Hung out to dry: Botswana’s cattle sector grapples with drought

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In Botswana's north, the smell of death hangs heavy on the air, with cattle dying in their hundreds from lack of grass and water.
In Botswana’s north, the smell of death hangs heavy on the air, with cattle dying in their hundreds from lack of grass and water.

Like many in Botswana, cattle rearing for Boyce Sebonego, is a family affair. 

“My dad, my mother – they loved farming, they loved anything to do with cattle,” he tells us with a smile peeking out from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “We grew up in a farming background and I got hooked.” 

The sturdy herder surveys his beefy charges with pride as they stand in their pens, stoically enduring the punishing rays of the midday sun. 

Unlike their grass-fed counterparts left to browse for roughage in the country’s vast communal pasturelands, these cows know they can expect a carefully catered dinner. 

Sebonego dutifully fills their troughs with his own special blend of highly nutritious feed, designed to fatten up the animals in their last 90 days of life, before there are sent on to the slaughter. 

This year, business for the feedlot owner has been especially brisk. That’s because a chronic drought has left the country’s traditionally verdant feeding grounds dry and barren. 

“No rain means no grass,” Sebonego explains. “Cattle have hardly anything to feed on and, with that being the case, a lot of cattle in Botswana are dying.”

For those who can afford the service, paying to house their herds at feedlots like Sebonego’s is often the only alternative to allowing their animals to starve in the fields. 

The vast majority of the slaughtered animals are sent overseas, after being butchered and prepared for transit by the Botswana Meat Commission, the state-run entity that has held exclusive rights to the country’s beef exports for more than half a century. 

But plans put forth by the newly re-elected government indicate that this could change. President Mogkweetsi Masisi has made clear he intends to privatize the firm and seek more varied markets like China for Botswana to sell its beef to. 

So, much like the cows in Sebonego’s pens, the country’s livestock industry finds itself caught between the dual forces of feast and famine. 

Bold policy changes and newly secured customer bases outside of the traditional European export market spell promise. But a rapidly retreating water table and an increasingly unpredictable climate pose very real threats.

And much like the animals feasting away at Sebonego’s troughs, blissfully unaware of their gruesome fate, farmers in the drought-plagued region have no choice but to grab the bull by the horns, taking opportunities as they come, regardless of what the future may bring.

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