Bergplaas Merino Stud: lessons that keep it in the lead

In 2013, Farmer’s Weekly reported on the Bergplaas Merino Stud in the Eastern Cape. Gavin Isted recently paid the farm another visit in recognition of its 80th anniversary, and to see what progress the award-winning stud has made over the past few years.

Bergplaas Merino Stud
Three hundred stud ewes are mated in March every year using laparoscopic insemination.
Photo: Bergplaas Merino Stud

The Bergplaas Merino Stud near Barkly East was established 81 years ago by Frikkie Nel and is managed today by his grandson, Stefan.

Frikkie amazed the industry in 1975 when he bought a stud ram for R8 000 (about R361 000) at the SA National Merino Ram Sale in Bloemfontein; this was the second-highest price ever paid for a Merino stud ram at that point.

Stefan has a passion for Merinos. He started farming with his father Dawie on their farm, Bergplaas, in 1986. In 1990, his father gave him 200 ewes to start his own farming operation.

The original family farm, Prospect, has been in the Nel family since 1885. This and another farm, Upper Prospect, total 1 562ha. Stefan has also hired the farm, Kopshoring, for many years.

Grazing and rainfall

The area is mountainous, and its height above sea level varies between 1 790m and 2 240m. Winter temperatures are usually low, with fairly regular snowfall and freezing night temperatures of down to -15°C. The summers are cool to moderate, with the temperature seldom exceeding 32°C.

Most grazing is found on the mountain slopes. It is mixed, with south-facing slopes covered with unpalatable species such as wire grass (Elionurus muticus) and mountain wire grass (Merxmuellera disticha).

The northern slopes contain more palatable grasses such as red grass (Themeda triandra), Setaria species such as S. flabellata (small creeping foxtail) and Eragrostis species such as weeping love grass (E. curvula) and curly leaf grass (E. chloromelas). The average grazing capacity is 1,5SSU/ha or 1MLU/5ha.

The average annual rainfall is 700mm, and most of this occurs between September and March. The past three years have been extremely dry, with 2015 the driest year ever recorded.

The Nels’ farms have 5km of frontage on the Langkloof River, and this supplies water for watering points for the sheep. On the higher mountain camps, fountains supply water to troughs and small dams.

The farms have a total of 120ha of arable land. The lands under irrigation vary in size from 2ha to 7ha. Stefan has a Bauer sprayer for irrigation and moves this as required from one land to the next. These lands are planted to a mixture of rye and lucerne. The soil is a Basaltic black, clay loam type.

Stefan plants oats and rye for green feed on dryland, and has about 110ha of dryland planted to lucerne.

Breeding, lambing and sale rams

Three hundred stud ewes are mated every year during the month of March by using laparoscopic insemination.

Stefan selects two to four of his best young stud rams for this purpose. This ensures steady progress in the stud. The mated ewes are tested to determine whether they conceived after six weeks, and those in-lamb with multiple lambs are marked for extra attention.

The flock ewes are group- mated in April by natural means. For this, selected rams are used at a rate of three rams for every 100 ewes. The flock ewes are mated for 21 days only: any ewe that does not produce a lamb is culled.

The lambing season commences in August. Ewes in-lamb with multiple lambs are placed in lambing pens erected in a shed and given a complete feed ration; this strategy of favouring multiple-birth ewes has proven its worth in the subsequent increase in lamb numbers.

Ewes carrying single lambs are kept in small groups in the lands near the farmhouse.

Most years, the stud has a conception rate of between 93% and 98%, with 40% to 65% of in-lamb ewes producing two or three lambs.

These figures vary from year to year and are influenced by farming conditions and the previous lactation. The lambs are normally weaned at 105 to 110 days of age.

Sale rams are kept on grass and rye pastures until two weeks before the sale date, when they are sheltered in a shed at night. This is mainly to prevent their wool from being spoilt.

BLUP is not used in the stud at this stage, but is being considered for the future.

Throughout the year, all the sheep are given a homemade salt lick once a week.

Lucerne 2017bales and maxi-blocks are fed to in-lamb ewes two to three weeks before they are due to lamb. Stefan does not believe in pampering and overfeeding the sheep.

Shearing and dosing 

Shearing takes place in cycles: in October with the sheep having 12 months’ length of wool in one year; at the end of April, with the sheep having seven months’ length of wool the following year; and again in November, with the sheep having seven months’ length of wool.

This is done in alternate cycles, so that a 12-month length of wool is sheared every two years. The wool averages between 19 and 21 microns, which gives Stefan the best weight:price ratio with an average of 68% to 72% clean fleece yield. However, this yield varies according to weather and veld conditions.

Dosing is carried out in October at shearing and again in March before the mating season, and is aimed mainly at preventing wireworm and nasal worm.

Stefan prefers using a broad spectrum vaccine on all his sheep and dosing all the sheep at once. Dipping for lice and ticks is done with a plunge dip after shearing in summer.

Predation has also proved a problem over the past two years, with ewes and their newborn lambs attracting both black-backed jackal and lynx.

Many awards

The Bergplaas Merino Stud produces a type of Merino that does well on grass veld. It also has little variation throughout the stud, with robust body conformation and good, medium wool.

Another of the stud’s keys to success has been its consistency in delivering sheep that demonstrate outstanding adaptability.

The stud is well known in the Eastern Cape, having won many awards at shows in the area.
Stefan has produced an SA Champion Merino Ram and an SA Champion Merino Ewe in the SA Merino Classics Show in the Veld Merino Section.

He also has a successful production sale every year with the highest sale averages in the Merino industry.

Bergplaas Merinos recently did exceptionally well at the 2017 Merino Classics in Bloemfontein. Among the top achievements were: Champion Ewe 2017: Heavyweight, and Champion Ram 2017: Heavyweight.

The Bergplaas Merino annual sale takes place every year at the end of January on Prospect farm near Barkly East.

Advice to beginners

Stefan has sound advice for young breeders.

“Accept that stud breeding is a very slow process, so exercise patience and learn from other breeders. Become involved with other stud breeders and keep good relationships with flock breeders. Never think you know it all. Be committed and dedicated and have passion. Build a strong network by visiting your clients and keeping them happy. Use social media to the best of your ability.”

In this regard, Stefan’s wife, Dassie, has started a small business to assist stud breeders establish an online presence with their own basic website and on social media.

The family has a passion for the Merino breed and its wool. They have even started the Bergplaas Woollies business which uses 100% Merino wool to make duvets, pillow inners, throws and a range of other handmade products.

Stefan and Dassie’s two children, Stefan Jr (21) and Christi (19), are involved in every process and the success of the stud.

Email Stefan Nel at [email protected], or phone him on 082 443 5134.