Book Review: Man, Cattle and Veld by Johann Zietsman
Note: Originally posted January 9, 2017. This remains one of the most informative and entertaining of all books on cattle and grazing for habitat improvement.
Man, Cattle and Veld by Johann Zeitsman records the journey of one of South Africa’s foremost cattleman from a practitioner of the disastrous range management methods of American and African universities to a practitioner of Allan Savory’s range management principles and, eventually, a pioneer of mob grazing.
The book is divided into three parts, which follow the title’s outline. (Veld is the word used in southern Africa to describe open, uncultivated rangeland.)
(1) “Man” discusses social attitudes that are blocking common sense ranching. It is a combination of history and philosophy that could be subtitled “smart people doing dumb things.”
Zeitsman criticizes the ranching community for its many destructive practices including dips and de-wormers which breed poison-resistant parasites, and, harm the environment by killing dung beetles and other beneficial insects. Instead he says we should be developing parasite-resistant breeds, which would have included all African cattle before the African “experts” adapted European husbandry methods.
He excoriates feeds, center pivots, calf meal, poisons, low stocking rates, bush and weed eradication, burning of moribund grasses as “man versus nature”, which actually plunders biological capital.
According to Zeitsman, the proper objective of any rancher should be maximum sustainable profit per acre because the “per animal production” metrics completely ignore profits.
(2) “Cattle” is the book’s longest section and also my favorite. Here Zeitsman expresses his physiological theories through the prism of economics and his conclusion that nature’s way will always make the most money.
Cattle are integral to the ecosystem. In his analysis, the smaller and heavier the cattle are, the better—for many reasons to which he devotes 70 pages. He offers a comparison between 25 cattle breeds, broken down generally between Bos taurus (European) and Bos indicus (India-Africa). I found this enlightening and had no idea the African breeds are so diverse.
He advocates planned grazing concepts pioneered by Allan Savory. His cattle recommendations are based on which breeds perform best under ultra-high density, or “mob grazing” (the Australian term) of which he was an early pioneer. Mob grazing puts very large herds on small areas for short periods and requires cattle that thrive under such “competitive” conditions. Generally, these aren’t the European breeds.
He says ranchers should focus on breeds that exhibit parasite resistance and reliable reproduction combined with an ability to tolerate high concentrations and almost continuous herding.
(Noteworthy, though unmentioned in the book: He consults regularly with ranchers in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert grasslands located between the Sierra Madre Oriental and Occidental mountain ranges. In that country and climate which is similar to far-West Texas, he recommends Angus x Brangus crossed to Mashona, a breed originating in eastern Zimbabwe.)
Zeitsman maintains that because profitability is a function of total return not individual animal performance, it is a big mistake to measure productivity according to an animal unit instead of a land unit. Smaller animals are a better choice. They mature faster. The same range will support and produce more pounds of beef using these animals. Big, inefficient animals may look pretty and ultimately gain more weight but require costly feed, antibiotics, parasite medicines, hormones and longer growing periods to do so.
(3) “Veld” centers on what we Americans call rangeland. This section showcases his philosophy, which simply stated is: ranchers should mimic nature. He supports this supposition with many direct and anecdotal insights.
This is a book about animal impact and nonselective grazing. Its conclusions and recommendations are driven by the real world implementation of these concepts, which will be familiar to wildlifers who view cattle as a substitute for nomadic large grazers such as bison in systems that evolved with huge animal numbers.
In this last section there are a lot of good, practical ideas on how to do things like using electric fences, planning your grazing, and applying concepts of planned grazing according to the specific climates and habitats which can vary so widely across African grasslands. All of this readily translates to North America.
Here are just a few range observations:
About Over Resting
- In order for grasses to stay vigorous and palatable, they must be severely grazed at intervals that allow sufficient recovery. This is particularly true of grasses that coevolved with severe grazers and that have growth points close to the ground. Most environments have grasses of varying palatability, where even utilization can only occur at high stock density and total utilization.
