It is a tall order to manage 600 in-lamb ewes carrying twins and not suffer any losses. This was the main reason that Theron Swanepoel, his brother, Thian, and father, Adam, owners of Mooihoek Merinos near Smithfield in the Free State, began exploring an intensive lambing system more than a decade ago.
The system is not designed to accelerate lambing so that the ewes lamb more than once a year, neither does it involve intensive production, where the ewes are fed constantly. Rather, it is designed to maximise income or weaning rate per hectare.
“I don’t think lambing pens will work for everyone,” says Swanepoel. “It must fit into your farming and management system and, most importantly, make a difference in your farming operation.”
Introduction of lambing pens
Swanepoel and his brother knew they wanted to return to the farm Mooihoek after finishing their studies, but they realised they would have to make the business more sustainable.
“We looked at those 600 ewes and saw we’d have to move towards something semi-intensive to increase the weaning percentage,” says Swanepoel. At the time, the weaning percentage was around 100%.
While Swanepoel only joined the farm full-time in 2014, and his brother only returned in 2011, both were involved with the initial stages of implementing the intensive production system in 2006 while they were still at school, working on the farm during weekends and holidays.
They started off by establishing about 20 smaller 1ha camps around the homestead.
“We put the ewes in there and definitely saw a difference in the weaning percentage.”
While this increase in weaning percentage could be attributed to a significant reduction in losses due to predation, Swanepoel says the lambing pens allow for better management, preventing lambs being separated from their mothers and detecting any problems before they become too big.
In 2007, they introduced lambing pens and started with about 40 outdoor pens. By 2008 they had increased this to 200 pens, and thereafter doubled the number to 400 pens, all still out in the open.
While the system resulted in better weaning percentages, it also came with its share of problems. One of these problems was the rainy season.
“Rain became a problem, because when you’re offloading 2,4t of feed a day, and it gets wet, you lose a relatively large amount [of feed].”
Nonetheless, they stuck with the open-air system for about five years before deciding to establish lambing pens undercover and implement an automatic feeding system.
The installation of the lambing complex was not cheap, but by designing and building the pens themselves, the Swanepoels managed to keep costs down.
The complex comprises a 25m x 100m steel shed with 600 individual pens divided into three sections of 200 pens each.
It has open sides to promote good ventilation, but also has canvas drop sheets that can be rolled down in bad weather.
The Swanepoels also installed automatic water lines, as well as feed lines, which run from the silo to a dispenser in each pen.
“It’s basically a pig production feeding system. You set the dispenser to the quantity you want to feed each ewe and it fills to the point where it has a sensor that stops it,” he says.
Each pen is made of pallets. The raised floor enables manure to fall through onto the canvas strips beneath.
These are pulled out from the sides, and the manure is collected into bags for removal.
The pens themselves are not cleaned while the ewe is inside, except to remove the placenta after the ewe has lambed.
Initially, the Swanepoels used pine shavings in the pens but converted to the raised flooring as it keeps the ewes cleaner and is more hygienic, says Swanepoel.
To save money, the pallet floors were raised on bricks rather than increasing the height of the entire steel structure.
“If you’re going to raise it, make sure it’s high enough to enable a small tractor to get in underneath to clean. Then you can also save on labour,” he advises.
They implement strict biosecurity measures and ensure that all necessary disinfecting is done during and between cycles.
“There are footbaths and hand disinfectants that must be used before entering [the shed],” Swanepoel says.
Constructing the 600 pens cost around R2 200 each. This included the levelling of the site, the shed, the pens themselves, the feed system, water lines and lighting.
“We’d aimed to pay it off in three years, but with the increase in the number of lambs weaned, we managed to pay it off in two-and-a-half years,” he says.
The pens are only one part of a precision system that relies on good animal husbandry, careful attention to nutrition and health elements, performance management and accurate record-keeping.
Swanepoel says the programme starts eight weeks ahead of breeding, when he begins work on the rams. Rams used for laparoscopy are almost permanently stabled and have excellent semen quality, quantity and volume.
“We regularly perform laparoscopy in groups of 800 and have realised that using rams that have been well cared for eight weeks prior to the time results in ewes with better conception rates and a higher percentage of twins.”
When it comes to the ewes, they start flush-feeding 21 days before breeding to encourage egg production, depending on the condition of the animals.
“We are not going to waste money feeding an ewe that is in appropriate condition, with a body score of three or more.”
The ewes are sponged to synchronise their oestrus cycles, and are then given the supplements Ovimin and Bioboost.
He believes the six weeks prior to lambing are one of the most important periods on which farmers must focus. He adds that one of the worst mistakes made by producers is taking the ewe off the veld, putting her in a pen and immediately placing her on a full ration or high-protein concentrate.
“Her rumen has not had a chance to adapt and she starts lactating, loses milk, and you then end up with lamb mortalities.”
The rumen needs at least 21 days to adapt, he says.
“Six weeks before lambing, we start them on a full-feed system, beginning with about 300g and gradually increasing this to about 1,2kg just before they go into the lambing pens.”
At this stage they are also injected with a clostridial vaccine and vaccinated against pasteurella.
The ewes are also dosed three weeks before they go into the pens after mating or insemination.
Once they have lambed, ewes with single lambs stay in the pens for three to five days.
Those with multiples remain in the pens for five to seven days. They are then transferred to small camps next to the shed for another one to two days to allow additional time for bonding with their lambs.
Swanepoel says a common mistake farmers make is to put the ewes and their newborn lambs straight out into grazing camps in big groups.
Lambs are marked on their ears with a colour marker system and later have radio-frequency identification tags attached to their ears.
From day 14, they have access to creep feed until they are weaned at 32kg at around 110 days. They eat a total of 12kg to 15kg each over this period.
Swanepoel says each ewe is expected to lamb once a year, and he reiterates that the farming operation is not pursuing an accelerated lambing system.
“We did test it at one stage. It can be done but then you sacrifice wool length and quality.”
Lambing takes place between July and October. This is because they had to spend more on feeding to get good conception rates when trying to get the ewes to lamb outside of the normal breeding season. There are about seven groups of ewes lambing every year.
“Last year, we put about 3 200 ewes through the pens. We expect to put about 4 000 ewes through the pens this year.”
They have improved their weaning rate by an average of 4% every year, and it currently stands at 138%. Their lamb mortality rate is 3%. “We aim to keep this below 3,5%, so we are satisfied with this,” he says.