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Namibian dairy industry in fight for survival

The Namibian dairy sector is battling to survive, with production decreasing and the price-cost squeeze forcing producers to exit the sector.

According to Kokkie Adriaanse, chairperson of the Namibia Dairy Producers’ Association, raw milk production dropped from 21,8 million litres in 2019 to 17,2 million litres currently, which was a 21,1% decline in volumes.

The organisation and various other role players, including milk buyers and trade specialists, had therefore petitioned the Namibian government to introduce a subsidy on animal feed. However, a decision on the matter was still awaited.

Roelie Venter, CEO of the Namibia Agricultural Union, told Farmer’s Weekly that the role players had requested a R2/ℓ subsidy on raw milk.

He said the local milk production sector was facing an uphill battle. The majority of animal feed in Namibia was being imported from South Africa, with transport costs constituting about 20% of the cost, pushing production prices sky-high.

“This erodes our local producers’ competitiveness and makes it virtually impossible to compete with imported milk. Milk loaded in Cape Town and delivered in our capital Windhoek can be sold for less than locally produced milk. Should the state decide to [introduce a subsidy], it will go a long way to get the industry up and going again.”

The drought that had been experienced during the past few years had also resulted in low water levels in local dams, and a significant decline in fodder production in the Hardap Dam area, where close to 80% of the country’s raw milk was being produced.

Adriaanse added that some dairy producers were consequently forced out of the milk production industry, and that had contributed to drastically reduced volumes of raw milk being produced in Namibia.

Since the early 2000s, the number of milk producers in Namibia declined from 45 to 10.

In addition, despite the country’s milk production cost index indicating that total expenses increased 10,4% year-on-year, no significant change had been evident in the raw milk price.

In addition, the recent heavy rainfall recorded across the region resulted in fodder being harvested late, while the quality of the fodder had also declined, Adriaanse said.

“Producers are now faced with the challenge of acquiring additional inputs to improve the quality of feed, adding to an increase in feed costs. Government support over the next two years is vital to get the industry going again.”

Good weather aids SA’s 2020/2021 table grape crop

Intake volumes for South African table grapes are expected to increase to between 65,3 million and 69,8 million 4,5kg-equivalent cartons, according to the South African Table Grape Industry’s (SATI) third crop estimate for the 2020/2021 season, released on Wednesday, 3 February.

Willem Bestbier, CEO of SATI, said the positive outlook was due to very good weather conditions, sufficient water availability after last winter’s rainfall, large berry size, and the overall good quality of grapes.

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“The Orange River region is concluding its season, and the two-week delay at the start of the season and the rainfall at the beginning of the year have had less of an impact on the later cultivars than initially expected.”

The 2019/2020 season ended on 66,15 million 4,5kg cartons. This season’s increased estimate with regard to volumes was due to very good quality and harvesting conditions in the northern provinces of South Africa, as well as the three Western Cape-based production regions.

Bestbier said the Chinese market presented a very significant opportunity for South African table grapes, with an annual export potential of between 3,5 million and 4,5 million cartons.

He added, however, that this year would be difficult as the market seemed to be quite volatile as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“About 75% of our exports will continue to go to Europe and the UK; the rest is evenly spread [across] the rest [of the international market], which includes Southeast Asia, the Far East, Middle East, US, and Canada.”

It was expected that there would be greater demand from the local market this year.

“Quality products [are becoming] increasingly available on local supermarket shelves, and there is a drive towards [healthier] diets, which includes fresh fruit.”

Bestbier added that the general demand for South African table grapes was steadily increasing, with the production base growing about 4% per annum over the past five years. However, the export market was very dependent on the weather during the packing season.

Anton Viljoen Jr, a table grape producer in the Hex River region and SATI chairperson, said: “The demand for pre-packed grapes in plastic punnets has picked up, which has created some delays in packing.”

He added that the Olifants River region had had a good harvest so far, and had started to recover from the drought conditions experienced in the region over the past five years.

Making lucerne hay while maximising soil health

It is a dry, late winter’s day on a farm in the Glen area, north of Bloemfontein, where a plume of dust trails the tractor carrying Freek Strauss as he plants a 30ha, pivot-irrigated lucerne land.

