Soil Health Case Study
De Wet and Heleen Coetzee
Free State, South Africa
One glance at the beef cow herd shows cattle who are adapted to their environment, with good vigor and health. The Coetzee’s practice careful culling, removing weak links from the herd, much like the role the lion plays in its natural setting. One beneficial example of their past management is a cow herd which no longer requires routine dipping to control ticks. De Wet explained they work with nature and allow the sick and/or weak to fall out of the herd, improving the whole over time. Today’s crossbred herd has evolved from:
Beefmaster - (Brahman, Hereford, and Shorthorn)
Tuli – an indigenous breed which originally belonged to the Tuli people from Zimbabwe.
Boran – an indigenous breed from Kenya.
Nguni – an indigenous breed from the Zulu people.
The cattle are managed as 5 separate herds, with some consideration of moving to 4 herds in the future:
Herd #1– Weaned heifers through 24 months and cull cows.
Herd #2– Two year old heifer herd. They are being exposed to a bull.
Herd #3– Three year old herd with calves. Herd #4– Mature cow herd.
Herd #5– Bull herd and oxen (steers).
The landscape on the 3,001 hectare ranch (7,416 acres) consists predominately of veldt (native grasslands) with the remaining acres of former cropland returned to grass by seeding or plant succession. Winter feed sources, such as large round hay bales or corn silage are not used; the Coetzee’s manage all the acres for year round grazing by cattle and wildlife. A well-built corral system is used for loading out finished beef. Cell centers with water tanks are used to supply fresh water to numerous camps (paddock or pasture).
It was due to economics that some of the former cropland acres were allowed to go back to perennials on their own. De Wet explained how he used the cattle herd as a tool, grazing the weeds and allowing recovery. He observed over time how the soils and the plant community improved. Today, a highly diverse perennial plant community exists on the former cropland fields.
Rotational grazing concepts are applied to the entire ranch. The main herd is moved every 1-2 days. Receiving approximately 20 hectares (49 acres) in each camp. Recovery time per camp varies from 45-60 days before the next grazing. De Wet grazes a 12 month period, with an individual camp being grazed up to 6 times. Consequently, in a years time, an individual hectare would be grazed up to 12 days with 353 recovery days.
De Wet explained that Southern Hemisphere grass plants have more fiber than Northern Hemisphere grass plants. He balances the protein need of the herd versus the available grass protein by offering a protein source. The consumption amount is managed with a small amount of molasses. The goal is to have the free choice mineral consumed at higher amounts in poor grass quality camps or during winter, and lower amounts when exposed to high grass quality camps.
Chicken Litter: 50% | Urea: 25% | Cottonseed Oil Cake: 10% | Molasses Meal: 10% | Ammonium Sulfate: 5%
Total Protein Source = 100%
As De Wet and I drove from camp to camp checking the cattle, water tanks, and grass recovery, we discussed soil health. After digging a few holes with the spade, you could definitely observe a darker colored topsoil in the veldt when compared to the old cropland fields. We decided to complete a one inch infiltration demonstration on a few different fields. A healthy soil with adequate pore spaces will typically infiltrate water more rapidly than an unhealthy soil. The results were interesting:
Field Time to Infiltrate One Inch of Water
Seeded Pasture 15 minutes
Go Back #1 5 minutes
Go Back #2 2 minutes
Veldt #1 45 seconds
Veldt #2 75 seconds
Is it possible to build soils in the Southern Hemisphere? YES! Soil health
principles are universal. As we apply them to the landscape, we start to have more carbon coming into our soils than what is leaving each year. Consequently, our soils improve. De Wet and Heleen understand the carbon cycle as they connect the soil, grass, and livestock together.
The Coetzee’s belong to the Elandslaagte Study Group. The group was formed in 1997 following participation in a holistic management course. The belief among group members was that the conventional way of farming was not sustainable in the long term. They took the view it was necessary to farm with nature instead of against it. It is the study group’s policy to have a culture of lifelong learning. This has taken the form of study trips to Kenya and the USA, as well as hosting regular trips by various group experts in their fields. The group’s idea is to continually attempt to be at the world’s forefront of agricultural innovation.
Photos and Article by:
NRCS Soil Health Specialist
Bismarck State Office, ND