Unique merino stud thrives in harsh conditions

Father-and-son team Hansie and Johan Sauer’s Droogfontein Merino Stud is doing exceptionally well in one of the harshest areas in the northern
Eastern Cape. Gavin Isted paid them a visit.

Young stud rams on green feed on Droogfontein.
Photo: Gavin Isted

Hansie Sauer’s father, Johannes, started the Droogfontein Merino Stud in 1945 by selecting 100 of his best flock ewes and then buying rams from Oscar Southey in Steynsburg. In 1969, Hansie took over the stud and a year later, Johannes retired to Jamestown, leasing the farm to his son. In 1974, Hansie bought the farm from his father. The homestead on Droogfontein is situated at an altitude of 1 150m while the mountain tops reach 1 780m.

Most of the grazing is mixed grassland, the mountainous veld on the south-facing slopes being covered with unpalatable grass species such as wire grass (Elionurus muticus)and mountain wire grass (Merxmuellera disticha) with odd patches of turpentine grass (Cymbopogon spp.). The northern slopes contain more palatable grasses such as Red Grass (Themeda triandra), Setaria species such as small creeping foxtail (S. flabellata) and Digitaria species such as Smuts finger grass (Digitaria eriantha).

The mountains also have a fair amount of resin bush (Euryops spp.) and odd patches of renoster bush (Elytropappus). Problem plants are cactus, mostly at the base of the mountain areas, and black wattle trees (Acacia mearnsii) invading the water courses. Controlling invasive alien vegetation is a continual, labour-intensive and backbreaking task.

The farm Droogfontein comprises two sections: the original 960ha section bought by Hansie from his father and a 340ha section purchased in 2012. It has no arable land and is very mountainous. Droogfontein has a total of 100ha of arable land, of which 16ha is under supplementary irrigation from a weir in a nearby seasonal stream. A small movable centre pivot can irrigate another 3,2ha. The irrigated lands include 8ha triticale (PAN 299) and 8ha lucerne.


Johan Sauer and his father, Hansie, who has been farming on Droogfontein since 1969.

Hansie and Johan, who joined his father on the farm three years ago, also grow dryland triticale (PAN 299) and Matlabas wheat on 72ha, and dryland lucerne on 12ha. The average carrying capacity of the farm is 1ha/ SSU or 6ha/MLU. The farm uses 40 cows to top the tall grass while Sussex bulls serve the commercial Beefmaster-type cow herd. The sheep component is made up of 380 stud ewes, 420 flock ewes and 200 rams, including young ones.

In 1982, Hansie started taking some of his stud rams to the SA Merino National Ram Sales in Bloemfontein. He continued until 2004 when the sale was moved to Middelburg in the Western Cape. He has presented his own annual production sale on the farm since 2005. The stud is well-known for its excellent conformation and regularly wins show classes where sheep are judged on this criterion.

Breeding

  • Mating ewes: Half of the ewes are artificially inseminated, with the balance naturally mated. The breeding season lasts for 30 days at a 1:50 ratio in single-sire flocks for foolproof paternity confirmation. Approximately 80% of the ewes are mated in March and 20% in November. The stud no longer needs corrective mating. Six weeks after mating, the ewes are scanned to confirm pregnancy, determine which ewes fell pregnant within the first two weeks, and discover which are carrying multiples. Maiden and adult ewes are treated slightly differently.
  • First-cycle ewes: Each ewe that scans positive for pregnancy in the first two weeks of mating is marked with a blue dot on the rump. If she is carrying twins, she receives two dots; if triplets, three dots.
  • Second-cycle ewes: Ewes that scan positive for pregnancy after the first four weeks of mating are marked with a green dot on the rump. Those with twins receive two dots and those with triplets get three dots. Ewes that fail to conceive are culled but maidens receive a second chance. Old ewes that skip also get a second chance provided that they have not skipped before. Old ewes failing to perform sufficiently on BLUP (best linear unbiased prediction) – EPI (ewe production index) are culled. Hansie says that he takes bad years into consideration; under such conditions he is not so harsh in selection and all pregnant ewes receive special attention.

After lambing, ewes with twins and triplets are put into holding pens for two days. Those with twin lambs get 500g lamb and ewe cubes daily while the lambs receive creep feed. The ewes with single lambs get only green feed, mostly farm-grown rye.
After weaning, all the lambs are put on the veld with a production lick. At 12 months, local inspectors class, judge and allocate the lambs BLUP points on conformation and wool.


The Sauers also keep 40 cows to top the tall grass on the farm.

Breeding policy
Hansie and Johan follow a conservative approach. Animals must not have extreme wool traits such as too much wool, or wool that is too strong. They prefer big strong ewes with +3 on BLUP figures and wool of around 20µ, while young ewes should have wool of around 17µ at 12 to 15 months. They breed sheep with good conformation that achieves maximum production on “hard and difficult” mountain veld farms.

The Droogfontein environment provides the natural selection that carries over from the ewes to the rams. The sheep are not pampered; those that do not make it are culled. The average liveweight for old ewes is between 60kg and 65kg and the average weaning liveweight 30kg to 35kg at 90 to 105 days.

Using BLUP as ram selection guide
No sheep with a wool conformation allocation of below seven out of nine points is selected for the stud flock. The stud uses only rams with a relative economic value (REV) of around R40. Body weight average must be at least 2,5, wool weight average 0,250, wool micron between 18µ and 20µ, and wool length average with a figure of above 1,5mm.

Lambs are normally shorn from 13 to 18 months and performance-tested. During the final selection process, BLUP figures are combined with the hand and eye method. For the past three years, the stud ewes have achieved a fecundity rate (average lambs born per ewe) of 1,40, 1,41 and 1,62 respectively. The stud ram Basics achieved gold merit status in 2014.

Shearing, doping and dipping
Sheep are machine-shorn in January, May and September when the weather is normally favourable. Shearing three times a
year provides a better cash flow and saves on having to crutch ewes before lambing. It also helps the sheep cope better in winter as, with shorter wool, they carry less weight. The clean yield has also improved; discarding back wool when shearing is seldom necessary. Shearing this frequently is also advantageous in the mountainous veld and has increased the ewes’ conception rate.

The average micron count for the stud’s wool clip, achieved over the last six clips, is 19µ, with the highest count being 20µ. Droogfontein regularly features among the top five highest prices in Port Elizabeth. The sheep are counted regularly. Should a sheep look ill or out of condition, the father-and-son team examine it for symptoms of internal parasites using the Famacha system. They have used this for years with great success. A dark red or dark pink inner eyelid means that the sheep is not anaemic; the lighter the colour, the more it is suffering from anaemia.

If necessary, sheep are dipped against Karoo paralysis tick after shearing and before winter. Hansie uses Skaapwagter units to combat the problem of jackal and caracal killing sheep, and this has greatly contributed to reducing losses. These stand-alone electronic devices intermittently release an irritating scent that drives away predators

Phone Hansie Sauer on 082 597 4574.