Categories: Sheep & Goats

Merino farming in their blood

Merino SA president Julian Southey talks to Heather Dugmore about the need to be adaptable and to change farming practices…

“It’s all about being adaptable, moving with the times and acquiring new knowledge to meet changing economic needs,” says Merino SA president Julian Southey.

“There’s no place for doing things a certain way ‘because that’s how we’ve always done things’ when the old ways are no longer appropriate,” he adds.

When he talks about his farming enterprise near Middelburg in the Karoo, this fourth generation Merino farmer makes sure you know that Trish, his wife of 37 years, is a key partner in the business.

Comprising 3 000 commercial and 500 stud ewes, this is a true family business that has grown to include the couple’s sons, Robert (35), Stuart (33) and their families.

And like a true Merino man, Julian regards the Merino as “the best true dual purpose breed available today.” Merinos are larger, stronger and more economically viable than ever before, he adds.

“Over the past 30 years, Merino breeders have evolved the ‘modern Merino’ into an animal with a wool-to-meat ratio of about 30:70.

“This obviously varies according to the region, but it illustrates the change,” says Julian, adding that when he joined his father on the farm in 1972, their core business was wool.

“Our whole emphasis back then was on shearing 6kg to 7kg of wool per ewe per year and on weaning 85% to 95% of the lambs. Today, we shear 4,5kg to 5kg of wool a year, wean 100% to 130% of our lambs – depending on whether they’re on veld or irrigated pasture – and our core business is lamb.”

Meat and wool
Julian’s 6 500ha family farm, Manor Holme, dates back to 1860. He lives here with his wife Trish, while Stuart lives on nearby Southfield (1 500ha) and Robert on Lucernedale (1 400ha).

They farm as a unit, and have an additional 200ha-plus under irrigation with Orange River water. Of this, 70ha is under centre-pivot, 25ha under dragline and the rest is laser-levelled flood irrigated lands, which cuts water use by 30%.

They lamb one third in March/April and two-thirds in September/October. About 3 500 animals are sold each year – a combination of old ewes, hamel lambs, ram lambs and surplus twotooth ewes – aiming for the seasonal peaks in early December (for Christmas), July/August (mid-winter) and February/March (for Easter).

The meat is marketed through two private livestock agents, and through BKB and CMW. Wool is marketed through BKB. In September and January, rams are offered for sale on the farm and at the sales of the Eastern Cape Veld Ram Club.

Sustainability
“Our agents keep us informed about market prices,” says Julian. “I focus on productivity and market demand, in combination with quality, whereas my father focused on the quality of wool.”

Still, Julian believes that fathers and grandfathers teach you the basics. “Too many farmers today try to farm from behind their computers. No computer can teach you to be a good stockman.

“However,” he continues, “while my forebears knew a lot about many valuable things, they didn’t know about the sustainability of the veld and the sensitivity of the Karoo.

“They saw themselves as stock farmers and they had a huge amount of stock – double what I have today. That’s why, if you look at photos from the 1940s and 1950s, you see extensive bare patches and ‘short Karoo’.

“We’ve rehabilitated the veld and, as a result, have wonderful grasslands and vleis. Rather than stock farmers, we see ourselves as managers of the veld, using sheep and cattle to convert that veld to meat and fibre.

“It’s a mindshift that we, as a family, have made since the mid-2000s when we started understanding holistic farming practices,” adds Julian. This happened after they attended the first of several courses offered by Resource Consulting Services (RCS) in South Africa.

RCS is a farmer education and training programme founded by Terry McCosker in Australia. “We started understanding how to manage the animal’s stomach to best utilise the veld throughout the year,” explains Julian.

“For example, we used to think that when the grass turned white in winter it was of no use as grazing, but we now know it’s a valuable resource if used properly in combination with licks, such as the McCosker Brew that stimulates the growth of rumen bacteria.”

Excess grass when rainfall is good is also useful. With all the rain in the Karoo last year, the grass grew abundantly come summer – and Julian bought in weaners and hamel lambs to make use of this resource while it lasted.

“I bought in lambs at between 25kg and 30kg and took them up to 40kg and 45kg before selling them,” he recalls. Over the past couple of months he has been buying in lighter weaners (weighing less than 25kg) and selling them at 35kg, because the feedlots lack supply.

This is due to Rift Valley fever (RVF) and the 2009 drought, and feedlots have been paying almost R1 000/ lamb for weaners, explains Julian.

“At the same time, while R1 000 sounds exorbitant, compared to R6/ lamb in the late 1960s, our margins are shrinking and our expenses are much higher. Just look at the cost of diesel and electricity,” he adds.

He follows the same principles with his herd of 180 Sussex cows. “I like English breeds, because they’re smallframed, calve well and have proven to be hardy on our veld,” he says.

Trials
The family hasn’t yet “arrived” in its farming business, he hastens to add. “We’ve simply learnt some basic principles that, when applied correctly, have helped us farm more successfully.”

Julian says they’ve had the same problems as everyone else. Last year, for example, they lost 80% of their autumn lamb crop to RVF. It was his second experience of the disease. “The previous RVF epidemic hit us in 1974. We inoculated from then until 2003, when we thought we could stop. Then it hit again and last year was an expensive lesson,” he says.

Instead of panicking, however, Julian and his sons developed an immunisation programme in consultation with their vet and Grootfontein Agricultural College.

“As soon as we were past the safety zone we put the rams back in, despite it being the middle of winter and despite being totally out of our traditional mating cycle,” explains Julian.

“In a crisis you sometimes have to forget about traditional cycles. We’re now back in cycle and have recovered all those lambs. It sounds easy, but it wasn’t.”

Like all farmers, he’s concerned about the Clone 13 debate and hopes the new vaccines will be trouble-free. “Perhaps we need to think about putting in a direct order from Ondestepoort, because there’s such a long chain from there to the co-ops to our fridges,” he notes.

This, like so much about farming, comes down to good management. “Farming is absolutely hands on, there’s no getting away from it. For example, many farmers don’t look after their boundary fences today, but this as an essential part of predator control,” says Julian. 

He says that well-maintained boundary fences are a major part of his weaning success. He doesn’t trap or use poison. Instead, he uses Anatolians, adding that he’s had some wonderful guard dogs and some duds. Of late, he’s also introduced Alpacas.

“I believe in trying new things, even if it sometimes leads to error – that’s how you learn,” he says. Fortunately, there hasn’t been too much error this year. “We’re having an incredible season with the meat prices and the recovery of the wool,” explains Julian.

“The wool pipeline is empty, accentuated by Australia’s losses from last year’s drought. There’s big demand and as farmers we must take advantage of it.”

Contact Julian Southey on 082 579 0488 or email julian@adsactive.com.

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