Who would have thought lessons on how to breed small livestock could come from an organisation that promotes the existence carnivores in the environmental ecosystem? But here in Botswana, the Cheetah Conversation Botswana (CCB) – a non-governmental organisation that has the interest of cheetahs at heart has got many lessons to those who want to go into small livestock breeding.
The organisation is popular for its effort to alleviate human wildlife conflict; especially the human-carnivore conflict through use of livestock guarding dogs and other farming management strategies.
In an effort to drive a point home, CCB in 2011 set up a ‘demonstration farm’ with an intention to teach some of their staff lessons on livestock breeding particularly in the Kalahari Desert.
Jane Horgan – Engagement and Awareness Coordinator at Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB) says about ten years ago, the organisation secured about 12 goats and a guarding dog in order to start their demonstration farm and gain valuable first-hand farming experience.
Horgan says the most important lesson learnt was that it is possible to farm livestock in areas where carnivores are present without losing too many.
The farm, explained Horgan, which is in the commercial ranching block of Ghanzi, had a variety of carnivores, but in ten years CCB only lost three animals to depredation — an annual rate of 0.3 per cent compared to 10 percent or more reported by farmers in the same vicinity.
“How then did they manage to keep their livestock losses so low in an area known to be rich in carnivores? “she asks.
“With livestock guarding dogs (LGDs) to keep their goats safe, CCB built an impenetrable wire and pole kraal, fortified with thorn bushes to help keep carnivores out,” she buttresses.
Not only did they kraal the livestock at night, but they also made sure to keep any sick, injured or heavily pregnant stock in the kraal as well. Any animals that were not strong enough to defend themselves in the veld were kept in the kraal, including young kids and lambs until they were roughly five to six months of age. Close monitoring of the health of the herd, including regular trimming of hooves was also an important part of their management.
The farm took the somewhat unorthodox approach of having only one breeding season each year. By “hiring” rams/bucks from neighbouring farmers for 80 days in the autumn, they not only allowed for increased genetic diversity in their herd, but also maintained a kidding or lambing season at the start of the rainy season, when the prevalence of wild game and their young made livestock depredations less likely. Furthermore, having kids and lambs born in only two months of the year meant that they were vulnerable for only a short period rather than all year round.
“This reduced the likelihood of predation significantly. The long lag time between weaning and getting pregnant again also meant that ewes had plenty of time to regain their health in between seasons, which resulted in a high prevalence of twins and triplets in the herd,” explains Horgan.
During years of drought, they did not put rams/bucks with the herd in an attempt to maintain lower numbers of livestock when food resources were scarce. Despite the single breeding season each year, on years when they were breeding their average annual birth rate was 49 per cent — higher than the national average of 39 per cent.
By 2015, their herd size peaked at 140 animals. It was during this time of growth that they experienced their first losses to carnivores, one in 2014 and two animals in 2016. In response, they reduced their livestock numbers to a size where the herd would not split apart while in the veld, helping the LGDs to protect them sufficiently. Their average death rate in the herd to all causes was only 4.4 per cent annually, compared to the national average of 18.9 per cent. They consequently discovered that there should ideally be at least one LGD to every 50 goats/sheep.
CCB had not only their own LGDs holding the fort at the demo farm; but they began their own LGD placement programme in 2013. Based on their own research, the CCB team began sourcing unwanted Tswana puppies and bringing them to their demonstration farm so that they could bond with livestock and learn how to guard livestock from older, experienced guarding dogs. After a few months of learning and all their initial veterinary medicine requirements, the dogs were placed with farmers who were experiencing conflict with carnivores.
“In the past 10 years, the demonstration has raised 168 livestock guarding dog puppies that have gone on to work on the frontline of conservation, protecting small stock herds from carnivores in the Kalahari.”