Strauss is primarily a lucerne producer who works the lands for his employer, local farmer Dirk Botha.

Although the production of lucerne hay is the main business of the farm, the crop is also used for another important purpose: to improve soil health.

Lucerne, like other legumes such as soya bean, lentils and clover, fixes nitrogen in the soil; Strauss therefore plants it in rotation with field crops such as wheat and maize to increase their yield and quality.

Lucerne farmer Freek Strauss (left) with his son, Joshua.

Lucerne as feed
Lucerne’s feed properties have earned it the title ‘king of hays’ and demand for it is high in several livestock sectors, particularly dairy. It can serve as both a grazing crop and as hay.

Strauss’s main focus is the production of prime-grade lucerne hay, baled in large packs and sold by the ton via both local and export channels, depending on which presents the best opportunity for a specific grade at any given time.

The National Lucerne Trust (NLT) is the representative body of the South African lucerne seed and hay industry. Amongst various services, the trust oversees the grading system for lucerne hay, the quality standards of which are set out in its New Lucerne Quality Index (NLQI), introduced in 2015.

The NLQI covers four grades, namely prime, first, second and third. Certification is based on samples tested for moisture content, protein, starch and sugar percentages, lignin content, the presence of mould, foreign matter or noxious plants, and other parameters.

The best cultivar
Strauss strives to produce a crop with the maximum yield per hectare, as well as a quality profile or grade that will earn the greatest profit. A well-established lucerne land can deliver a regular cash crop for three-quarters of the year for several consecutive years.

He emphasises that there are numerous factors to consider when planning to establish a lucerne land. Foremost among these is selecting the optimal cultivar and/or seed for commercial hay production. For this, he has partnered with seed company Barenbrug South Africa.

According to Strauss’s adviser from Barenbrug, Wicus Jordaan, the company’s lucerne package comprises cultivars developed through research by the South Australian Research and Development Institute over many years.

Its Barenbrug Australia seed range is available in South Africa and offers farmers different options in terms of dormancy, yield and longevity.

The seed varieties are described as being well adapted to perform in most climates and under dryland and irrigation conditions.

Strauss has planted the BAR 7 winter active variety for a number of years.

This has a dormancy level of seven and is well adapted for both hay production and grazing in summer rainfall areas. It can be planted on dryland in areas receiving at least 350mm/ year, and thrives as an irrigation crop.

He has also been growing the newer BAR 10 high winter activity cultivar Groengoud (green gold).

According to Barenbrug, BAR 10 is the next generation of the old SARDI 10 and has been bred for maximum winter production and persistence.

Strauss uses both cultivars in his rotation strategy depending on where he is planting; BAR 10 requires more water and is therefore established on lands with access to better water supply.

He emphasises the importance of selecting a variety that is suitable for a specific area, and taking into account dormancy levels, whether the farm is in a winter or summer rainfall area, and how thirsty the cultivar is, among other factors.

According to the NLT, lucerne cultivars vary from highly dormant to extremely non-dormant, and breeders classify them on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being highly dormant (adapted to very cold areas) and 9 being extremely non-dormant (adapted to warm, favourable conditions).

Getting it right
A land that Strauss plants in June/July produces its first cut in spring or early summer. As the crop must produce optimally for several years, field preparation and planting need to be carried out with care. Strauss therefore takes soil samples before planting to enable him to make fact-based decisions on any soil corrections that may be necessary.

“With lucerne, it’s important to make sure that calcium and sodium are in the correct ratio,” he says.

He also fertilises with chicken manure and uses a 2:3:2 nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertiliser. As his soils have a high clay content, he adds gypsum to prevent compaction.

Strauss keeps his tillage to a minimum to prevent damaging the physical structure of the soil; he carries out only a shallow rip and creates a fine, level seedbed.

Before planting, Strauss inoculates his seed with Rhizobium bacteria to ensure fixation, which can result in an increase in yield. He then plants with a tractor-drawn fine-seed planter that he has modified slightly to his preferences. Irrigation follows as soon as possible after planting.

After the crop has matured, Strauss aims to cut hay every 28 days. Although the rule of thumb is to cut at the 10% flowering stage, Strauss prefers to base his decision on regrowth.

