The impact of the livestock sector on global warming is deemed to be a great cause for concern, particularly the impact of methane produced by livestock.. Only few know that the simple solution to this problem can be found right beneath our feet: in the soil.
That’s right! Healthy soil leads to a healthy environment. In fact, rangelands managed according to regenerative agriculture principles can reverse climate change, return atmospheric carbon to the soil and improve the water cycle by rebuilding soil, organic matter and restoring degraded biodiversity.
Regenerative agriculture is all about organic practices and holistic land management that mimics the wisest teacher of all ‒ mother nature. By utilising photosynthesis in plants regenerative farmers close the carbon cycle, build soil health and organic matter, promote crop resilience and grow nutrient dense food for our four-legged friends.
Basking in the glory of his success stands Koos Briedenhann with broad shoulders and an infectious smile while his cattle graze the fields of green behind him. He is one of few Namibian farmers whose livestock survived through Namibia’s devastating 2019 drought. Farmers all over the country grappled with keeping their herds of sheep, pigs and cattle stocked and alive, while Koos managed to convert their family farm Buffelhoek to full regenerative production in the same year. The Briedenhann’s have been residents of the property in the Northern Otjozondjupa region of Namibia since 1988.
“Our average annual rainfall for the past 42 years has been 428 millimetres. This was a different story in 2019, when only 180 millimetres scattered over a period of one year. Luckily, I started the farm’s transition to regenerative agriculture three years prior, making us much more in control of the drought situation. In regenerative agriculture we farm with the soil, we try to build on and manage microbes to develop soil structure and promote grass production,” says Koos while taking in the sight of his chunky grass-fed cattle.
Good groundcover and healthy soil absorbed those few drops of rain that fell on Buffelhoek, creating groundwater backup to feed the plants through the dry months. Koos is of the opinion that droughts will stay unpredictable, but the risk can be reduced and managed with regenerative agriculture.
Bordering the Kalahari Desert to the east and home to the Namib in the west, makes Namibia one of the driest countries in Africa and vastly vulnerable to the effects of climate change ‒ like prolonged drought events that leave the majority of the population in a state of poverty.
In 2013, the drought-stricken Namibia declared a state of emergency and requested $33.7 million international support, considering around 42% of the total population was food insecure. Little did they know it was just the tip of the iceberg…
Seven years of little or no rainfall followed, translating into the worst drought in Namibia’s recorded history, following an already inefficient previous year in 2019.
During this drought at least 90 000 livestock perished due to thirst and the deterioration of grazing. Yet again the nation was brought to its knees, with one third of the population left dependent on relief programs.
After the 2013 drought Koos asked himself, “How can I better utilise my land for more efficient farming?” and this led him to regenerative farming. However, starting the transition meant he had to face one of the biggest obstacles Namibian farmers have been struggling with for many decades.
One of the symptoms of land degradation is bush encroachment, also referred to as ‘bush thickening’, which is the spread of invasive plant species like woody plants, bushes, and shrubs at the cost of the nutritious non-woody bushes, grasses and forbs that livestock eat.
Pointing towards the heavily encroached neighbouring farm, Koos explains that bush thickening has taken over most Namibian farms due to overgrazing, the suppression of wildfires and is exacerbated by climate change. In fact, research done by Agri-Ecological Services concluded that more than 60 million hectares of Namibia’s rangelands have lost good perennial grasses and 45 million hectare lost additional productivity by means of bush thickening.
The difference between the Briedenhann farm and the adjacent property is clearer than the light of day. Separated by a fence, you can see an abundance of grass on the left, compared to a wall of invasive bush species on the right.
“Bush encroachment was a serious problem on our farm. After moving here, we used herbicides on three thousand hectares and are still dealing with the repercussions more than 30 years later. Believe me when I say it’s a mistake I will never make again. All biodiversity and valuable palatable grasses were replaced by the invasive sickle bush. Now we are left with a total imbalance in biodiversity,” Koos says.
Dichrostachys cinerea, or more commonly known as ‘sickle bush’, is a thorny shrub and invasive bush species. It is known for its ability to regenerate from seeds and root buds that result in bush encroachment.
Learning from mistakes made many decades ago, the Briedenhann’s decided to deal with bush thickening on their farm by removing the matured bushes, utilising the younger bush, and keeping all the big trees for shading, which is especially important in sunny Namibia.
In 2016, they started doing this by (literally) rolling their way to greener pastures. Using a bulldozer and three heavy rollers Koos flattens nine-meter strips of invasive bush, leaving smaller twigs and leaves on the ground and bending smaller bushes into the surface. This then acts as compost for the soil, prevents moisture being lost through evaporation and releases natural carbon into the soil.
