Global Farming: Botswana beef farming

By: Chris McCullough, Photography by: Chris McCullough


Beef farming in Botswana comes with some unique challenges, such as fending off hyena attacks on a daily basis

When it comes to farming in NZ, there’s no denying that it’s hard slog. But doing a final check of stock in the evening is somewhat less stressful here than it is for Calla Visser; fending off hyena attacks is a daily chore for the Botswana beef farmer.

Every evening, Calla has to round up more than 400 cattle on his farm in eastern and herd them into outdoor corals for the night to protect them against theft and predators.

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Bonsmara cattle are early maturing producing a medium frame

And, every morning, Calla and his staff start early, going around the five different corals on his 6000-hectare farm counting all the cows, calves, and bulls, hoping they all made it through the night in one piece.

Protecting livestock

With potential attacks from hyenas and leopards a constant threat, Calla must take every precaution to keep his cattle alive and also try to prevent them from being stolen by locals.

It’s a lot of hard work for this South African-born farmer, but his Medupi herd of Bonsmara cattle are precious to him, representing years of breeding and dedication.

"Our farm borders the town of Francistown in eastern Botswana and being so close means we are constantly looking out for both two-legged and four-legged threats to the herd," says Calla.

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Botswana farmer Calla Visser checks over his cattle every morning in the corals

"Hyenas and leopards attack and kill cattle up to three years of age when they are grazing in the veld, so we have to bring them into the fenced corals at night-time to keep them safe. The hyenas and leopards normally wouldn’t attack the cattle in the pens, as they are intimidated by larger groups such as this.

"But people might. My staff and I continuously monitor the pasture and bushland for snares set by locals to trap a cow or calf for eating. It’s part of our daily routine farming in Botswana."

When Calla first started farming with cattle on his farm, he lost 15 to 20 cattle in three months to attacks by hyena and leopard and realised something had to be done.

Calla now loses around five cattle per year to theft and wildlife killings but he’s trying to solve the problem by reintroducing game to his farm, therefore, redressing the food cycle balance with nature.

"Encouraging more impala and other wildlife into the veld by opening up water sources will give the hyenas and leopards another source of food and hopefully that will keep them away from my cattle," he says.

The herd

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Excited to be let out to graze

Calla runs 300 Bonsmara cows plus followers and bulls and operates both a commercial herd producing beef for the local and export markets plus a registered pedigree herd as a stud unit. 

Developed in South Africa, the Bonsmara is a breed of cattle known for its high-quality beef and resistance to local diseases. It was the result of a scientific experiment carried out by Professor Jan Bonsma and was created following many cross matings and back-crosses consisting of five-eighths Afrikaner, three-sixteenths Hereford, and three-sixteenths Shorthorn.

One of Calla’s Bonsmara stock bulls

Although Calla has been farming for 20 years, he has only been running the Bonsmara herd for just over four years. Sadly, foot and mouth disease wiped out his herd of 400 Nguni cattle in 2011, and after three years, he decided on running Bonsmara cattle with a more strategic approach to farming.

"During the time between losing the Nguni cattle and starting the Bonsmaras, I imported some commercial cattle to fatten and sell. Bonsmara is the largest breed by numbers in South Africa so I decided to move to that popular breed.

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Calla’s stockmen let the cattle out of the corals each morning

"The veld here is rich in buffalo grasses and others and has a good covering of Mopane bush. Last year, we received 450mm of rainfall, which helps produce good grass coverage, meaning we can have a stocking rate of 10 hectares per livestock unit," he says. "Our past two-year rainfall average is 350mm."

Calla’s goal is to have 40% of the herd run as stud and the remainder as a commercial unit. His commercial beef mainly goes to the local market with cattle killing at 450kg liveweight, resulting in a 220kg carcase. Beef prices in Botswana run at 30 Botswanan Pula (NZ$4.11) per kilo for prime beef, which attracts an extra four Pula (NZ$0.55) per kilo if the beef goes for export. Weaner cattle sell for around 12 Pula (NZ$1.64) per kilo liveweight.

"The Bonsmara cattle are fed only grass and grain and can achieve growth rates of 1.5kg per head per day," says Calla. "The breed is early maturing with a medium frame and is a very adaptable animal. It can easily withstand the high temperatures of up to 40°C we experience here.

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"The cows show excellent fertility and I achieve a 96% calving rate from pregnancy to weaning," he adds.

When it comes to diseases and preventing them in Botswana, Calla is most concerned about heartwater disease, which is endemic to the area and comes from ticks. Heartwater is a frequently fatal tick-borne disease of ruminants caused by Cowdria ruminantium.

In domestic ruminants, the incubation period varies considerably and depends on the route of infection, virulence of the isolate, and the amount of infective material administered.

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Younger calves are kept in the corals during the day as well as night

Adult cattle of all breeds appear to be equally susceptible to heartwater, but it’s generally accepted that calves up to the age of three weeks have a high degree of natural resistance, which is not related to the immune status of the dam.

Nervous symptoms are frequently seen in animals affected by the peracute and acute forms of heartwater and can easily be confused with similar signs caused by infectious conditions, toxic plants, acaricide, and heavy metal poisonings. Although the area Calla farms is free from brucellosis, he still vaccinates against it.

"All the cattle are checked each evening and morning for any health issues, and we deal with it immediately," says Calla. "The Bonsmara is a good breed to farm with and is very efficient in this area.

"Our cattle are fitted with bells, which helps fend off predators but mostly the bell sounds help us find cattle in the veld.

"We just need to be on our guard every single day to make sure our cattle stay alive and are not stolen.

"Disease is also a concern and heartwater is a huge worry but with constant daily monitoring, I think we can keep on top of it," he adds.

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