ignorance, there is unfortunately a reluctance among farmers to apply conservation measures to stop further veld degradation.


Creation of pseudo-prosperity

As result of frequent periodic and prolonged disaster droughts, financial aid by the government, mainly in the form of low interest loans, soil conservation and drought subsidies, has led to a situation of pseudo-prosperity in rural areas, which at present cannot be sustained. About R65 million was spent on 2 083 farmers on drought relief from 1983 to 1987 (Roux 1990). In this fiscal year alone (April 1993 to August 1993), about R41 million has been paid out to farmers in drought relief in the Karoo (Smit 1993 pers. comm.).

These schemes have unfortunately led to a situation where a large majority of farmers at present are totally dependent on financial aid to survive. The problem is, however, that in a new political dispensation, it is anticipated that financial aid to the commercial farming community will gradually be minimised. If the farming community does not adjust to these trends, poverty in the rural areas will increase with disastrous consequences.


Uneconomical farming units

As a result of permanent settlement, intensifying of farming practices and natural growth in population on the farms as well as the traditional way of legacy, there was a tendency to subdivide the farms into smaller units (Anon 1970). To curb this problem, the State intervened by promulgating the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act in 1970.

Since 1970 up to the late 1980s, there has been a tendency for farmers to expand their farming enterprises, but at present, as a result of decreasing grazing capacities, lower product income, higher input costs and interest rates, farmers cannot afford to expand farming enterprises by buying land. On the other hand, if he does not expand his farming enterprise, he would eventually face the fact of not even surviving in the short term.



From the above it is clear that prospects for commercial stock farming are very bleak. As a result of low product income, high input costs and interest rates as well as the present disaster drought, farmers in this area today face the problem that their farms cannot produce a high enough net income to survive. At present, about two- thirds of the farmers in the area concerned have a negative net income and if they do not receive any financial aid, they will be facing bankruptcy in the near future. This will eventually lead to a further depopulation of farmers in the rural areas, resulting in major socio-economic problems.



From an agro technical point of view, it is clear that sustainable stock farming in the Arid Karoo should have the aim of more robust farming systems and techniques which are more compatible with the variable climatological character of the Arid Karoo (e.g. low input sustainable agriculture (LISA)). This means that low risk and low input farming systems and techniques must be developed and propagated. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to undertake appropriate research. The following alternatives are currently under consideration:

  1. Farming systems and techniques, which take risk management in consideration, must be developed, quantified and propagated. In this regard, the following projects/studies are being envisaged or are in the planning phase:

    • To determine different drought-risk areas and to develop and to propagate suitable sustainable stock-farming systems and techniques.

    • To determine which management and technical factors are of critical importance in successful farming systems and techniques in the Arid Karoo.

  2. Better adapted animal genotypes should be developed and implemented. Research at the Grootfontein, Carnarvon and Jansenville experimental farms with Merinos and Angora goats has clearly shown that a decrease in fibre production is accompanied by an increase in "constitution" or fitness of animals. In practice, this phenomenon is already recognised by farmers as is evident from the shift in type of woolled sheep from higher fibre producing pleated types to lower fibre producing less pleated types. In the same context, there is also a shift in the goals of research from increased production to functional efficiency. For example, using a small-frame ewe (e.g. Persian) mated to a large-frame ram might be more efficient than farming with large framed mutton breeds only. In addition, such an approach could also reduce risk of small-stock farming in the Arid Karoo. Another possibility that is at present being investigated, is the possibility of artificial manipulation of production functions via hormonal therapy to enhance specific production functions (Olivier 1993, pers. comm.).

  4. Present grazing capacity norms must be put right. Except for the long term grazing capacity experiments at Grootfontein and Carnarvon, we are also monitoring the stocking rate, veld condition and rainfall at nearly 80 selected farms, spread over the whole Karoo Agricultural Region. At the moment we have developed and are busy testing formulae and techniques to determine the long term grazing capacity of farms in the summer rainfall area (excluding the bush/ shrubveld) of the Arid Karoo. We are still collecting data to develop similar formulae and techniques for the bush/shrubveld and the winter rainfall area of the Arid Karoo.

  5. Strategies for the control/eradication of invader/problem plants and weeds must be developed and implemented. Before any strategies can be developed, it is of cardinal importance to have a clear idea of the nature and extent of invader/problem plants and weeds in the Arid Karoo. In this respect, the Department of Agriculture has already launched a monitoring survey, in co-operation - with Soil Conservation Committees, to determine the nature and extent of these plants in the Karoo.

