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Shangani Holistic Ranch, The Next Step in Zimbabwean Conservation Ranching

Shangani Holistic Ranch is a 65,000-ha (162,500-acre) ranch in Zimbabwe about 1.5 hours from Bulawayo. Owned by the Oppenheimer family, this conservation ranch is focused on proving how commercial livestock operations can integrate with wildlife in a way that improves wildlife habitat and ecosystem function, as well as providing opportunities for rural economic development.

Working with Nature

Shangani Ranch is primarily an open savannah landscape, but there has been a problem with bush encroachment over the years. It is the largest cattle ranch in Zimbabwe with currently 7,500 head of cattle, of which approximately 50% are the indigenous Nguni breed. They are moving away from the large-framed European breeds as profitability and increased cattle numbers are improved with the smaller-framed Nguni breed, that are also parasite and tick resistant and have a natural tolerance for extreme temperatures. The Nguni cattle breed are also adapted to drought with genetics that allow them to handle moribund grasses and reach reproductive maturity early.

While Shangani has been exploring how they can integrate holistic planned grazing for several years, they have hired HMI Professional Certified Educator, Ian Mitchell-Innes from South Africa to consult with management and help them determine how they might best utilize the productivity they currently have and improve animal performance. Currently management is directing their efforts towards grazing about 50% of the ranch—specifically, areas of high productivity—before tackling bush encroached areas. In this way, they can focus on animal performance and growing their herd to the 19,000 animals required to graze the property effectively.

Max Makuvise is the Resident Director of Shangani Ranch and joined the team about two years ago. He has a background in cattle management and was also trained in accounting. Max heard about Holistic Management when he began working with The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef in 2017. He connected with Allan Savory at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and has been investigating ways to improve some of the holistic grazing principles at Shangani since he began working there in 2020.

“I am very aligned to data,” says Max. “We analyze the nutrient value of different grass species in the dry months from the paddocks where we’ve experimented with different management practices. We want to have empirical proof of how different practices affect the forage, because it is very hard to sell the principles of Holistic Management to small scale farmers and the government without that proof. We also want to make sure that we are providing adequate nutrition for our cattle.

“We could say that our ranch has more ground cover than the ranches around us, but our neighbor doesn’t have very many cattle and has had fires on his property so it’s really not a fair comparison.”

Max is also focused on the genetics of the herd to create an efficient herd that works well in this environment, which is why they are holding back all females in their herd to diversify the Nguni cattle genetics. “The more feed efficient the animals are the more food you can move through them and the more hooves you can have on the ground,” says Max. “We have found that herds that are too big in frame are not good for the way we manage. Though, if you have a large herd, the herders can’t really manage them in an efficient way. If you have six herdsmen with 1,000 animals, then the herd is too big to manage. Therefore, having a balanced headcount to herder ratio will result in an effective and improved ranch management strategy. The computer can tell you where to graze, but the man on the ground can do a better job of keeping track of the animals, looking at their health, identifying different grass species and assessing when the animals need to be moved—from both an animal performance focus and a land health focus.  

“While we talk holistically, nobody is talking about the human manager. In the West, where there is fencing it may be easier to have larger herds, but we do all animal control with herding. If you try to bunch the animals, it becomes difficult to keep them in that area. It could be that we end up keeping them in 1-2.5 ha (2.5-6.25 acres) for a day. We’ve found that 250 head is a sweet spot for four herders at the present stage of our journey. One or two might be responsible for the grazing management, then another one or two are responsible for the herd health, with one being the supervisor for the group and in charge of relaying information back to headquarters. As our herders become more used to herding under holistic principals, the herd sizes will grow naturally and we may get back to the 1000 head herds in a few years.

“Right now, we have 31 herds of approximately 250 head for a total of approximately 7500 heads. We’ve been working with Ian on developing a 10-year forecast of what we need, to improve so we can graze the whole ranch. We need to triple the herd size through natural growth. We’ve had some five-year-old heifers that we are culling and are using that money to buy new females. The money from our steer sales pays for operations.”

Nguni cows weigh about 500 kg (1,110 lbs) and the bulls weigh an estimate of 750 kg (1,650 lbs). Shangani uses the Maia grazing software for the calculations on forage inventory and grazing periods, but the herdsmen are also doing their own calculations on the ground. Additionally, management is analyzing soils and grasses, then entering all the data into Maia. At one point there were 80 fenced paddocks but they removed all internal fencing to allow for better grazing and wildlife migration, including 300 male elephants. The old tracks are still there from the fence lines, they use those as “virtual” paddocks for their grazing planning and implementation.