The seeds in the soil from previous seasons can then germinate with the first drops of rain, which promotes grass production and results in what Koos describes as an “unimaginable field of endless healthy, nutrition dense grazing”.
After about four years excessive regrowth is rerolled. Aftercare is a very important factor to keep in consideration when you start the rolling process.
Area on Buffelhoek after applying the rolling technique in 2019:
The same area one year later:
Once the natural rangeland growth kicked off, Koos started managing his livestock according to regenerative livestock farming practices. He says in farming you want to utilise the available feed while keeping it in a regenerative growing process. This can be done by using a method of high stocking rate with short grazing periods, more literally meaning, large herds of livestock graze one camp for a short while and then rotate to the next.
“Buffelhoek is divided into twenty-three camps. Our cows are separated into herds of about 150 animals that graze in three camps at a time. However, we rotate the cows to new camps every week and the 1500 sheep are moved daily. This prevents grass from being eaten to the roots or overgrazed, giving it longer rest periods to stimulate growth of perennial grass. As a bonus, we also save on time and costs since we now drive to three camps to find our herds, instead of twenty-three. Not to mention, our animals are much healthier and better managed,” Koos explained.
Greener perennial grass-species are highly palatable with high levels of digestibility and energy compared to other grasses. Well managed rangelands can set forth the growth of these grasses, restoring the imbalance of methane produced by cattle. Carbon dioxide emissions from grain-fed beef are high due to the fossil fuel required for production, distribution, and application of synthetic fertilizers. By implementing the regenerative agriculture principle of bringing animals back to the land, grass-fed livestock simply recycle carbon, instead of emitting it.
Koos gestures toward the seemingly endless pasture in front of him and explains when you look at the veldt you want to see a variety of colours. Green grass, red bush, yellow flowers, in fact, the more colours you see, the healthier and tastier your livestock’s feed is.
Looking to the right you can clearly see a distinctive line between Buffelhoek’s kaleidoscopical pasture and the neighbouring bushy farm. The Omatjienne Research Station farm has a long history and even longer list of residents who mostly used it for livestock farming and tillage agriculture. In the 1950’s it also served as a holding area for various breeds of livestock. Years of overgrazing and harmful farming practices lead to the farm being almost completely encroached with bushes. Koos still remembers when they first moved to this farm:He was a little boy watching springboks and ostriches roam in the big Omatjenne grass plain; now almost all the animals are gone, along with thousands of hectares grazable land.
Omatjienne is unfortunately only one of many “lost farms”. It is said that Namibian rangelands can now only stock half the number of animals than they could in 1950. Rangeland degradation has a negative impact on the livelihoods of more than a quarter of Namibian households, seeing that 72% of the Namibian population is dependent on agriculture. The food produced from livestock farming supports 1.2 million Namibian’s in over 200 000 households and the agriculture sector provides approximately 167 242 jobs, of which over 4 000 farmers are involved in livestock farming. On a wider scale, land degradation affects the overall economy and escalates levels of poverty in the country.
“Only a handful of farmers in Namibia are implementing regenerative agriculture principles, but fortunately more people are joining the revolution. Regenerative agriculture will help our farmers to minimize the adverse effects of droughts. Stocking rate and production on farms will increase, which will lead to a more resilient agriculture sector and economy. The reset-button might be expensive to push, but in the long-run farmers will come off with flying colours,” Koos says.
In the light of the declining natural resource base in Namibia and the numerous benefits of regenerative agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, in collaboration with the three Namibian Farmers Unions and rangeland experts, commissioned the National Rangeland Management Policy and Strategy in 2012. If all Namibian farmers apply the suggested strategies based on regenerative agriculture, it will contribute significantly to the country’s Sustainable Development Goals, Namibia’s Vision 2030, and the National Development Plans. Full implementation will create resilience among to climate change among famers and ensure sustainable livestock production.
This is just the beginning of a long journey for Namibia, but now is the time to start. The country received above average rainfall in the first wet season of this year, transforming dried-out veldt into lush green plains. Now is the time to revive rangelands, build soil structure and promote enough grass production to feed animals throughout the year and to store for future droughts.
Spending a day with Koos on his thriving Buffelhoek farm will certainly give anyone hope for the future of Namibian farms and their ability to adapt against the severe effects of climate change and land degradation. It gives one sound of mind to know there is a solution to empower the farmer during vulnerable times, while at the same time reducing atmospheric carbon.
I left the farm contemplating last thoughts shared with me: “We learn new things every year, but then we also forget some things. You have to be adaptable and innovative, but also retrain and challenge yourself constantly.” – Koos Briedenhann.