- Disease-free Buffalo breeding program
The ultimate goal of the World of Conservation buffalo breeding project is to establish one of the most sought-after herds of disease-free buffalo in South Africa. As we have a virtually insatiable demand for Buffalo’s in the hunting industry, it is our intent to develop our own buffalo herds for the hunting as well as the eco-tourism market.
Black Gold: Disease-free buffalo farming
South African Farmers sometimes face volatile times. The lack of government support, unstable exchange rates and the past bad economy play havoc with modern conventional farming. But farmers are resourceful and farming ingeniously and indigenously offer new opportunities.
A classic example is Elandsberg Farms in Wellington, traditionally a wheat and sheep operation. In 1999, looking at diversification options on 30ha of irrigable land, it chose buffalo over wine, olives and other produce.
The result has combined remarkable returns on investment with very low running costs. Buffalo generate more profit per hectare than sheep, wheat and tourism combined. They’re a moveable asset, unlike cultivation in which all one’s money is invested in the ground.
Where is this massive market?
Buffalo historically occurred all over Southern Africa where adequate shade, water and grazing was available – from the Cape Peninsula, along the southern coastal belt, into areas of the Karoo and up into the Highveld and Lowveld.
The closing and restriction of hunting in much of Africa, combined with a steady drop in trophy quality due to poor management and excessive poaching, has focussed attention on South Africa. Selective breeding and genetic variation is restoring what years of culling has eliminated.
The buffalo is arguably Africa’s most coveted trophy and a huge ecotourism asset on any game reserve. Owners of game lodges are fuelling demand by seeking a return on their buffalo investment through tourism revenue and through breeding better quality animals.
Buffalo are immensely marketable animals for farmers with the necessary resources. They’re easily restrained by cattle fencing and don’t need large tracts of land. They provide a financial return within four years of acquisition. They’re selective bulk grazers and so hardy that mortality is very rare. They relocate and adjust with little stress. Under ideal conditions, they can calve every 14 months.
They are neither susceptible to stock theft, nor to poaching (when compared to white rhino). And, much like cattle, they’re easily trained to accept supplementary feed and to gather at a central feeding site.
All buffalo in South Africa are of one species, but are defined by ecotype – Kruger, Addo, KZN, Madikwe, and East African. These distinctions will diminish over time as breeders mix genetics to improve herds through hybrid vigour.
Historically, buffalo in South Africa have been restricted to four Eco typically defined groups: Addo disease-free animals, Umfolozi-Hluluwe corridor and bovine tuberculosis (BTB) positive animals, Kruger National Park (KNP) infected animals and disease-free stock from foreign zoos.
Originally, only Addo buffalo and individuals from foreign zoos were available as disease-free stock. Of the first three groups, KNP buffalo are the most genetically diverse, as proved by Prof Eric Harley from the University of Cape Town. However, buffalo from foreign zoos were excluded from his genetic variation study.
If KNP buffalo were to be made available to buffalo farmers in the disease-free areas of South Africa, they had to be certified disease-free. But how?
Breeding disease-free buffalo from disease-positive parent stock is a relatively recent breakthrough in Southern Africa. The pioneers worked with Dr John Condy, a vet with the then-Rhodesian veterinary department.
His farsighted approach laid the foundations for future projects – but he was 20 years ahead of his time.
Then, in 1998, Hunt Africa launched the first commercial project in South Africa to breed disease-free animals beyond the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) redline, using techniques developed by Dr Condy and Dr Roy Bengis of Skukuza.
Its success has seen many other projects developing, all contributing to the spread of buffalo into areas where they have long been extinct. Two buffalo ecotypes – disease-free KNP buffalo and disease-free KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) buffalo – are available as a result of these projects.
Why the controversy?
The KZN and Addo buffalo originate from nucleus herds greatly reduced by a combination of culling in the old days (when buffalo had to make place for cattle farming), habitat destruction and the Rinderpest of the 1890’s. Arguments rage about the real number of buffalo left in these herds. Prof Harley’s research shows that the number was too small to prove loss of genetic diversity – which is conclusive in itself.
KNP buffalo have wide genetic diversity. So, why would current owners of KZN and Addo buffalo not all buy as many disease-free KNP bulls and cows as possible to improve their genetic lines? Prof Harley stated that substantial variability could be maintained in these populations by regularly introducing individuals from the KNP population.
KNP buffalo have been available since 1999, yet many buffalo farmers have resisted the opportunity to improve their genetics, mainly due to the risk of disease. This is a stumbling block as few buyers understand the disease implications, and some breeders claim to be “less risky” than others. There’s also a belief that Addo and KZN buffalo are “less risky” than disease-free KNP stock are, and that East African buffalo are the least risky of all.