The key to the success for this kind of grazing, amidst a lot of different predators (predominantly leopards and hyenas) are the night kraals they make from the thorn bushes. It takes two days to construct one kraal and cattle herds can use it for several weeks. Before using thorn bush kraals, boma kraals were constructed with sheeting but we established that leopards could easily drag a calf out of the kraal. The advantage of thorn bushes is the difficulty they pose for leopards to infiltrate the kraal and pull out a calf, thus, giving the adult time to save their young. Shangani once lost 50-60 calves in a year; they have lost only a handful in the last year despite having 60 leopards on the ranch. They also use solar lights to deter the predators whilst one of the herdsmen sleeps in an iron tent near the kraal.

Grazing periods are between one to four days in a given area depending on productivity and animal condition. They have four grazing champions who are responsible for data collection from herders and rangelands officers who analyze the data collected. There are 400 employees, with 300 employees focused on the livestock, as well as an operations manager, veterinarians, office workers, security, a research team and tractor drivers. Security is necessary as wildlife poaching and cattle rustling is rife in the area. They use dams for water or portable troughs and bowsers pulled by tractor. They hope to transition to movement of water by oxen.

Recovery periods are adapted based on observations. “The paddocks that we don’t get to during the rainy season, we mow so the grass doesn’t lignify,” says Max. “In this way we get the best grass by the end of the rainy season for our stockpile. If the grass taller than a beer can, then it is time to mow. We are trying to work out the optimal grazing pattern, but for now we are focused on cattle numbers and hectares that are most productive.

“We are definitely seeing improvement in the amount of biomass, but we also need to see good nutrient content of that biomass. We have also seen fertility increase, but that is more human management, in that we have corrected things like when to put the bulls in and to cull non-productive animals. Body condition scores are up, but we have had two good rainy seasons.

“Tripling the number of cattle over time would still allow us to keep the same number of wildlife on the ranch. We do have conservation hunting through the Zimbabwean Government’s Department of Parks census numbers. It is not part of the Shangani business. All the meat and revenue goes to the workers.” Those wildlife numbers are substantial with over 20 species of herbivores and predators including leopard, sable, elephant, eland, kudu, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, bushbock, bushpig, , duiker, impala, tsessebe, reedbuck, klipspringer, steenbuck and warthog, with over 5,000 zebra and impala alone, so factoring their grazing into the grazing plan is critical for current implementation as well as strategic planning.

Rural Economic Development

This focus on the workers and the community is also a critical part of the work at Shangani. “I have been involved in rural livestock education for a while and we received consent from the board to allow us to share this information with our larger community,” says Max. “We now go into rural areas within 100km (62 miles) of the ranch and do a lot of teaching on rangeland management and livestock health, and help communities turn their cattle into viable economic assets. In this way they become rural commercially-minded farmers instead of selling their cattle out of economic hardship when they do not get much for them.

“There are three types of cattle farmers: 1) Commercial farmers; 2) Organized communal farmers who know each other but need an extra push and some education to help get them into the commercial sector – about 20% of those are eager for more information; and 3) The cattle guys who wait for the donor community or the government to help them. People are very visual. When they see others are getting better prices and their cattle are healthy and improving, they want to learn how to do that as well.”

Shangani is exploring other marketing opportunities to maximize the profit they make from each animal. They are preparing to build an abattoir so they can sell value added products to a high-end niche market—focusing on delivering quality meat from Zimbabwe’s indigenous animals and small-scale farmers. They hope to have local farmers participate in this market, although the abattoir will only handle 10,000 head/year. “At that number, we can be profitable, help the community and the people we are working with,” says Max. He estimates there are approximately 200,000 cattle in the area who are using the 100 dip tanks.

The land that comprises Shangani Ranch was traditionally the home of the Shona, Kalanga, Rozwe and Ndebele peoples. Shangani looks to hire more community members and provide more economic opportunity to the community. Initially Shangani was buying $750,000 in feed. They cut that cost to $100,000 to free up $650,000 to hire more community members to work in the various roles on the ranch. Given the economic challenges in Zimbabwe there are 20 people competing for every good paying job. Shangani is a huge employer in that area. But Shangani wants people who also believe in the vision of the ranch.

“That’s been the biggest challenge, getting the workers to understand they are a part of something, part of team,” says Max. “They now will shake my hand and we will have a conversation. We are closing the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. They will say to me: ‘Boss, it is unbelievable that your wife is serving us lunch. You are so educated.’ But I tell them everyone is educated differently. If we have a fire and the bowser is at the other end of the ranch, the tractor driver is the one who can get it where we need it. He is the one who is educated, not me. We’ve won that battle, now we can deal with the rest. Once you’ve got the people on board, you’ve won. When they are just following orders, they are not giving input and that is a problem. We have an open-door policy. We will talk about and discuss issues. They know I make the decision because my head lies on the block, but they feel they can help in the process.”

Whether looking at these kinds of social indicators or environmental indicators like healthy wildlife populations and increased biomass, or improved herd health and productivity, Shangani Holistic is showing the world that you can integrate commercial cattle operations with wildlife ranching successfully, as long as you remain adaptive in your management, partner with nature, and focus on the desired outcomes of healthy land, healthy people, and healthy food.