How to keep farming sheep in drought

Drought is a fact of life – and death – in South Africa, and the current drought is certainly no exception. Overberg sheep farmer, Thys Delport, gives practical advice on how a sheep farmer can continue farming his/her sheep in drought, and remain lucrative.

How to keep farming sheep in drought
Thys says that farmers should rather keep fewer animals than reduce feed.
Photo: Glenneis Kriel
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After parts of North West and the Northern Cape received below-average rainfall for three consecutive years, their livestock was saved only after farmers elsewhere in the country donated feed.

Drought in the Free State and North West has decimated the past season’s maize crop, which is sitting at about 9,77 million tons, a third less than last year’s crop.


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When the April rains failed, farmers in the winter rainfall regions of the Southern Cape and Swartland areas planted small grain and forage crops in dust. By mid-May, many had decided to put away their planting equipment and wait for the rain.

Thys Delport, chairperson of the National Wool Growers’ Association in the Western Cape, estimates that farmers in the area had planted only 80% of their lands when Farmer’s Weekly conducted this interview.

The figure was even lower in the Swartland. These farmers, as well as those in the Little Karoo, have started feeding their stock due to a scarcity of forage on their farms.

“This is traditionally a dry time of the year on Western Cape farms, a time in which many farmers start buying in feed,” says Thys.

“But it rarely happens that we still have had no rain by May.”

Thys Delport

Diversified farming

At between R40 000/ha and R50 000/ha, land in the Southern Cape is very expensive, and farmers here have learned not to put all their eggs in one basket, according to Thys.

“The Southern Cape suffers drought-like conditions every five to seven years. It has taught most of the older farmers the value of diversification. Instead of growing small-grain crops, most have a livestock component to carry them through a drought.”

Unfortunately, many younger farmers have yet to learn this lesson. Because small-grain farming is more lucrative than sheep farming, many have exchanged their livestock for new planting machinery, making them more financially vulnerable to drought.

“In low-rainfall years, sheep can carry a farmer financially, but the value of planting machinery depreciates every year,” says Thys.

A farmer needs to find a balance between sheep and grain production, he stresses.

“If he or she can’t afford to buy planting equipment, a contractor should be brought in to plant or a partnership entered into to share equipment. Don’t sell sheep to buy it.”

Get rid of freeloaders to continue farming sheep in drought

The first thing a farmer should do is evaluate his situation as well as the market. It is wise to reduce stock numbers or move the sheep to an area with sufficient grazing while they are still in good condition.

“Most Western Cape farmers are not yet selling excess stock. Prices are flat, as consumers simply don’t have as much money as they had in the past to buy meat,” says Thys.

He expects prices to remain flat and says it might be better for farmers to sell unproductive stock and feed productive stock now, rather than do so later when the situation has worsened and the market becomes saturated.

In addition, Namibia is exporting significantly more sheep to South Africa than in the past, as farmers there are reducing stock to cope with below-average rainfall, according to Thys.

He advises farmers to sell burdensome animals.

“A ewe that falls behind or is not producing has to get onto the truck to the abattoir.”

Thys’s farm Ertjiesdam near Greyton in the Overberg is a mixed farming enterprise with 560ha under crops and a livestock component of 800 Dohne Merino sheep. In January, he noticed that the lambs were growing poorly after a very dry Overberg summer. To reduce stress on the ewes and lambs, he weaned the lambs at 13 weeks instead of 16 weeks.

“I removed the lambs from the ewes to give the ewes more time to recover and be ready for the next lambing season.  Failure to do this might result in future reproduction complications and fewer multiple births. The same applies to the lambs. If I don’t look after them properly when they’re young, they’ll never reach their full potential due to nutritional problems,” he says.

Thys finishes off the lambs, now numbering about 250, in his feedlot. He sells the rams and culled ewes for slaughter once they have gained about 16kg, achieving a slaughter percentage of 46%. He tries to retain 30% of the ewes as replacements, placing them out in the camps when they are about five months old. He is satisfied that they will do well.

Food and water

“A farmer must protect his genetic material, as it will take him years to rebuild once lost. Sheep must have sufficient food and water. Don’t neglect them. Rather feed fewer animals if you cannot afford to keep all of them,” Thys advises.
He uses pre-mixed feeds specially formulated for the developmental phase of sheep.

“Don’t try to save costs. If you plan to use food scraps such as bread or fruit pulp, consult a dietician to ensure the diet is balanced.”

Thys’s lambs receive a high-protein feed containing legumes. Pregnant ewes are given high-energy feed, as the foetus gains almost 80% of its weight during the last six weeks of pregnancy. The feed consists of maize (all the barley having already been sold) with a lick containing vitamin B and trace elements such as selenium and copper.

“It may be sufficient to supply only a lick if the lands have enough stubble. But there’s absolutely nothing here,” says Thys, adding that his farm looks as it did during the 1991 drought.

Feeding livestock is expensive. At about R3 800/t, it costs him between R20 000 and R30 000 to feed 800 ewes for a month. Each ewe eats 600g to 800g of feed mix, at a cost of R1,50 to R2,00 per day. A small-scale farmer is especially vulnerable during a drought if he does not own land, Thys points out.

Feed for 800 sheep costs Thys between R20 000 and R30 000 monthly.

“It means that he doesn’t always have assets as security for a loan from the bank to pull him or her through this difficult time. Such farmers are at higher risk of losing their entire flock during a drought.”

Thys spreads maize on the ground, and the sheep come running to his bakkie as soon as they see him. He puts lick into troughs made from old car tyres.


“I obviously have to prevent wastage – feeding sheep is very expensive. Yet our sheep are so hungry they devour everything they get.”

Farm dams are running dry and some farmers have started supplying their sheep with water from the Overberg water scheme. This is expensive, however.

“Can you imagine the implications if the Overberg didn’t have such a water scheme? It would be devastating,” says Thys.

Keep your eyes open

Stressed animals are more susceptible to diseases and pests than they are under normal conditions. Thys warns farmers not to neglect vaccination programmes during such a time. The chance of a problem with internal parasites is remote, but a farmer should nonetheless remain vigilant.

He adds that a farmer should also be on the lookout for sheep eating anything unusual, such as eucalyptus leaves and toxic shrubs. The animals may be so hungry that they eat almost anything – and this could kill them. At the time of going to print, there were reports of rain in the Overberg.

Phone Thys Delport on 028 215 8917 or email him at [email protected].