“I don’t want to damage the plant by cutting too early, so I try to cut when the regrowth is 3cm to 4cm,” he says. “After we cut the lucerne, it needs to be raked and must dry properly (around 16% moisture content) before we bale it.”

Every year present its own challenges.

The Bloemfontein region has grappled with drought in recent years, for example, and extreme heatwaves require precision irrigation management. Strauss relies on technology to optimise water use.

“We use moisture meters to ensure that we irrigate sufficiently, but don’t add too much when it’s raining. We don’t want to drown the lucerne,” he says.

Maximising yield
A productive lucerne land will continue generating a regular cash crop that can be harvested through spring, summer and autumn. The land can also continue producing for about five years, or even up to 10 in some cases. But commercial producers are likely to replant more regularly to ensure maximum yield and volumes, as well as quantifiable feed values.

For Strauss, this means rotating with another crop every three or four years. Herein lies the second element of his strategy: the value that the lucerne crop adds to the soil.

Lucerne is generally viewed as drought-hardy, as it has an aggressive taproot system growing down to 2m that can store moisture and nutrients. As mentioned, it also binds high levels of nitrogen to the soil, improving the structure of the soil.

This means that his lucerne not only provides a consistent income stream, but helps ensure that other crops planted in rotation benefit from the improved soil and produce better yields.

At the time of Farmer’s Weekly’s visit, Strauss had just cut a lucerne land for the last time after four years of continuous production, and was preparing it to be planted to its first rotation crop of wheat.

“I’ll also plant a teff crop in December or January before replanting lucerne again next year,” he says.

Email Freek Strauss at freekstrauss@gmail.com. Email Wicus Jordaan, technical marketer at Barenbrug, at wjordaan@barenbrugsa.co.za.

Sharp drop in rhino poaching due to lockdown travel bans

Despite facing similar threats to their animals from poachers than their government counterparts, South Africa’s private white and black rhino owners have been able to do a good job of protecting and even growing the country’s populations of these endangered species.

This was according to Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association (PROA), who said that a survey found that as at 31 December 2020, the country’s privately owned white rhinos numbered over 8 000, and privately owned black rhinos 450. This amounted to over 50% of South Africa’s total rhino population.

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“Of the 594 rhinos poached nationally in 2019, only 15% were in private reserves. The rest were in the Kruger National Park (KNP), other national parks, and in provincial parks. The private sector gets no funding to protect its rhino, but the national and provincial parks get funding from government, and from international and national donors,” Jones told Farmer’s Weekly.

“South Africa’s private rhino owners are dealing with the same onslaught from poachers, but have had to keep paying for protection for their rhinos despite not being able to generate income from international tourism and hunting because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, and a severe decline in game sales. They are losing billions of rand. Our private rhino owners are unsung heroes; getting no recognition from government,” he added.

On Monday, 1 February, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) released information indicating that South Africa lost 394 rhinos to poachers in 2020. This was, according to DEFF spokesperson, Albi Modise, 33% fewer than the 594 rhinos poached in 2019, and the sixth consecutive year that rhino poaching in the country had continued to decrease.

“During the COVID-19 hard lockdown period, we had a significant reduction in poacher incursions into the KNP. However, that changed later in the year as the lockdown levels eased, and a significant spike in poaching in the KNP was experienced towards the end of 2020, especially during December,” he said.

DEFF’s information showed that, in 2020, 245 rhinos were poached in the KNP, and two in the Marakele National Park.

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The Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, said: “While the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the battle to beat the COVID-19 pandemic contributed in part to the decrease in rhino poaching in 2020, the role of rangers and security personnel who remained at their posts, and the additional steps taken by government to effectively deal with these and related offences, also played a significant role.”

Modise said to move from the “current moderate win to a strong win” with regard to reductions in annual rhino poaching statistics, government was focussing on a more proactive and integrated approach. This would build on existing initiatives and also “blur the distinction” between national, provincial and private parks when it came to collaborative efforts to protect their rhino populations”.

In addition, according to Modise, South Africa’s law and environmental authorities had increasingly collaborated to more effectively apprehend and prosecute rhino poachers.

“Countries working together in sharing of information and investigations to combat wildlife trafficking remains a key to […] success […], even in this difficult time of COVID-19,” he said.