Ekundi Farming: how to manage rangelands for hay harvesting

Windhoek: “The aim of having grasslands is to enable the farmer to utilise the veld maximally, generate an income by producing hay for sale and to improve veld condition at the same time,” says Günther Kahl, owner of Farm Klein Otjikango Ost and Otjikango Süd who established Ekundi Farming as trading arm of the enterprise.

The farm is situated 70km south-west of Otjiwarongo towards Kalkfeld, on the M63 gravel road to Outjo, and serves as a perfect example of how to manage rangeland for hay harvesting. The 10 000 hectare farm (Ost und Süd) is in relatively flat countryside with annual rainfall normally ranging from 250-350mm. “In 2012 we had the highest rainfall of 795mm and in 2015 only 82mm. The farm has around 750 cattle and 850 game animals that require grasslands as part of diversity. Besides the cattle, sheep and trophy hunting, hay and biomass production is the main business of Ekundi Farming,” he notes.

“In 1995, I started with the production of grasslands and this was the time when my wife Caroline and I opened our business called Ekundi Farming. This company is well-known for its production of high quality hay over the past 20 years. The vision of Ekundi was and is to control bushes and produce hay on a large scale from the grasslands. Currently, almost 7% of the farm has been cleared of bushes (650ha) and my aim is to have cleared a total of 2 000ha of grasslands by 2020.

“The hay production started on a small scale with 20kg rectangular hay bales in 1995 and has now grown to the largest hay business in Namibia, producing 450kg Quadrant hay bales. Hay production can only be successful if you have large open grasslands, proper machinery and loyal staff. The reason why grasslands are so important in extensive farming is because in the long term maximal animal production can be obtained and a greater production of fodder (grazing) is available throughout the year. In addition, woody plants are more competitive for water than grasses, because they have a tap root that reaches deep underground water compared to the shallow root system of grasses . This reduces the grass density on bushland compared to grasslands.

“Grasslands provide 1200kg per hectare of grass while bushland only provides 700kg per hectare. On the two farms, a variety of 22 grass species can be found, including annuals and perennials. It is important to have perennial grass species as they indicate the quality of grasslands for animal grazing or hay production. During a year of good rainfall, the production on Otjikango Ost and Süd lies at 900 tonnes of hay.

“One way of producing grasslands is to defeat the woody plants i.e. bushes such as black thorn and sickle bush. Bush encroachment is one of the biggest problems in Namibia as its control is expensive, labour intensive and time consuming. Finding the correct method to defeat the bush is harder than expected. Bush encroachment is a process which involves the gradual replacement of grazing grasses by invasive bush species, which are inedible to cattle or sheep. Thorny thickets become established which can become impossible to move through. The land becomes unusable for farming, with decreased biodiversity of grasses and it results in a decrease in carrying capacity. In other words, there is a loss of income in rangeland. One must remember that bush control is not a once off, quick fix situation. You have to find the methods which will give you the best results over a longer period, with the least financial cost. In the past, I tried various methods namely:

1) Cold fire – charcoal production by using stems and twigs;

2) Biological control by browsing and applying stressors to the woody plant such as veld-fires;

3) Mechanical control, by using machinery such as a Bulldozer or else, and

4) Chemical control which can be subdivided into

a. Manually localising a very specific herbicide on each bush (spot treatment) or

b. Broadcasting herbicide in a dry form of small grains (Molopo) by a light aeroplane.

“Experience taught me that the latter (Method 4) is the most effective method to eradicate the bush and is cost-effective but aftercare is very important. My advice with regards to grassland production, is to broadcast herbicide via an aeroplane and after 3-5 years remove the “dead and dried out trees” by using a mechanical method such as the bulldozer. The management of the grasslands is divided into hay production and cattle grazing. In June, the grasslands are cut for hay production as this is the start of “Hay season”. Thereafter the cattle are allowed on the grasslands to feed and cultivate. With cultivation I mean, to break loose the topsoil and to fertilise the ground for faster growth of grasses. For all the farmers out there, the main point to consider when producing grasslands is to “Follow-up” every year after you removed the bush; otherwise you wasted your time and money. Remember, water, in the form of rainfall, and having a majority of perennial grasses on grasslands, are the most important aspect when farming extensively,” he concludes.