Farming successfully on communal land

Juhillin van Wyk grew up on a Northern Cape farm, and today runs a flock of Dorper sheep on communal land near Williston. He spoke to Wouter Kriel about what he has learnt thus far, as well as the importance of buying in rams with the traits to boost flock fertility.

Farming successfully on communal land
Juhillin van Wyk spends many hours with his animals.
Photo: Wouter Kriel
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Juhillin van Wyk grew up on Banksfontein farm in the Williston district of the Northern Cape, where his grandfather once worked.

“I have fond memories of working alongside him over weekends and during school holidays. That’s where I learnt about farming and grew to love animals,” he recalls.
Van Wyk was named the Williston Meat Co-operative Group Lamb Carcass Competition winner in 2020, and sold 10 young ewes at the Williston Young Ewe Auction in August 2021.

He took the big step of starting his own farming business in 2018 when he bought 20 in-lamb Dorper ewes at the Williston Young Ewe Auction.

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“I got married recently and my wife and I have started a family,” says Van Wyk. “My next step is to buy a house in Williston. The sheep are my attempt to create a legacy for my children.

“Currently, I don’t have any land of my own, so the local commonage was the natural starting place for me. To get access to the Williston commonage, I had to join the local new farmers’ organisation, Amandelboom Kleinboere. To do this, you need to own at least 10 animals and have [a unique tattoo on them.]’’

Van Wyk says all the applicants for land were shown a map of the commonage and the various camps available.

“I immediately saw the potential in a camp straddling the Sak River just outside of town. It has a lot of natural fluitjiesriet (common reed), ganna bush and old man salt bush, so the carrying capacity is higher than that of the surrounding camps. I don’t have to feed the animals as extensively as some of the other farmers in the area have to, especially with the prolonged drought of the past few years.”

The camp is fenced, and there are water points with JoJo tanks and wind pumps available. In exchange for the use of the infrastructure, Van Wyk is responsible for maintaining the equipment.

Van Wyk uses ORV Skaap Wenstoet to condition his animals.

Farming on the commonage nonetheless has its challenges. “It’s close to town, which means you need to watch your animals carefully so they don’t disappear. I manage this by spending as much time as possible with my animals. In this way, I can also quickly see if they have any health problems and deal with them.

“We’re also next to the municipal rubbish dump site, and the wind blows lots of plastic into my camp. I have to keep it clean to prevent the animals from eating things that might harm them.

“[Another problem is that] we get a three-year lease agreement, which is very short. I’d prefer at least a five-year lease, so I can make better long-term plans for my business,” he says.

The 20 ewes Van Wyk bought to start his operation lambed and quickly grew to 40 animals, and in February 2019 he entered the Lamb Carcass Competition at the Williston Meat Co-operation. This was also the year he bought his first ram.

“A ram is very important to the future of your flock, so you need to weigh up all the different aspects carefully during your purchase decision,’’ he says.

He stresses the importance of looking at the animal’s frame, and noting the size and shape of the scrotum, as this plays a key role in lambing numbers and the future fertility of the flock. But equally important is the historic performance of the animal.

“You need to inspect his [records] very carefully. You can’t see from a physical inspection whether a ram [is fertile], but you can learn a lot from his historical performance.”
Another feature that Van Wyk looks for in a ram is the shape of his hindquarters.

“The ram should have the correct posture for mounting a ewe. If he can’t mount easily, it means he has weak hindlimbs. I pay attention to this, as it’s easy to identify and allows you to eliminate potential problems with mating right from the start.”

Van Wyk adds that a ram should have a sound medical history and generally be in good condition. And once a farmer has bought a ram, it’s important to look after him well.

Van Wyk says he plans to purchase another ram in 2022. “As my flock grows, it becomes important to have the correct ram-to-ewe ratio. I currently have 55 ewes, and believe the best ratio is 25 ewes to a ram. A ram costs me about R6 000, although the same animal could be more expensive at an auction.”

Van Wyk says he will deal directly with a breeder to get the best ram for the best price. Van Wyk stresses that a farmer who wants to breed lambs needs to plan and manage the animals actively; it’s no good leaving them and hoping for the best. He allows the ram to be with the ewes for three weeks, after which he removes it and tests the ewes for pregnancy.

“It’s important for ewes, especially young ones, to have sufficient time to recover from the ram’s attention, and also to get used to the ram. I find that if the young ewes are too stressed by his presence, [they tend to abort more easily]. At the same time, the ram also needs time to recover and rebuild his condition before being placed with the ewes for mating.’’

Van Wyk gives his ewes two products: Ram Lamb en Ewe concentrated feed pellets, to help with milk production, and ORV Lactating (in small quantities), to help ensure good milk quality.

He separates in-lamb ewes from the flock and pays special attention to them. The ram is then reintroduced to the open ewes.

Van Wyk does not immediately cull ewes that fail to conceive, as there are many reasons why this could be the case. If he does cull ewes, he uses the money to buy more stock.

Inevitably, the severe drought in the area has affected him, but he manages the situation with a feed mixture of lucerne, maize, chaff and molasses meal, together with RumiStim feed cake as a supplement, which helps prevent bloat.

“The fluitjiesriet, ganna bush and salt bush in my river camp help a lot. Some farmers plant salt bush, but in my camp it grows naturally.”

Van Wyk says he is fortunate in that he needs to provide only a little feed; the sheep get all their additional nutrition from the veld. This has helped him farm profitably. In addition, he and the other commonage farmers also receive periodic feed donations, which help to reduce costs.

More success bekons
Van Wyk says his secret to performing well at the Lamb Carcass Competition was lamb selection and the feed provided in the months before the competition.

“About four months before the event, I selected 10 lambs and isolated them from the flock into a separate camp. I eventually entered the best four. I dosed them with Ralgro, which regulates the meat-to-fat ratio in lambs. There should be just enough fat, but not too much. Then I fed them ORV Skaap Wenstoet. It’s normally a conditioning product for rams, but for me it works very well on lambs.”

Van Wyk says any young person who wants to farm should simply go for it.

“You must be prepared to learn, and remember it’s something that takes a lot of time. The more you give of yourself, the more you’ll be rewarded. I took a leap of faith when I bought my first 20 ewes, but the Carcass Competition and the Young Ewe Auction showed me that I’m on course to become a successful farmer.”

Email Juhillin van Wyk at [email protected], or phone him on 060 350 0406.

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Wouter Kriel has more than 2 decades experience in the agricultural sector in a variety of roles: He was an olive farmer, he worked as a journalist for Farmers weekly, a Media Liaison Officer and a Stakeholder Manager to the Provincial Minister of Agriculture, (2009 to 2015), and as a Project Manager, tasked with the establishment of a Land Reform Advisory Desk for the Western Cape Department of Agriculture. (2015 to 2021)