Every evening Calla Visser has to round up more than 400 cattle on his farm in eastern Botswana and herd them into outdoor corrals for the night to protect them against theft and predators.
And early every morning Calla and his staff start going around the five different corrals on his 6,000-hectare farm counting all cows, calves and bulls, hoping they all made it through the night in one piece.
Potential attacks from hyenas and leopards pose a constant threat for the South African beef producer. Calla takes every precaution to keep his cattle alive, and to try to prevent them from being stolen by locals.
It’s a lot of hard work, but his herd of Bonsmara cattle are very precious to him representing years of breeding and dedication.
“Our farm borders the town of Francistown in eastern Botswana and being so close to the population means we are constantly looking out for both two-legged and four-legged threats to the herd,” said Calla.
“Hyenas and leopards attack and kill cattle up to three years of age when they are grazing in the veld so we have to bring them into the fenced corrals at night to keep them safe.”
The wild predators normally wouldn’t attack the cattle in the pens, as they are intimidated by larger groups such as this.
“But people might,” Calla says. “My staff and I continuously monitor the pasture and bushland for snares set by locals to trap a cow or calf for eating. It’s part of our daily routine farming in Botswana.”
When Calla first started, he lost 15 to 20 cattle in three months to attacks by hyenas and leopards and realized something had to be done.
He now only loses about five cattle per year to theft and wildlife but he is trying to reduce the numbers further by reintroducing game to his farm, therefore redressing the food cycle balance with nature.
“Encouraging more impala and other wildlife into the veld by opening up water sources will give the hyenas and leopards another source of food and hopefully that will keep them away from my cattle,” he said.
Purebred and commercial herds
Calla runs 300 Bonsmara cows plus bulls and operates both a commercial herd producing beef for the local and export markets as well as a registered pedigree herd as a stud unit.
Developed in South Africa, the Bonsmara is a breed known for its high-quality beef and resistance to local diseases. It was the result of many cross-matings and backcrosses consisting of five-eighths Afrikaner, three-sixteenths Hereford and three-sixteenths Shorthorn.
Although Calla has been farming for 20 years, he has only been running this Bonsmara herd for four years. Sadly, foot and mouth disease wiped out his herd of 400 Nguni cattle in 2011 and after three years he decided on running Bonsmara cattle with a more strategic approach to farming.
“In the time between losing the Nguni cattle and starting the Bonsmaras I imported some commercial cattle to fatten and sell,” says Callas. “Bonsmara is the largest breed by numbers in South Africa so I decided to move to that very popular breed.”
“The veld here is rich in buffalo grasses and other forage species, and has a good covering of Mopane bush. Last year we received 450 mm of rainfall which helps produce good grass allowing for a stocking rate of 10 hectares per livestock unit,” he says. “Our past two-year rainfall average is 350 mm.”
Calla’s goal is to have 40 per cent of the herd run as stud and the remainder as the commercial unit. His commercial beef mainly goes to the local market with cattle killing at 450 kg (990 lbs.) live weight, resulting in a 220-kg (485 lbs.)carcass.
Beef prices in Botswana run at 30 Botswanan Pula per kilo (C$3.75/kg, $8.25/lb.) for prime beef which attracts an extra four Pula (C$0.50) per kilo if the beef goes for export. Weaner cattle sell for around 12 Pula (C$1.50) per kilo live weight.
“The Bonsmara cattle are fed only grass and grain and can achieve growth rates of 1.5 kilos per head per day,” said Calla. “The breed is early maturing with a medium frame and is a very adaptable animal. It can easily withstand the high temperatures of up to 40 C we experience here. The cows show excellent fertility and I achieve a 96 per cent calving rate from pregnancy to weaning.”
When it comes to preventing and controlling livestock diseases in Botswana, Calla is most concerned about heartwater disease, which is endemic to the area and is transmitted to cattle by ticks.
Heartwater is a frequently fatal tick-borne disease. The incubation period varies considerably and depends on the route of infection, virulence of the isolate and other factors.
Adult cattle of all breeds appear to be equally susceptible to heartwater, but it is generally accepted that calves up to the age of three weeks have a high degree of natural resistance, which is not related to the immune status of the dam.
Nervous symptoms are frequently seen in affected animals and acute forms of heartwater and can easily be confused with similar symptoms caused by infectious conditions, toxic plants, acaricide or heavy metal poisonings. Although the area Calla farms in is free from brucellosis, he still vaccinates against it.
“All the cattle are checked each evening and morning for any health issues and are treated as needed immediately,” said Calla.
“The Bonsmara is a good breed to farm with and is very efficient in this area. Our cattle are fitted with bells, which helps fend off predators but mostly the bell sounds help us find cattle in the veld.
“We just need to be on our guard every single day to make sure our cattle stay alive and are not stolen. Disease is also a concern and heartwater is a huge worry but with constant daily monitoring I think we can keep on top of it.”