The East African market is an entirely separate and even less quantifiable model. Buffalo were exported to European zoos before 1960, and before Dr Robert Hedger and Dr Condy discovered that buffalo were carriers of FMD. The exact origin of these animals and their genetic diversity is difficult to establish.
East African animals have, to date, always sold at a premium on the perception that they have the widest horns and are scarcer. Their “clean” status has also contributed to their price premium. Quite simply, prices are driven by supply, demand and perception.
Buffalo projects or disease-free herds?
Many questions surround the disease-free buffalo projects and the risk they introduce to the industry.
Disease is best controlled at source, and the easiest way to monitor it is by testing. Controlling disease at source is a subjective exercise performed by the breeder.
As it’s impossible to enforce disease control at source, the agriculture department imposes strict quarantine, testing and movement restrictions on all buffalo bred in the disease-control area.
These controls are very effective. This same level of control isn’t in place to monitor the movement of cattle, which arguably poses a higher risk of certain diseases than the strictly monitored buffalo projects do.
As buffalo from established disease-free herds only require one blood test before being moved, it’s unfair to suggest that Addo or KZN animals are any less risky than disease-free KNP animals, which are more thoroughly tested by the time they qualify as stage-five animals.
When comparing the disease status of fifth-stage project buffalo or a second-generation project buffalo with that of any other buffalo, the reality is that buffalo are only as clean as their last herd test.
So, in sourcing the cleanest buffalo, also examine the source, and the integrity of that source.
The future of buffalo marketing
The disease-free breeding projects are due to end at the end of 2011 as the agriculture department believes adequate genetic stock has been exported from the KNP gene pool over the last 12 years. This will cause a massive reduction in supply. Fortunately, the market is changing and informed breeders are going to great lengths to source superior animals from the widest possible gene pool to ensure the future value of their investment.
This approach will become increasingly popular as game farmers become averse to the genetic bottlenecks prevalent in line-bred herds. The sudden loss of KNP genetic material can only bolster demand.
In the future, buffalo will be judged phenotypically – by what they look like. Big bodied, big horned animals with excellent fertility will ultimately sell for a premium, regardless of origin.
Some breeders over-emphasise horns and a particular horn shape. Some even argue in favour of line-breeding big horned animals and ignoring body size – “runts with horns”.
The supply of phenotypically impressive disease-free animals with excellent genetic diversity is very limited. Small numbers of excellent quality animals reach the market each year largely because until recently, the focus has been on quantity above quality. Many buyers have focused on simply establishing a herd, regardless of the quality of the stock.
Once a herd is established, improving its quality is time consuming and expensive – a very gradual process that hugely restricts supply and hugely increases demand.
So, not surprisingly, exceptional bulls are selling for millions of rand and the value of exceptional cows continues to escalate. Few ungulates in Southern Africa have the wide habitat range and tolerance of the Africa buffalo.
The growth of South Africa as a tourist and safari destination will ensure excellent returns in disease-free buffalo over the next 10 years.
How economically viable is buffalo farming?
Economic viability is the deciding factor in all farming, and where buffalo breeding comes into its own. The table below demonstrates the potential herd growth of a herd of juvenile buffalo, starting in the first year with 16-month-old stock consisting of six heifers and four bulls. It’s assumed that the first calves will be in the herd at the end of the third year after introduction and that the sex ratio will be equally split between males and females. (Based on statistics from Elandsberg Farm).
Table1: Growth potential in a herd of juvenile buffalo
|Second gen bull||-||-||3||3||3||3|
|Second gen cow||-||-||3||3||3||3|
|Third gen bull||-||-||-||-||-||1,5|
|Third gen cow||-||-||-||-||-||1,5|
Table 2: Growth in net asset value of a juvenile herd
|Interest cost||220 000||220 000||220 000||220 000||220 000||220 000|
|Herd value||2,200 000||2,200 000||2,980 000||3,760 000||4,540 000||5,720 000|
|Investment + interest||2,420 000||2,640 000||2,860 000||3,080 000||3,300 000||3,520 000|
|Return on investment||-220 000||-440 000||120 000||680 000||1,240 000||2,200 000|
Table 2 illustrates the growth in net asset value of a juvenile buffalo herd, allowing for an interest rate of 10% per annum. The cost of acquiring a disease-free herd of six females and four males is calculated at the current market price (R300 000 per heifer and R100 000 per bull. Lowest general price guideline).
The appreciation in the herd is reflected only through births of new calves and not by increased value of older animals. Price escalation for annual increases is excluded, as is cost of production (grazing and fodder) as it’s assumed these animals would be raised on natural veld.