- I agree that the foregoing describes the perennial challenge of selective grazing where a single species—cattle—is the only grazer. Non-selective, ultra-high density grazing deals with this physiological need as does what we do at Circle Ranch. We maintain a dozen other large grazing species to overlap with and compensate for selective grazing by the cattle and to reach areas, particularly in the mountains, where the cattle can’t or won’t graze.
Regarding Trampling and Time
- The hooves of any hard-hoofed animal can either compact or loosen soil depending on stock density and time.
- 1 cow X 365 days is not the same as 365 cows X 1 day.
- Frequent moves result in improved utilization and a lower drop in body condition because of competition, fresh, nutrient-dense grazing, offering a more even plane of nutrition and a more stable complement of rumen microbes.
Regarding Brush Control
- Cattle grazed in ultra-high densities will drastically increase their browse intake. Why? In response to grazing, browse develops tannin, which tastes bad to cows, but tannin development takes time. A massive herd does its browsing quickly before browse and forb plants can develop their defensive tannin. Under these circumstances, large, concentrated herds can help control brush by eating it before tannin develops.
On Soil Life
- Only through concentrated grazing can we put the litter and dung on the ground necessary to feed earthworms and dung beetles, two species directly responsible for soil health.
- We can increase soil fertility without fertilizer because all of the ingredients of fertile soil are freely available in the ecosystem. We have only to enhance these processes by managing appropriately.
Of Humans, Cows and Wildlife
- In East Africa, as nowhere else in the world, there is an ancient interaction between humans and their herds, because here, cattle depend on humans for protection against predators. Consequently they have developed a strong affinity for man and have an inherently strong herd instinct, which makes herding much easier. Such traits make these cattle ideal for improving the land where the primary objective is enhancing wildlife habitat as opposed to the maximizing beef production.
- “I know of no more cost effective way of improving the land and increasing ranch profitability than time-controlled high animal impact and non-selective grazing made possible by the appropriate use of electric fences.”
A “Politically Incorrect” Point of View
Zietsman, with the bluntness for which Rhodesians are well known, examines reasons that mankind persists with destructive ranching practices as well as the reasons universities, agencies and professional breed organizations resist adopting better ranching practices.
Here are a few “politically incorrect” observations regarding researchers, range professors, breed show judges and breed inspectors.
- In nature, interactions are non-linear and unpredictable. We cannot manage natural systems from a mechanical perspective as currently attempted.
- In nature, one plus one does not equal two.
- The reductionist approach is inappropriate.
- It is better to know a little about a lot than a lot about a little.
- Advanced range education is characterized by specialization. More and more is learned about less and less until the student knows a lot about very little.
- Professional academics eventually know everything about nothing and nothing about the greater whole—the grass-grazer-predator relationship—which is the minimum ranchers can work with.
- It is better to know less about more than more about less.
- Predators are essential; they change grazing impact from bad-for-range without predators to good-for-range with predators.
- Studies about enhancing natural processes are essential but scarce.
- Intervening in natural processes leads to quick fixes but the price paid in the longer term is very high and unacceptable in terms of environmental damage and related problems.
- Most research is interesting but irrelevant.
- Much research is absolutely useless.
- How many agricultural scientists, each specializing in nutrition, pastures, physiology, economics or genetics, realize that their specialized knowledge has very limited application in a “whole” consisting of a myriad of nonlinear interactions?
- The important is made irrelevant; the irrelevant is made important; and [livestock] judging is, by virtue of its nature, concerned with the superficial.
- Due to the emphasis that breed societies place on appearance, without appreciating the limitations of visual appraisal, there is a total reversal of the value of traits relative to productivity.
And so forth…
Whether you are a conservationist, wildlife advocate, cattleman or someone wishing to advance restoration ecology, do yourself a great service and read this book. There are two versions, black & white and color. The full color version is well worth the extra money.
Johann Zietsman, is a renowned grazier and livestock breeder from Zimbabwe. He studied livestock under noted livestock researcher and author Jan Bonsma in Pretoria, South Africa, and is a Holistic Management practitioner mentioned in Alan Savory’s book Holistic Management. He is acknowledged by Mr. Savory as the first person to use Ultra High Stock Density. His practical knowledge of both grazing and livestock is very unique.