Unlocking the potential of the Merino Landsheep

The Merino Landsheep is rapidly gaining popularity in South Africa due to the breed’s impressive performance in the feedlot as well as its value as a dual-purpose meat and wool sheep. Merino Landsheep stud breeder Ben du Plessis spoke to Annelie Coleman.

Unlocking the potential of the Merino Landsheep
The Merino Landsheep breed is known for exceptional growth, even temperament, top wool production, and adaptability.
Photo: Annelie Coleman
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Ben du Plessis, president of the Merino Landsheep Breeders’ Society of South Africa, started his Roebella Landsheep stud in 1987 while still at school. His grandfather, Roelf du Plessis, and later his father, Dirk, both ran Merino Landsheep studs.

“I started the Roebella stud in 1987 and began farming full-time in 1991. Later, I also took over my father Dirk’s Verdeeld Landsheep stud,” recalls Du Plessis.

He now runs both stud herds, informally known as the Du Plessis stud, on the farms Verdeeld and Saaiplaas, situated along the Renoster River near Koppies in the Free State.

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Du Plessis says that the outstanding characteristics of the Landsheep are the breed’s temperament, superb carcass quality, top performance in feedlots, and excellent wool.

According to him, the Landsheep suffered from a number of breeding mistakes in the late 1990s, and this saw a decline in the breed’s popularity in South Africa. The most significant error was placing too much focus on larger carcasses.

Ben Du Plessis regards his two sheepdogs Tippie and Spot as his trusted companions and highly valued assets, as he manages his Landsheep stud single-handedly.

However, this has since been rectified, and Du Plessis believes that the breed is now regaining its rightful place amongst South Africa’s livestock breeds.

Breed numbers have increased noticeably in recent years due to the fact that breeders decided to focus selection on increasing muscling.

As breeders started to rectify the poor selection criteria of the past, interest in the breed was revived and the Merino Landsheep Breeders’ Society now has more than 4 700 registered animals (compared with 2 600 about six years ago) belonging to 28 stud breeders and 26 commercial breeders.

From Germany to SA
The Landsheep originated in Germany and the first shipment of the breed – six rams and 60 ewes – were imported to South Africa by a group of Free State farmers in 1956.

According to Du Plessis, the breed adapted well to local extensive farming conditions, and is today bred across most provinces, and under a variety of conditions, from poor, natural mid-mountain grazing regions to planted pastures, as well as the arid Northern Cape and the rugged Eastern Cape.

Du Plessis says the breed is notable for its exceptional growth and fertility, meat quality and top feedlot performance. In addition, it has even fat distribution on the carcass, as well as a body frame of good length and depth. This means increased production of high-end cuts such as leg of mutton/lamb and back chops.

“Research has shown that a Landsheep carcass can produce up to six more back chops than other dual-purpose breeds in South Africa.”

He adds that two-thirds of the income derived from a sheep carcass comes from the high-end cuts.

Meat sheep qualities
The breed has an extended growth period, which supports its exceptional body length and ensures the even distribution of fat. It usually reaches the end of the growth period at the two-tooth stage.

In trials run by the Agricultural Research Council comparing six sheep breeds, the Landsheep achieved the second-best overall feed conversion rate (FCR).

“This adds to the profitability of the breed. Over the years, the Landsheep has proven its value as an economically sound breed over and over again. We regularly market seven- to eight-month-old lambs at as much as 80kg with an A3 grading,” says Du Plessis.

The Du Plessis stud comprises 400 ewes in production and is kept on mixed sweetveld dominated by red grass (Themeda triandra) grazing in summer. The farms are divided into 17 camps ranging from 5ha to 80ha. Grazing also includes some 40ha planted to fodder sorghum and sugar graze. The young sheep are kept on planted pastures in autumn.

According to Du Plessis, the sweet thorn (Vachellia karroo) dotted on the farm is a valuable additional feed source. The ewes and young animals have access to a production lick throughout the year, and maize is supplied when needed at a rate of 300g/ sheep/ day, depending on veld condition.

