Producing an award-winning Ile de France carcass

When one of your sheep takes first place in a major carcass competition dominated by other breeds, you are on the right track. Regina Harmse produces Ile de France on 300ha near Ermelo. On limited land, improving quality is non-negotiable, she told Gerhard Uys.

Producing an award-winning Ile de France carcass
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Regina Harmse and husband Wilco run a tight ship on their small farm, RCH Ile de France, near Ermelo, Mpumalanga. With about 1 000 Ile de France ewes split 50/50 between stud and commercial, they have to run an intensive hands-on operation to be profitable.

Regina initially started cross-breeding Ile de France with Merino ewes about 20 years ago by borrowing rams from a friend. She soon realised that Ile de France was the “Rolls-Royce breed” for crossbreeding and later started retaining cross-bred ewes as replacement ewes.

Regina and Wilco Harmse.

Ten years ago, the couple moved to a smaller piece of land where Regina established a stud flock. As the land could support only a limited number of sheep, she had to maximise their value.

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“We selected for blockier, meatier carcasses,” she recalls. “Ile de France sheep mature at an early age and lambs are slaughtered at between three-and-a-half to four months. Our goal is to produce quality slaughter lambs, as well as breeding stock for commercial sheep farmers and stud breeders. A sheep must not be high on the leg. Those with long legs mature late and take a long time to round off in a feedlot.”

Natural service vs artificial Insemination
Commercial ewes are mated naturally, but stud and maiden ewes are artificially inseminated.

The couple uses fresh semen and have their own equipment. Jacques Jansen van Vuuren from the National Wool Growers’ Association (NWGA) taught them this skill years ago. In the commercial flock, one ram serves 30 ewes.

For Regina, the ideal is a ewe with twins. A ewe can raise triplets, but these require additional care and particularly nutritious feed.

“When scanning for pregnancy, we separate the ewes carrying multiples from the others,” Regina explains.

“The rumen of such a ewe requires more space than that of one carrying a singleton, but less is in fact available. This means she must receive higher quality feed with less roughage. We separate these ewes and make sure they receive better feed.”

Artificial Insemination (AI) is used to speed up genetic progress as well as limit the cost of ewes lambing in lambing pens. Feed cost in the lambing pens is R2,51/kg, averaging R3,44/ewe/day. Artificially inseminated ewes also lamb within a week of one another, which facilitates management.

“AI takes more planning and management than natural mating does,” says Regina. “It also means less sleep and a lot of hard work.”

Ten days after AI, ewes that fail to conceive are put to a ram. After birth, all stud lambs are weighed and tagged. Rams used for breeding must comply with the breed standards: good confirmation, a round and full hindquarter, a large scrotum and a masculine head and face.

It is common practice to start flush feeding ewes two weeks before the breeding season, at a daily ration of 250g maize/ewe. Ewes receive a good lick (R2,60/kg) throughout the year at about 250g/ewe/day. In 2014, Regina and Wilco built a shed with 216 lambing pens to protect the sheep from the elements.

“It’s also for my own comfort. In the previous six years, the lambing pens were outside,” she says.

The standard lambing pen size is 1,5m x 1,5m, but Regina’s pens are 1,5m x 2m to cater for ewes with multiples. Regina has noted that ewes that pick up weight during mating are prone to produce twins. Those that lose or maintain weight seldom have twins. With flush feeding, the aim is to produce twins rather than to increase the conception rate.

“A ewe in poor condition will not conceive. Neither will an excessively fat ewe. We aim for a condition score of three out of five at the start of the mating season,” she says.

Young ewes are kept in intensive conditions from weaning age to mating, especially if the nutritional quality of the veld is low.

“This costs about R500/ ewe up to the point where her lamb is born,” explains Regina. “We do this to ensure that young ewes grow out well and that the conception rate is excellent with the first mating. These ewes also receive a feedlot ration, limited to 1kg/day, as well as weeping love grass (Eragrostis curvula) and headlands grass hay ad lib.

“We maintain the condition of the rams. They must be fit to serve the ewes, so we site the water trough at one end of a ram camp and the feed trough at the other end to force them to walk. Adding wheat germ oil to the diet improves the quality and quantity of a ram’s sperm.”

Wilco adds that their farm workers take the rams for daily 15-minute walks of 1,5km along a path around a camp. “Two weeks before putting them to the ewes, they walk the route twice a day, one lap in the morning and two in the afternoon. This means a ram covers 4,5km per day and keeps fit.”

Regina runs 12 feedlot camps with 100 to 150 sheep each. The total flock has a 10% replacement rate. Lambs receive a mix of Biominerals VMK40, maize and molasses meal from two weeks.

The same ration is used in the feedlot as creep feed and is also given to replacement ewes up until lambing. It costs R1,40/kg. Ewes must not receive feed that makes them grow too quickly, deposit fat too fast or fail to conceive.

pregnant ewes feeding
Regina says that the key to making profit on the farm is to sell pregnant ewes.

