Harnessing the dual-purpose potential of Merino ewes

Matthew Morgan of Tarkastad has developed his family farms vertically by establishing permanent mixed pastures for his 3 000 Merino ewes to lamb on. The excellence of his farming won him the title of 2019 Toyota-Agri Eastern Cape Young Farmer of the Year.

The ewes lamb on 100ha of permanent mixed pastures, of which 50ha are irrigated.
Photo: Mike Burgess

“Merinos are our pride and joy,” says Matthew Morgan (35), who returned home to farm near Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape with his late father, Jonathan, in 2009 before establishing his first pastures a year later.

“With the pastures, I tried to maximise the potential of existing land so that I could produce more lambs without a big capital outlay, such as buying a new farm.”

Today, with 100ha of pastures, Morgan has shifted from an almost exclusive focus on fine wool to a more balanced production of wool and store lambs that enables a ewe to generate an income of R1 500 a year for an expense of between R200 and R250.

Matthew Morgan at one of the pastures on which his ewes lamb in spring and autumn. Before returning to farm, he worked in Europe and obtained a business management qualification at Varsity College in Port Elizabeth.

Lambs and wool
Morgan’s dedication to the production of exceptional Merino lambs is symbolised by the replacement of wethers with productive ewes, despite the former’s significant contribution to wool volumes in the past.

“Yes, wethers are great bale fillers, but they spend the whole year not giving anything else [except wool] and taking up space on the veld,” he explains.

“Ewes can produce a lamb every year, which can be sold for the same value as a wether.”

In order to produce heavier lambs, he has concentrated on increasing the size of ewes to the current average of 50kg. Although this approach has seen his wool’s fibre diameter increase to between 18 and 19 microns, the clip still achieves prices 15% higher than the average achieved at most auctions.

Morgan was one of the first farmers in South Africa to produce wool worth R200/ kg a few years ago.

“We’ve focused on increasing the size of our ewes by growing them out more effectively and helping them with more feed at critical times, but they still produce a beautiful fleece,” he says.

The shearing of 12-month wool takes place in September. The clip has a staple length of over 90mm, a clean yield of 73% to 75% (largely due to the climate and good grass cover in the Winterberg), and a tensile strength of 40 Newtons per kilotex.

These impressive traits contribute to a uniquely marketable wool clip that sets it apart on the auction floor, which is a considerable advantage when markets are depressed, says Morgan.

“We produce a type and quality of wool that’s unique to the market. Even in tough markets, it will give you a little more than the average price.”

Pastures
Although Morgan partnered with local farmer Dave Miller to purchase 920ha, half of which are farmed independently by Morgan, he has focused on the vertical development of the family farms of Ventnor and Redcliffe (collectively 3 200ha) with pastures.

The process started in 2010, when he began converting old lucerne lands (he believes lucerne is not suited to the area due to a lack of heat units) to permanent mixed pastures of cocksfoot, fescue, rye clovers, and certain legumes. He has increased these pastures over the years and today has a total of 100ha, of which 50ha are under Permaset irrigation.

Importantly, 90% of the irrigated pastures are gravity-fed, and he plans to convert an extra 5ha to 10ha of pastures to irrigation every year at a cost of R45 000/ha.

Morgan places great emphasis on soil health. He carries out soil samples to ascertain exactly what nutrients each land requires, rather than applying blanket fertilising. He also uses as much organic fertiliser, such as manure, as possible to ensure healthy microbial activity in the soil.

Mating and lambing
Only natural mating is practised in the flock. Morgan uses a stud of 500 ewes to produce self-bred rams, and also buys rams from breeders with similar selection goals to his. A total of 2 500 ewes (including 500 stud animals), are mated to lamb in spring, and 500 ewes in autumn, in five-week mating seasons.

The conception rate is an impressive 130%, with about one in six ewes producing twins. All mature ewes that fail to conceive are culled, but two-tooth ewes are given another chance in the autumn lambing season. If they do not conceive again, they are culled.

Morgan provides support to the ewes before, during and after mating. For example, a month before mating starts, he places the ewes into rested camps with a high-energy lick (ad lib) and doses them with a vitamin and mineral supplement.

Rams receive a similar pre-breeding regime. Each camp has two sources of clean water to help ensure a favourable conception rate and good lamb development.

Once the rams are removed from the ewes after five weeks, the latter receive a protein lick with salt to regulate intake.

Six to eight weeks prior to lambing, the protein lick is replaced with a production lick. Lambing takes place on the pastures in different age groups, and ewes with twins are managed separately.

Weaning 
Morgan aims to wean lambs as quickly as possible to give the ewes a longer rest period before going back to the ram. To achieve weaning in the first week of January, when lambs weigh on average 20kg, he provides creep feed to the lambs.

“We get them to start nibbling and get their rumen working, not only so that they grow fast alongside their mothers, but also to get them accustomed to the feed at weaning,” he says.

The Merinos achieve a 100% weaning rate despite losses to cold weather and predators.

Morgan employs a trained huntsman, who uses a pack of dogs and the latest technology, including Garmin tracking collars, and this has significantly decreased lamb losses to predators.

Ram lambs are marketed when they reach an average weight of 30kg to 35kg, while ewe lambs are retained to ensure a broad genetic base for selection.

“With more replacements, we can place more pressure on selection in the breeding flock and be strict on culling,” he says.