  6. The costs of control/eradication of plants are high and strategies should be developed to make it economically more viable. For example, to control/eradicate Prosopis spp. by chemical and/or mechanical ways in the Britstown district, will cost between R428 and R1111/ha (Meyer 1993: pers. comm.). There is a need for a holistic approach in invader plant control. The Department of Agriculture (1992) has for example already proposed a concept policy for the control of Prosopis spp., which includes biological, chemical and mechanical control as well as the exploiting of the economic value of the pods and wood (Anon 1992). In this respect, the Soil Conservation Committees of Britstown and De Aar, with the cooperation of the Department of Agriculture, are now in the process of developing more inexpensive control strategies for Prosopis spp.

  7. Existing inexpensive artificial strategies to soften the impact of seasonal and periodic droughts must be exploited and propagated. The aim of these strategies is not to increase the grazing capacity of the farms, but to increase fodder reserves for times of scarcity.
  8. For example, provisional research has shown that the rehabilitation of bare patches by ploughing furrows on approved soils is economically viable in the sense that it has helped farmers cope with drought conditions for a longer period before purchasing fodder. The Department of Agriculture has put in a lot of effort to establish norms for the rehabilitation of the different soil types. Research to establish final norms in certain areas is nearly finalised. Because this practice is being subsidised by the Department, cost figures must be obtained. The results of this practice is being monitored on selected farms.

    Although the Department recognises the value of drought fodder crops as an inexpensive means of supplementary feeding during droughts, farmers have been reluctant to use it for various reasons (e.g. problems with the establishing of the crops and palatability). As a result of the high cost of artificial supplementary feeding, there is now more interest in drought fodder crops, especially in the arid winter rainfall region of Calvinia. Research has been undertaken and is still being undertaken to identify the most suitable crops and to find means to establish these crops more cost effectively. Provisional results have convinced the Department to subsidise the establishment of old man's saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) in this area in order to promote its use. It is very important to monitor this practice in order to obtain cost figures.

  9. Insurance policy against droughts. Drought policy schemes came under scrutiny in several countries in recent years. In South Africa (Venter 1993, pers. comm.) a drought insurance scheme was proposed which focuses on the individual. Authorities might hesitate - because of traditional drought policies – to declare a few isolated farms as drought stricken if the rest of the district does not experience any difficulty.

  10. At present, the relatively low income realised by primary raw products (e.g. wool, mutton, meat and mohair) stresses the importance of exploiting the concept of adding value to these products. This approach appears to be the only alternative for survival of many so-called farmers.

  11. Although debatable, the possibility of one farmer managing several other enterprises in addition to his own in order to allow his fellow farmers to practise other occupations, should be considered. Obviously, appropriate training or retraining of these farmers should be supported by the authorities.



It is of the utmost importance that the farming community, the Department of Agriculture and other institutions (universities, the Agricultural Research Council, breeders' societies, marketing boards, municipalities, etc.) come together and explore ways and means of establishing a healthy and vigorous stock farming industry. If this cannot be established, the consequences will be disastrous for the country as a whole.



I would like to thank all the people with whom I have had discussions in helping to formulate the contents of this article.  A special word of thanks to Mr H. Steynberg and Dr D. Wentzel who are responsible for the editorial aspects of the article.



ANON. 1970. Tweede verslag van die Kommissie van Ondersoek na die Landbou. Staatsdrukker, R.P. 84/1970, Republiek van Suid-Afrika.

ANON. 1991. Geografiese verspreiding van die bevolking. Bevolkingsensusverslag 03/07/02(1991), Sentrale Statistiekdiens, Pretoria.

ANON. 1992. Concept policy for the control of Prosopis spp. in South Africa. Directorate of Resource Conservation, Department of Agriculture, Private Bag XI20, Pretoria 0001.

BESTER, C.J.I993.lnformation supplied by Directorate of Agricultural Economic Trends, Department of Agriculture, Private Bag, Pretoria 0001.

MEYER, E.M. 1993. Address: P.O. Box 150, Middelburg CP 5900.

OLIVIER, J.J. 1993. Address: Grootfontein ADI, P/Bag X529, Middelburg CP 5900.

ROUX, P. W. 19W. Status en alternatiewe gebruike van die ekstensiewe weivelde in die Karoogebiede. (Ongepubliseerd)

ROUX, P.W., VORSTER, M., ZEEMAN, P.J.L. & WENTZEL, D. 1981. Stock production in the Karoo Region. Proceedings of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa. 16: 29-35.

SMIT, J.I993. Address: Directorate of Financial Assistance, Private Bag X118, Pretoria 0001.

VENTER, C. 1993. Address: Institute for Soil, Climate and Water, Private Bag X529, Middelburg CP 5900.

VENTER, H.C. 1993. Information supplied by Central Statistical Service, Pretoria 0001.

VORSTER, M. & ROUX, P. W .1983. Veld of the Karoo areas. Proceedings of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa. 18: 18-24.



Karoo Agric, Vol. 6, No 1, 1994 (20-24)