Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The term ‘veld’ in Southern Africa denotes natural vegetation, utilised by livestock. In other parts of the world it is referred to as rangelands.

Read part 2.

Veld includes different plant types such as trees, shrubs and grasses. The trees and shrubs produce fodder (leaves) mainly for game animals, as well as goats. These leaf eaters are called browsers. The grass is utilised by livestock such as beef and dairy cattle, sheep, horses and donkeys – the grazers or grass eaters.

Gibbs Russell (1985) mentioned that there are 967 different grass species in Southern Africa. Grasses are some of the most important plant types, as they supply different forms of food and feed to humans and animals. Maize, sorghum, wheat, oats, rice and sugarcane are all part of the grass family. Veld grasses and cultivated pastures supply grazing to meat-, milk- and wool-producing animals.

Simple strategies for restoring productive veld.

Grasses are also key in controlling soil erosion – thus they are soil protectors. To supply enough meat, milk and wool, the animals and veld should be managed well. Hence the saying “a farmer can only be a good livestock farmer if he is a good grass farmer”.

The following information might seem very scientific, but to manage our veld well we must take note of it. Veld grasses are classified in different ways, for example the palatability of different species and the role they play in veld condition or productivity.

Palatability of grasses

There are three main groups of veld grasses:

  • Highly palatable grasses – these are normally preferred by grazing animals.
  • Medium palatable grasses – utilised by animals when the highly palatable grasses are depleted.
  • Unpalatable grasses – animals prefer not to graze it but will do so, and lose weight in the process, if nothing else is left.

The palatability and grazing value of grasses are normally evaluated in the laboratory in terms of their protein and fibre content (Table 1). These chemical values are extremely valuable, as the protein in animal feed, and in human food, is vital for growth and good body condition. The fibre is the hard or tough component of the feed that makes it less digestible.

The role of protein and fibre in the nutritional value and utilisation of grass is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: The influence of protein and fibre on grass quality.

It is important to remember that if the crude protein (CP) content of the pasture or grass is above 13%, animals will only be able to maintain their weight; above 18% they will gain weight. When the CP content falls below 6 to 8%, palatability will be low. Hence, animals will ingest less and they will lose weight. Palatable, good quality grass will have a fibre content of less than 30%. Anything above 35% will render the grass unpalatable, animals will ingest less grass and they will lose weight.

It is not always possible to have a laboratory analyse the grass. However, the breaking strength of the grass leaf is an indication of the fibre content of the plant. If you pull and break leaves of different grass species (Figure 1), you will feel differences between them.

Figure 1: Testing a green leaf for its breaking strength.

The easier it breaks, the less fibre it contains and more acceptable it is to the animal. If the leaf is tough and difficult to break, it is high in fibre and not acceptable to the animal. It is important to do it when the grass is green and actively growing.

In Table 2, the grazing value or acceptability of the more prominent grasses in the grassland of the Free State, North West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal is given on a scale of 0 to 10.

Table 2: The grazing value (palatability) of the more prominent grass species in the Highveld grassland. 0-1 not palatable, fibrous with low grazing value; 2-3 unpalatable; 4-5 acceptable; 6-7 palatable; 8-9 highly palatable; and 10 highly palatable and utilised throughout the season.

Veld condition

The condition of the veld is another important benchmark to evaluate potential animal production on the farm. If soil is severely overgrazed and has bare patches (Figure 2a) or if it is entirely without grass (Figure 2b), we know that there is not enough grass for the animals and erosion can start with the first rain.

Figure 2: Overgrazed (a) and entirely bare (b) soil.

Luckily, nature has a few plants that will grow in such conditions. Some of them will be weeds, but there are also annual and perennial grasses. This development from bare soil to a grass covered stage is called succession and takes place over time in three different stages (identified by different grass species):

Luckily, nature has a few plants that will grow in such conditions. Some of them will be weeds, but there are also annual and perennial grasses. This development from bare soil to a grass covered stage is called succession and takes place over time in three different stages (identified by different grass species):

  • Pioneer stage: The species that germinate first on disturbed or bare soil are called pioneers. They are mostly annual species, drought resistant, with different levels of palatability.
  • Sub-climax stage: Bi-annual or perennial species that follow the pioneer species a year or three later are sub-climax species. Some of them are palatable.
  • Climax stage: Perennial species that establish later in the development process are climax species. Most of them are palatable and the best fodder plants, but some are also unpalatable.

This process can also swing in the opposite direction, from climax to pioneer stage, if the veld is overstocked and overgrazed. Table 3 shows the different grasses that will grow in the different succession stages.

Table 3: Key grass species that grow in the different succession stages in the Highveld grassland.

If the veld is in the pioneer stage (overgrazed), management should be aimed at improving it to the climax stage. If the veld is in good condition, the aim should be to keep it like that (in the climax stage) by applying good management.

In summary

This article, the first in a new series, described some of the more important grazing and indicator grass species in the Highveld grassland. In the articles that will follow more detail will be given on the interaction between the grazing and rest of the grass plant, and how that affects veld condition; the influence of climate change rainfall on the veld; grazing management systems; and cultivated pastures’ contribution to animal production. – Prof Chris Dannhauser

For enquiries, contact Prof Chris Dannhauser on 082 873 4736 or chriswei@vodamail.co.za.