Do we want the livestock sector to contribute more to economic development?
By Helmke Sartorius von Bach.
How can this matter be questionable when we all know the answer is obvious? Livestock production is practised in most areas in Namibia, supporting most livelihoods in rural areas. It generally plays an important role and contributes to the agricultural economy.
However, the production opportunities are divided by the veterinary cordon fence, imposing less marketing opportunities to farmers north of the fence due to trade limitations. Over time, these consequences could have been the different production levels on both side of the fence, illustrated by stocking rates presented in the figure below. The stocking rate is the livestock biomass (kg) of cattle, sheep and goats divided by the surface (ha) of rangeland available.
Comparing the average biomass stocking rate in the Northern Communal Areas (NCAs) with those producers south of the veterinary cordon fence (VCF), an alarming consequence is observed. The Northern Communal Areas showed a steady increase of stock numbers until 2015, followed by a steep reduction due to severe livestock losses during the recent drought. This can be explained by the common livestock grazing system used by privately-owned herds. It worked well during the time of low human population pressure and low animal numbers. However, because of various reasons, the animal population increased to levels beyond sustainable land use, leading to severe overgrazing, low productivity and the danger of soil depletion.
South of the VCF, farmers benefitted from export opportunities. However, an opposite trend as discussed above for the NCAs is evident. The total livestock biomass on land decreased to half of what was practised in the 1970’s. Both their cattle and goat herds reduced to 40% respectively, while the sheep herds reduced to 20% of the number in the 1970’s.
This brings us to cause and effect. Which factors could have contributed to this decline, where outsiders argue that livestock producers south of the VCF prosper?
Figure 1: Comparison of livestock stocking rates on the two sides of the VCF
Note: 2019 and 2020 are estimations
For ease of understanding, changes in livestock production typically are the result of a combination of factors, such as social values, environmental implications, economic aspects and policy issues.
Farming with livestock in general shows a lack of continuity. The millennials are generally not willing to farm, which results in an ageing farming population. The living conditions in rural communities show deficient access to education, health, and leisure services, that clash with livestock labour force requirements and results in labour shortages. Furthermore, a deficiency of ongoing training for farmers and workers is observed, which is the consequence of low farm visits from advisory services and associated organizations.
Increasingly, climatological challenges impeding the agricultural sector include erratic rainfall, land degradation, inaccessible underground water, bush encroachment, and more. The media frequently reports on starvation, high temperatures, greenhouse gases, carbon sink, limited mitigation potential, nutrient cycles, pollution, and the lack of conserving endangered species in the presence of domestic animals.
Real product prices in agriculture generally determine the economic growth of the sector. For example, in the Namibian livestock sector, the number of slaughter cattle is determined by the price ratio of the weaner price to the carcass price. Therefore, the level of the producer price results in farmers’ trust and herd build-up. Allowing inefficiencies results in poor prices, which further decline our herd sizes.
On the input side, the reproductive performance of grazing animals is low compared to countries with high rainfall. We survived this condition by following a low-input production system, but the increasing dependence on imports resulted in low farm productivity. Another factor is the stagnant labour productivity on livestock farms. All these economic factors have resulted in producer’s surge for alternative land use such as tourism. It lowered food production relative to local demand.
Marketing schemes have introduced production uncertainty, especially for sheep in marginal areas. Production volatility and rising real input prices, compared to constant or decreasing meat prices, resulted in scale effects to survive.
Furthermore, some agricultural policies were criticized for not addressing the environmental problems and the missed availing of early warning systems. Additionally, policies tend not to be synchronised for achieving rural development in general, causing agriculture to be further marginalized and displaced. This is echoed by the industrialization, fair trade, food security, animal welfare, etc.
To understand what happened to livestock productivity over the past century, both the cattle and the smallstock sector (sheep and goats) south of the VCF are discussed and presented in the two figures below. Unfortunately, data for the NCAs for the period between the late 1940s and 1960s in general, is not available.
The general observation is obvious: During the early colonial times, herd size increased until the early 1980s, but since then, a general decline of stock is evident for both cattle and smallstock. The output over the years improved continuously, resulting in a doubling of the cattle offtake rate from 15% in the 1920s to the current 30% plus. In the case of smallstock, the offtake rates increased from a low 15% to about 50% within one century.
Both sub-sectors’ performance is a clear sign of increased productivity in general. However, what if this is only the result of reducing the accumulated herd size. The cattle herd south of the VCF declined from more than 2 million cattle to less than one million and smallstock shows an even worse scenario. Their total herd size decreased from almost 6 million in the 1970s to a low level of below 2 million.
Figure 2: Cattle stock and production south of the VCF
Source: DVS and Meat Board
Figure 3: Smallstock herd size and production south of the VCF
Source: DVS and Meat Board
The declining livestock numbers in Namibia already showed negative effects on our rural economy. This was with long-term implications on achieving our national objectives, such as economic progression, social transformation, environmental sustainability, and more. It is expected that without serious interventions, this presented tendency will not change. The scale of intervention will probably depend on the perceived importance of the livestock sector for socio-economic development.
Since we lack horizontal livestock production expansion, it calls for technological change and a balanced search for alternative land-uses. Our rapid urbanization requires technical improvements to increase the resource-use efﬁciency and agricultural productivity. The Growth at Home strategy could be upgraded through adjustments within agricultural support services to stimulate vertical integration and to ensure the reliability of food supply. More research is required to link cyclical patterns to livestock production.
Industry needs to be prepared for impacts from climate change on parasite exposure, feed quality through plant and soil systems, pasture productivity, pest and weed effects, longer droughts, and possibly soil erosion. It calls for an investment in adaptation to adjust support measures based on social values, environmental implications, economic aspects, and the policy system in Namibia.
(The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of the University of Namibia where the author is employed.)