Country-Wide contributor Annabelle Latz talked to farmers Karin and Manie Wessels about a sheepfarming system which is strengthening domestic markets and taking the strain off extensive land use.
This is intensive sheep farming, but not as we know it.
A decade ago, Karin and Manie Wessels opted to shift to Manie’s family farm in the Eastern Free State, swapping South Africa’s Johannesburg life for sheep farming as they became the fifth generation on the property.
Karin and Manie wanted to maintain the monthly income they were used to, so they adopted the intensive sheep farming system, under a project management programme known as the Mamre Intensive Lambing System (MILS).
With a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture, one could say Manie has always had a strong interest in this industry, and Karin is well used to the world of reproduction, with a PhD in midwifery and neonatology.
Their 3500ha Mamre genetic sheep farm lies between Villiers and Warden, with the N3 Highway that links Durban to Johannesburg running through the middle of it.
Rainfall is 600-700mm per year, arrives in the summer, and temperatures are extreme; dropping to minus 7C in winter, and reaching up to 35 C-plus in summer. They farm Dormer, Merino and Dohne Merino, and lamb every month of the year – the ewes are all on an eight-month lambing cycle.
Their lambing percentage of 167% a month, and 251% per year, is due to closely watching the ewes to protect them from predators like jackals, caracals and stray dogs. Theft is also a massive problem in South Africa, which also requires a close eye.
They aim for an 85% pregnancy rate, and a mortality rate of less than 2%.
“For a ewe to stay in the system, she must produce five lambs every two years,” Karin says.
Ewes not capable of producing twins or quads every time are sold to extensive farming neighbours.
The Mamre project plan is based on the physiological stages of an ewe, and is spreadsheet-based, to allow entry of target dates for synchronisation of the ewes. Everything is diarised.
“This allows you to run eight separate groups of ewes on an eight-month lambing cycle without losing the plot. Because we know exactly when the lambs will be born and weaned, we can secure markets for our lambs in advance.”
Testing the rams for feed conversion ratio is used to measure speed of growth.
“This is what counts in the breeding lines. We don’t want to invest money into bricks and stone, we want to invest in genetics.”
With 40 rams, 1600 ewes (200 pregnant at a time) and a herd of 600 maiden ewes waiting their turn, life is busy.
“The rams work every two weeks, and they work really hard. We need two sets of rams or follow up rams, and test them annually for disease and fertility.”
Synchronization means the ewes will come into heat at the same time, and will lamb within five to seven days of each other.
At a ‘camp’ close to the house, a sponge or Controlled Internal Drug Release (CIDR) is inserted, and removed 14 days later. The ram is put with the ewes 36 hours post exertion of the CIDRs, for 36 hours. Close monitoring and feeding takes place for 30 days.
The ewes are returned to pasture until six weeks before lambing, when they are brought back into camp again. Here ewes are kept quiet and calm, there is no pre-lamb shearing, or shearing of the lambs pre slaughter; farmers get a premium for the wool on the lamb at slaughter.
“They’re on a full feed ration, and roughage, and three days before lambing we put in indoor lambing pens, where they will stay until ten days post-lambing.”
The ewes and lambs go outside into small camps with jackal-proof fencing up to weaning at eight weeks.
“The single lambs are the first out, to the screening pens, while triplets and quads stay together with extra care and shelter. It can take two days to get the ewes and lambs out.”
At seven days old the lambs are tailed with rubber bands, and ear marked.
“The marking of the lambs is very important.”
The Wessels used existing structures on the farm to make the pens, theirs being an old dairy shed. Their pens are 1.5m x 1.5m, with all water and food buckets suspended, rather than on the floor, to create maximum floor space.
Strict sanitation rules apply – wheel baths and foot baths around the lambing pens, no visitors, and protective clothing.
Out in the field, their veld consists mainly of Themeda triandra (Red grass), and mixed sour/sweet veld. During winter they make use of maize and soya stocks for grazing, with a production lick. Before and after lambing the rotation is a full feed pellet, and lambs are on creep feed.
“We want them to be slaughtered as soon as possible, that is the crux of this farming programme.”
At eight weeks they’re weaned, weighing around 27kg, with the ewes on a condition score of 3.5/4.
A week before, the ewes and lambs are transferred to roughage and water, which helps with the drying up and udder health. The ewes are dosed the day the lambs are weaned, their udders and teeth inspected and treated if required, and they’re shorn. They’re then returned to the veld.
At 12 weeks, boosters are given to the lambs, and they’re slaughtered at about 13-17 weeks, weighing 50-60kg on the hoof.
The couple do get asked if it’s too much stress on the ewes to lamb this often.
“I believe the muscles need to keep practicing, keep being used. If she gets the right nutrients and food, she will not be burned out.”
There is a ‘pension camp’ for retired ewes who have done really well, and a hospital camp for sick ewes.
Every month ewes on the farm are rotating; either post lambing or pre lambing; lambing, weaning, preparation for synchronization, the rams being out, scanning, or out on pasture.
“Burn out is us, not the animals.”
Manie says getting skilled labour is difficult. To combat this, they have started an on-farm training academy, which enables them to train their own workers, and show other farmers the Mamre programme.
“Spending money on the development of our own employees has made life a lot easier.”
Manie says South Africa is very much still an importing country when it comes to lamb and mutton. As production increases with programmes like theirs, he hopes the country can begin to be less reliant on importing meat, and one day even start exporting meat.
This means breeding ewes that are at 80% of their adult weight at 9-10 months old, and will have their first lamb at 15 months.
Quality maiden ewes, and continually investing time and money into genetics, is the key to increasing production.
“One thing we’ve got control over is our attitude.”
Phillip Oosthuizen, a director of Mamre Initiative, says farming practices and mentalities have to change and adapt, to overcome challenges and increase production.
“The objective should be to optimise resource use in order to increase productivity, profitability and sustainability.”
He says this system, one with a full traceability system with regards to total production, effectiveness of production, genetic improvement, feed and health product development and marketing, could be a great one for the South Africa’s future.
Manie says South African international companies are sponsoring this model of farming, which is also happening in countries like China and Russia, as a model for job creation and food security.
“We need to stay in front, we need to see what we’re doing with breeding in the future We’re not going to have sheep breeds in the future, we’re going to have a type of sheep in the future.”
Rams are tested twice a year for Brucella ovis, a contagious disease affecting production, which is spread by flies and starts on the penis of the ram. In South Africa, farmers should produce certificates to prove their farm is B. ovis-neutral.
The ram’s teeth and feet are assessed every two weeks when they come in for mating.
Regular inoculation also happens, and the Wessels aim for a condition score of 2.5-3 for the rams, while they like their ewes a little bit fatter.
“So they don’t run away from the rams!” Karin says.