The flock is moved to the maize stover during winter. Du Plessis plants 245ha to maize to be used mainly as animal feed, with the remainder of the harvest being marketed commercially.

The lambs are weaned on the veld at 90 to 100 days, when they weigh 30kg on average, and rounded off in the on-farm feedlot. Because Du Plessis runs the farming concern without help, the feedlot is designed in such a way that it can be managed effectively by one person.

“My father designed the system. The maize is harvested directly into a trailer on the lands, from where it is transferred by means of an auger to a hammer mill fitted on a mixing trailer. After the feedlot rations have been mixed, it is moved via the auger directly into self-feeders in the feedlot,” he says.

Du Plessis puts the ram weaners through a phase D test after weaning to identify those with the best growth potential. Poor growers and animals not meeting official breed standards are sold, while the rest are kept on the veld until they reach maturity.

He eventually selects rams from the mature animals to be rounded off for auction.

Du Plessis takes part in the annual All Breed Auction in Ermelo in Mpumalanga, as well as the National Landsheep Auction in Bloemfontein. He also holds a production sale on the farm every year in February.

Sheep in the feedlot maintain an average daily gain (ADG) of about 400g. Du Plessis uses Telwiedrè Voere sheep concentrate as well as maize produced on the farm for the feedlot ration. The average slaughter weight for weaners at about five months is between 27kg and 28kg. When he first started the feedlot in 1991, the ADG stood at 350g.

“We actively started selecting for growth and ADG in 2001 to add optimal value to the sheep, and the results have been positive,” he says.

According to Du Plessis, the economic realities of farming in South Africa are such that farmers have to add value on as many levels as possible to remain profitable.

“That’s why we use the feedlot rather than marketing directly after weaning.”

Good carcass yield
The feedlot sheep are kept on a total mixed ration for 60 days. They are divided into groups of 50 to prevent undue competition at the self feeders and are weighed every two weeks.

Du Plessis does not market animals weighing less than 50kg, but rapid growers can weigh as much as 70kg after 60 days. The average slaughter-out percentage exceeds 53%.

The production cost for feedlot animals amounts to R300 per sheep for the 60 days. Each animal requires 75kg of feed over the period.

The ideal is to market the weaners after two months but should the prices be too low, the animals can comfortably be kept back because of the flock’s excellent ADG, extended growth and inherent carcass quality.

Du Plessis says it is these qualities that make the Landsheep a serious contender in the sheep breeding arena.

Breeding management
Three lambing seasons are spread out over two years, with the ewes lambing in March, June and October. Du Plessis prefers the ewes to start lambing before they are two years old.

The flock maintains a weaning percentage of between 120% and 130%, but percentages as high as 180% have been recorded in high- rainfall years.

The stud maintains an average inter-lambing period of about 300 days and the lambs are weaned at between 42 days and 60 days. The ewes are mated while still suckling lambs.

One ram is used for every 30 to 40 ewes. In-lamb ewes are kept apart but are divided into two groups after lambing. Ewes with multiple lambs are divided into groups of up to 15, while single-lamb ewes are divided into groups of up to 50.

The groups are kept in small camps around the homestead for easier management. As the lambs grow stronger, the groups of ewes are merged and moved to the veld depending on the lambs’ condition, but the move usually takes place when the lambs are about a week old.

“Landsheep are excellent mothers and are particularly aggressive towards predators. I firmly believe this adds markedly to our high weaning percentages. We nevertheless kraal the ewes and lambs at night to protect them against black-backed jackal and caracal,” says Du Plessis.

The flock produces good- quality, soft-handling wool without colour or kemp. It is less than 25 microns in diameter and the average staple length is 75mm. The average income derived from the 2019 clip was R230 per sheep.

Although he manages the sheep single-handedly, Du Plessis admits he could not do so without his trusted sheepdogs, Tippie and Spot. They are not only worth their weight in gold as far as flock management is concerned, but also keep him company.

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Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.