This is cattle country

2008-12-05 00:00

VISITORS to Botswana will appreciate the vast open spaces of this landlocked country, and the splendour of the Okavango Delta and Chobe game reserve. Four decades of uninterrupted civilian leadership, progressive social policies and significant capital investment have created one of the most dynamic economies in Africa.

Mineral extraction — principally diamond mining — dominates economic activity, although tourism is a growing sector due to the country’s conservation practices and extensive nature reserves.

Unfortunately, agriculture plays only a small role in the economics of this country of 600 000 square kilometres. Just 0,65% is arable, rainfall is extremely low with an average of about 350 mm per annum, and droughts are common. But it is an ideal country for extensive livestock production.

The export abattoir at Lobatse in the south — the Botswana Meat Corporation or BMC — has unlimited access to the European Union markets and yet has trouble supplying appreciable amounts of meat to the EU. If the vast grasslands were run commercially they could produce an off-take that would require a few new abattoirs to service the supply but a large area of Botswana is either communally owned or, even on privately owned land, run under the traditional system where cattle are kept for other reasons than for sale.

Senior government officials are ambivalent about this state of affairs. They understand the complexities of communal land ownership and the dangers of intervening, and so go along with it. The major environmental issues are overgrazing and desertification. The result is that agriculture contributes only 1,6% to the gross domestic product while mining contributes 36%.

In April, Ian Khama, the son of Sir Seretse Khama, became president and chief of state. It appears that he is determined to reinvigorate the beef business. Large tracts of land have been offered at low long-term rentals to anyone, either local or from outside Botswana, who is prepared to use the vast grasslands for commercial beef production.

The BMC abattoir at Lobatse, which can process 650 head a day and was at full capacity last week, is a parastatal body that was protected from competition. That protection has now been taken away and commercial abattoirs may be started up in competition with the BMC. As a result, the BMC has taken on a team of Australian consultants to ensure that it remains competitive.

Francistown has an abattoir with a capacity for 350 head per day but this meat is for local consumption. The only other abattoir is in Maun but it is not operational.

The identification of foot and mouth disease in the Ghanzi district two months ago is the furthest south the disease has come and this resulted in an immediate ban on all movements of meat throughout the country, including exports. Extremely high levels of control were implemented and Botswana was allowed to resume exporting beef to the EU within six weeks of the outbreak, which is exceptional.

South Africa has an excess of standing space in its feedlots and would love to buy weaners from Botswana for fattening. However, I was assured by the Botswana feedlot owners that no weaners will come to South Africa as they will be feeding and slaughtering them all in Botswana.

I visited a Hurvitz feedlot outside Lobatse, which supplies the BMC with fat cattle. The feedlot standards in South Africa are higher but the Hurvitz fat cattle looked very good.

It was interesting to meet Clive Marshall, the livestock procurement manager for the BMC. He previously ran the huge cattle operations of the Hurvitz family and now runs a large, successful Charolais stud in Botswana supplying bulls to commercial farmers. The breed obviously does well on the magnificent sweet veld. There were considerable numbers of Charolais, Simmentaler, Bonsmara and Brahman breed types in the feedlots.

Botswana is cattle country and should make its rightful contribution to meat production in Africa.

• For the birders: The Short-clawed Lark can be found just outside Lobatse. Thanks again to Richard Hurt for helping with the identification.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or e-mail

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