Recent sales indicate that the demand curve for buffalo is fairly steep, and that a small fluctuation in price won’t radically alter demand, the massive market represented by farmers with available grazing and cash flow must be stimulated and informed of the benefits of diversifying their enterprises. Few farming enterprises could offer the returns of a well-managed buffalo breeding operation.
Buying adult animals would increase the initial capital outlay but also increase the immediate return, as there would be no waiting period before calves are born.
Disease-free buffalo have become and remain an expensive commodity in South Africa mainly because of the huge demand by the wildlife industry played off against the limited numbers that can be supplied by the various buffalo breeding projects as well as limited and debilitated genetically weak animals in unrealistic sex ratios as offered by other game farmers.
At the same time buffalo populations under natural conditions such as in the Kruger National Park (KNP) and Natal Parks (Hluhluwe and Umfulozi), are under a serious threat from an exotic disease, bovine tuberculosis (TB), which has already infected their entire natural buffalo populations.
The disease status of buffalo in South Africa are considered to be either “clean” or “diseased”, based on the veterinary health status of the different herds in their various localities. The only “clean” buffalo originally came from the Addo Elephant National Park (Eastern Cape) and because of their limited numbers and increased demand have become very expensive over the past few years. About twelve years ago, the Director of Animal Health in South Africa agreed to allow a unique buffalo breeding programme where it is possible to render disease-free buffalo from original KNP buffalo.
The programme involved the capturing of pregnant BTB-free buffalo cows in the far-northern areas of the KNP and accommodating them in quarantine bomas under tick-free conditions. The calves from these cows were weaned at an age of 6 months to assure them free of FMD. After this they undergo various diagnostic tests and a separate quarantine period away from the cows to determine their disease status and then once through this regime, after a period of about two years, can acquire the status of disease-free buffalo as well.
The safety and health status of a herd of disease-free buffalo is kept intact by ensuring certain measurements such as only allowing pre-tested disease-free buffalo in the project, managing a quarantine facility for all breeding stock, ensuring zero contact with other buffalo or cattle form neighbouring lands and having strict control on human movements in and around the facility.
- Buffalo are important in any reserve’s ecology as bulk feeders and the main feeders of long grass.
- They are one of the “Big Five” and the local and foreign hunter and tourist associate buffalo with the mystique and wildness of Africa.
- The future survival of free-ranging buffalo populations is now threatened by several exotic diseases such as BTB in Southern Africa. It is a good measure to establish other disease-free herds in other places as a safeguard and provided certain safety measures are followed, will be a sound and fast growing investment.
- Their numbers and distribution have been greatly reduced in the past century by habitat loss, the great Rinderpest pandemic and non-sustainable hunting pressure.
- Current prices for disease-free buffalo in South Africa are between R 200 000 and R 350 000 per female animal, depending on her status and age, whilst one would pay anything from R 90 000 to R 150 000 for a male animal (highest prices in 2008 were R 550 000 for a cow and R 1 500 000 for a bull).
- However, in 2010 the highest price paid for a Buffalo bull was more than R9 million and on Saturday the 3rd of September 2011 the highest price paid for Buffalo cow was R 4.7 million. The highest price for a Buffalo cow with her calf fetched R 20 million on an auction in early 2012. It is further estimated that even higher prices will be reached during the rest of the year and that the highest Buffalo bull prices will exceed R10 million this year.
- The basic projection figures are summarised in Table 1 and are based on the following facts:
- Each cow produces a calf every 14-16 months, or 3 calves every 4 years.
- A Cow will produce her first calf in her fourth year and will live to a productive age of 20-23 years.
- The sex ratio on a yearly calf production is always very close to a 50/50 ratio.
- Natural deaths and losses would never be higher than 2 -5 %.
- It is estimated that the price of buffalo will never be lower than its hunting price
- ($ 15 000 or R 105 000 at the present moment), but R 120 000 is a safe prediction for the long term.
- The table must be read in the following way:
- In Year 1 we start off with 30 cows and they will be producing 30 calves of which half will be bulls (15 one year olds) and the other half will be cows (15 one year olds). In Year 2 it will be the same scenario and in Year 3 and 4, so 30 cows will produce 90 calves over a 4 year period.
- Four years after they were born, the heifers join the breeding cycle and the snowball starts to roll.
Table 1: Buffalo production with 30 adult breeding cows over a 12 year period:
|YEAR||COWS||1 Y||2 Y||3 Y||BULLS||1 Y||2 Y||3 Y|
|94 000 000|
At a mortality rate of 5%, there will still be 762 buffalo present which conservatively at R 120 000 per animal represent roughly R 91,4 million or at R 200 000 per animal a figure of R 152 million over a 12 year period.