During the next serious drought in Natal, I predict that we will run out of Wattle trees. You must think I’m crazy! What on earth are we going to do with the wattle trees we may run out of them? Why, feed them to cattle of course. OK run out may be a bit far fetched but let’s just say that we may find an economic use for them.
Now you think I’m really crazy. Well think again, because an innovative farmer in the Eastern Cape has started feeding Wattle trees to his dairy cows and heifers and with good results.
For those who don’t know what a Wattle trees is, it’s the worst of all the invader plants that has come into our area and the country for that matter. It’s taking over large tracts of productive land and rendering it useless. However human ingenuity is a wonderful thing, and a solution to the problem may be at hand
Ross Kietzmann and and his father Alan farm between Port Elizabeth and Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape. They milk close on 1000 cows and the current drought has hit them hard. Alan has bought a farm in Botswana which has a bush encroachment problem. He has been the clearing the bush to encourage more grass to grow. Feeding trees to cattle is nothing new in the bushveld regions of South Africa and neighbouring countries. On our recent trip to Zim Jenny’s grandparents showed us how they used to mill the Mopani trees and make a drought pellet using the milled branches as a roughage source.
Allan has been doing something similar in Botswana and so when the drought hit the Eastern Cape, he thought of trying it with wattle trees on their dairy farm. It’s well known that cattle eat wattle saplings and they love to browse the lower leaves off the trees, but as far as i know, nobody has tried milling the wattle branches to feed cattle.
Alan and Ross bought themselves a machine and they started milling. The results have been surprisingly good and it’s proving to be a valuable and cheap source of roughage. The feed value is a lot higher than I would have expected with a protein level of around 13% and a reasonably low fibre level. Ross sent me the analysis of the stuff and it definitely beats a some of the supplements going around. Their heifers have been living on a diet of wattle and calf pellets, with no other roughage added. Their milking herd has been getting about 2kg DM per day of the wattle along with other supplements. They are now worried that they will run out of Wattle trees. Can you believe that! They estimate that it is costing them R1200 per ton DM to produce the stuff which as supplements go is very cheap, especially in a drought. Basically they have a gang of men whose job is to clear wattle. They cut down the trees and cut off the small branches which have the highest feed value. The rest of the tree is cut up and sold for firewood.
To overcome the problem of high tannins in the plant, they feed polyethylene glycol to the cows. This helps break down the tannins in the feed and allows the animals to digest the protein and eat more of it. Interestingly from a historical perspective, the first place that this research was done was in Zimbabwe on Jenny’s grandparents farm in Southern Zim. A researcher, Mike Duncan came up with the idea and he used them as one of his trial farms. They milled up the branches and leaves of the Mopani Trees which helped them survive the droughts of the early 80’s and 90’s. From this research he developed a product called Browse Plus. It’s still used to today but Ross and Alan buy in the Polyethylene Glycol in bulk and use that instead.
This is one of the most exciting things I have heard about in agriculture in a while. A year ago I wrote a post called “Bless the Black Wattle” and I suggested that the wattle is what’s saving the last remaining pockets of natural forest in the Transkei due to it’s use as a readily available firewood and building material. I didn’t think then that it would make drought fodder for cattle but I was suggesting that it has its place.
As with many problems that the world faces, the solution is often found by entrepreneurs who end up making money out of what was once though to be a problem. Maybe one day all of us farmers will have a few hectares of cultivated wattle trees that we harvest every year to feed to our cows? Maybe someone will invent a machine that can harvest the young saplings as if it was a maize crop? Imagine crop that grows for free and every few years when you are short of food, you harvest it. Like a strategic drought reserve. Maybe you could even ensile the stuff? Who knows what the future holds, but one day we may well be saying, “Bless the Black Wattle”.
Here follows a short video clip of the process and the feed analysis of the milled wattle. For anyone interested in buying one of these machines, Alan has got the distribution rights for them, and I’m sure he will be more than happy to chat to you about the process and what it entails.
Alan: 082 820 6429