“We fatten our own lambs for market up to 50kg live weight to generate maximum profit,” says Regina. “They slaughter out at 53% and obtain an A2 classification. Feed cost, from lambing to slaughter, is about R62/lamb. If a ewe fails to conceive, we fatten her for slaughter.”

Regina runs two mating seasons – May and November. The sheep graze crop residue in May, and veld grass, poor man’s lucerne (Lespedeza cuneata) and forage sorghum in November. Lambs from the May breeding season are born in October and graze on veld and forage sorghum.

Those from the November breeding season are born in April when forage maize interplanted with soya beans as well as post-harvest crop residue is available for grazing. Wilco uses Roundup Ready cultivars.

Copper, selenium and phosphate are supplemented throughout the year as the veld is deficient in these elements.

“To keep the operation sustainable, we try to have three lands available for feed at all times,” Wilco explains.

“We fertilise sorghum with 5-3-2 at a rate of between 150kg/ ha and 170kg/ha. Crop residue is a crucial winter feed. Sheep also use maize and soya crop residue better than cattle can, because they’re able to pick up single kernels. This also helps eliminate volunteer plants.”

Additional fodder
The farm’s natural sourveld grazing capacity of around 5,5SSU/ha makes producing additional fodder essential. While Regina looks after the sheep grazing on veld, Wilco focuses on the forage crops, planting soya beans, maize and 40ha to 50ha forage sorghum during the summer months.

He plans to establish poor man’s lucerne in the veld to increase the grazing capacity. He also interplants fodder maize with soya beans on 5ha to 10ha as standing forage.

Winter feeding can be a problem on the farm. However, their neighbour, Beefmaster farmer Kerneels van Rensburg, helps by allowing Regina to graze her sheep on about 300ha of his crop residue after harvesting. Logistics and cost-saving are also priorities. They make feed distribution more manageable by packing it in 25kg bags.

“We tell our workers to give a certain number of bags, instead of a specific measurement that may be confusing,” explains Wilco. “We save on fertiliser costs by using feedlot manure on our lands. We haven’t calculated the savings, but can see that the lands do well on it.”

When the ewes have lambed, they are vaccinated against bluetongue.

“They aren’t susceptible to bluetongue in winter but we vaccinate nonetheless. We must do so once a year and can’t vaccinate pregnant ewes against bluetongue,” explains Regina.

She vaccinates against pulpy kidney when the sheep are dewormed and about to be moved to better pastures. This is six weeks before the breeding season. She also injects Multimin + Se + Cu, and intends carrying out trials with Byboost from Bayer this year.

Young rams are vaccinated with REV1 against Brucella ovis and young ewes against enzootic abortion.

“Dr Ben Potgieter helps us in times of crisis,” says Regina. “If there’s a major problem, we take a carcass to him for examination. He also tests rams for fertility. Dr Kobus Louw of Volksrust scans our ewes for pregnancy.” Lambs are weaned at two-and-a-half to three months and then put into the feedlot for seven to 30 days.

“To have a profitable sheep operation on a small piece of land, we must maximise the genetic potential of the flock. The Ile de France has high genetic reproduction and production potential. But this must be utilised through selection, good management and feeding.

“If we don’t feed well, the sheep won’t perform. Maximising meat and wool production by weaning more and heavier lambs is our most important driver of profit. But sheep farming really becomes economically efficient when one starts selling pregnant ewes.”

Stock theft, predators and political pressure are a challenge for sheep farmers. Flocks are becoming smaller, with some farmers even opting out of farming sheep. But Regina feels the industry is in a good place, with meat prices increasing and wool prices currently high.

“With current shortages, the sheep industry can contribute immensely,” she says. “We were afraid of buying a large piece of land. Now there isn’t any adjoining land available for expansion and the price of land is high. But we’re expanding vertically and improving the quality of our animals.”

Predators can be a problem. Ile de France lambs grow quickly and after a week the Cape fox (draaijakkals) is no longer a danger, but black-backed jackal and caracal do take larger sheep. Wilco is a member of the Predator Management Forum. Individual predators that become a problem on the farm are killed, the contents of their stomachs analysed and the data is submitted to Niel Viljoen of the NWGA.

The Harmses employ three permanent workers but temporarily employ extra people if required for work such as scanning for pregnancy.

“We have a great relationship with our workers who also love the animals and tell us if anything is amiss,” says Wilco.

“We also have a sound relationship with our neighbours and keep an eye out for each other. Good fences make good neighbours, and ours is fixed the moment we see a problem.”

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Gerhard Uys grew up as a real city lad, but spends his free time hiking and visiting family farms. He learnt the journalism trade as a freelance writer and photographer in the lifestyle industry, but having decided that he will be a cattle farmer by the age of 45 he now indulges his passion for farming by writing about agriculture. He feels Farmer’s Weekly is a platform for both developed and emerging farmers to learn additional farming skills and therefore takes the job of relaying practical information seriously.