Animal scientists meet at UFS to discuss ecological footprint of livestock

Attending the 51st South African Society of Animal Science (SASAS) congress on the UFS Bloemfontein Campus, were from the left: Arne Engelbrecht, UFS master’s student in Animal Breeding; Prof Frikkie Neser, Head of the Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences (UFS); Dr Foch-Henri de Witt, Senior Lecturer, Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences (UFS) (also head of the congress organising committee); and Pamela Pophiwa, postdoctoral student in Animal Science at the University of Pretoria. Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

The world will need nearly double the current food supply by 2050 to feed an ever-increasing world population. This is a mammoth, almost impossible task.

According to UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Francis Petersen, if we approach challenges such as these with scientific level-headedness, systematically build on knowledge and experience gained, and draw on similar inputs from other specialist fields, the seemingly impossible becomes possible.

“To what extent do we integrate our knowledge across sectors – within the university and outside the university; on the continent as well as globally?” he asked the 300-plus delegates, which included animal scientists, students, and various other role players in the livestock sector, at the 51st South African Society of Animal Science (SASAS) congress on the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS).

The theme of this year’s congress was: Managing the ecological footprint of livestock through efficient production. The congress provided a platform for discussions on the impact of livestock production – bringing in elements of critical thinking, as well as the willingness to adopt new strategies.

During the congress, workshops on topics such as silage, predation management, intensive sheep production, prickly-pear utilisation, and animal welfare provided delegates with the opportunity to discuss challenges faced by the South African livestock producer.

Dr Christine Engelbrecht (Meteorology) from the Agricultural Research Council presented the first keynote address, focusing on climate dynamics. “We have high-impact weather systems across Southern Africa. It is projected that strong El Niños are to double in frequency towards the end of the 21st century,” said Dr Engelbrecht.

She further predicted temperature increases of between 4 and 7 degrees Celsius in the interior before the end of the century. Over the Free State, Northern Cape, and North-West Province, we can expect shorter frost seasons, significant increases in maximum temperatures for both summer and winter, as well as more frequent El Niño-induced droughts.

 Improved production outputs need to be achieved by using less land, water, and available energy, while ensuring that the degradation and pollution of natural resources are limited. A scientific approach would be a viable option to improve the efficiency of livestock production. SASAS President, Prof Este van Marle-Köster from the University of Pretoria, pointed out that all food had an ecological impact.

Dr Frikkie Maré, Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the UFS, presented a keynote lecture on managing the footprint of beef through efficient production. Comparing the water footprint of different cattle breeds, his question was what could be done to reduce this.  Animal welfare was introduced to the congress for the first time. Prof Cathy Dwyer from Scotland’s Rural College presented a session on, ‘Can animal welfare contribute to improved production efficiency?’

The oldest conception of animal welfare is the five freedoms adapted to the five welfare needs of animals, namely a suitable environment, a suitable diet, exhibiting normal behaviour patterns, being with or being apart from other animals, and protection from pain, injury, suffering, and disease. Studies demonstrate that animal welfare can be an important and effective part of production efficiency, and that animal welfare should be seen as an integral component of improving the sustainability of livestock.

Prof HO de Waal from the Predation Management Centre at the UFS presented a session on the impact of predation on livestock production, with the tile: The need for coordinated predation management in South Africa – quo vadis? He said: “The current approach to predation management is fragmented and uncoordinated. Solutions for the management of human-wildlife conflict require a South African institutional memory. Most of the information on predation and the hunting of predators is held by specialist predator hunters and farmers. In a system of coordinated predation management, farmers and government are equal partners, each with specific responsibilities.”