Many farmers have tried intensive sheep farming and year-round lambing and given up after a year or so due to the extra work needed at specific times during the breeding programme.
Now Dr Karin and Manie Wessels of the Mamre Dormer Stud in the Vrede district have developed a simple but highly effective system for the numerous tasks that farmers have to perform in such an enterprise.
Karin started the project as a hobby in 2010 and spent two years struggling on her own. She realised why so many other farmers had said that intensive sheep farming was unsustainable.
She was at the point of giving up when husband Manie, a project manager, stepped in and helped her implement a proper sheep management system.
With its potential to help generate a regular monthly income, the system is ideal for smaller, new or weekend farmers; it is especially useful for those wanting to bring in a second income or for those with only a small piece of land.
However, it can also be implemented on a much larger scale with thousands of ewes. The system is based on an eight-month cycle, so the flock is divided into eight groups of ewes, each of which has to be managed differently.
Each ewe must lamb three times in a two-year period and produce at least five lambs during this time to make it viable.
“It can become chaos if you don’t have a reliable system to work with,” Karin says.
Karin and Manie present a farmers’ training day every month. These have proved highly popular; there are never fewer than about 30 visitors, and the largest group was over 400.
The Wessels have even had special facilities built to accommodate course-goers. More than 2 000 farmers have visited the stud since January 2013 to learn about the system. There is no charge for the programme, manual or farmers’ days.
Implementing the intensive sheep farming system via excel spreadsheet
The Mamre Dormer Stud comprises 270 ewes and 205 rams that are run on only 40ha. Of the eight groups of ewes, four are in-lamb on the veld as a group at a time.
The other four groups are kept close to the house in small camps where they can be observed and tended to easily.
The intensive sheep farming system is designed to be as straightforward as possible. To achieve this, Manie has designed a series of comprehensive Excel spreadsheets to control the various processes required during the production cycle.
Implementing the system is relatively simple, with detailed information on every ewe group’s day-to-day requirements.
Every step of the intensive sheep farming programme, including the feeding regime, animal health, inoculations, and general day-to-day activities, is explained in a manual.
Other aspects covered in the programme include how to check the udders, teeth and feet of ewes, and monitor ram fertility.
The system has a step-by-step guide to prepare ewes for pregnancy, lambing and weaning:
- Synchronise ewes with inter-virginal hormone sponges (progesterone);
- Remove the sponge after two weeks. Inject equine chorionic gonadotropin (PMSG – pregnant mare’s serum) to induce ovulation. Ewes will come on heat within 36 hours;
- Put the rams with the ewes for 24 hours;
- Scan ewes for pregnancy 73 days after mating;
- Transfer in-lamb ewes to the in-lamb flock on the veld;
- Six weeks before lambing, bring the ewes closer to the lambing crates. Change their rations to complete the feeding regime and slowly get them used to the full-feed ration. All feed is pre-mixed by a feed company;
- On the Friday before lambing, place the ewes in lambing crates to get them used to it. On the following Monday, they will start lambing and the group will be finished in three to five days;
- On day 10, move the ewes and lambs to small outside camps;
- In week four, move the ewes and lambs to a larger communal camp;
- In week eight, wean the lambs and send them to the feedlot and the ewes to the veld, where they will be prepared for the next synchronisation date;
- In week 12, synchronise the ewes again. This becomes the new starting date for the next cycle.
Lambing and weaning
Karin has 23 lambing crates made from old pallets and says that a farmer should make use of any materials available on the farm for this intensive sheep farming system.
She adapted an old shed to house the lambing crates and each is equipped with pine wood shavings as bedding, a heater lamp, clean water and feed.
According to her, she very seldom has to assist a ewe with lambing, but if a ewe has not lambed within an hour of the embryonic sack appearing, she will help it.
The most common assistance provided is ensuring that the lamb is not suffocated by the embryonic sack.
For management purposes, it is far easier if lambing takes place over a short period (three days) than if the ewes lamb for 21 days, as is the case with conventional mating, where there is no synchronisation, she says.
Karin stresses that it is important that synchronisation be done in such a way that convenient lambing is ensured.
For example, weekend farmers should ensure that lambing takes place over the weekend, while full-time farmers would prefer lambing to take place during the week.
In the case of multiple births, such as quadruplets, Karin may orally administer 2,5ml of a long-lasting energy booster. Small lambs receive supplemental bottle feeding three times a day for the first three days to give them a boost.
Lambs are weaned at eight weeks and moved to the feedlot, where they are slaughtered at 15 weeks at a weight of between 25kg and 32kg carcass mass (50kg to 70kg on the hoof). The stud’s lamb, with its good inter-muscular marbling, is graded as A2.
Building up a loyal client base
Once a year in January, Mamre Dormer Stud has a production sale for stud rams and ewes. Most of the stud’s clients are commercial farmers that use Mamre Dormer rams on Merino and Dohne Merino ewes in terminal crossings to breed better slaughter lambs, while still shearing good quality wool from the purebred ewes.
Karin has also developed a market in Johannesburg for cut-up whole lambs or half-lambs sold directly to consumers. The business has grown purely by word-of-mouth.
Origin and advantages of the Dormer
The Dormer was bred 75 years ago specifically for intensive fat lamb farming, and is a cross between the Dorset Horn and the old Dutch Merino. It is large-framed, grows fast, and has excellent meat quality. Although the wool is strong, it is not of the best quality. As the Dormer is not photosensitive, it can be mated all year round. The ewes are exceptional mothers and regularly have triplets and quadruplets.
Email Dr Karin Wessels at [email protected].