Breeding Game: no shortcuts to success

Father and son team Tony and Richard Morton have almost perfected the art of breeding high-value game. Their business is built on a philosophy that success comes from paying close attention to every aspect of breeding and never cutting corners. Sharon Götte spoke to them about their highly successful breeding operation.
Issue date : 10-17 April 2009

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Father and son team Tony and Richard Morton have almost  perfected the art of breeding high-value game. Their business is built on a philosophy that success comes from paying close attention to every aspect of breeding and never cutting corners. Sharon Götte spoke to them about their highly successful breeding operation.

In 2002 Tony Morton bought the rundown, overgrazed and bush-encroached 2 010ha cattle farm Mount Joy, some 20km from Thabazimbi in Limpopo, where his son Richard joined him in 2004. Starting with virtually no infrastructure, seven years later the Mortons, under the name Tembani Wildlife, would be one of the district’s top producers of top-quality, high-value game. “Farming is in my blood,” admits Tony. After studying at Cedara Agricultural College, he worked as a farm manager before joining his brother-in-law in business in Johannesburg. His passion brought him back to farming, first with sheep and a Red Angus stud in Natal, and later with commercial cattle in the Eastern Cape.

In 1995 Tony moved to a game farm on the Botswana border where he started breeding game. He bought Mount Joy to move closer to civilisation, and Richard helped him get the Botswana operation to a stage where it could be relocated completely.

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High-bred herds
Tembani runs breeding herds of sable and roan antelope, disease-free buffalo, Livingstone eland, nyala, blue wildebeest (golden phenotype) and most common bushveld species. Tony stresses common species will have to make way for high-valued ones as their numbers increase. Breeding selection is based on horn size, shape and body conformation. Buffalo are a key component of the Tembani Wildlife breeding operation. Individually selected, DNA-tested East African buffalo were bought from the Waterberg National Park in Namibia as a foundation herd. Later, selected animals from Thaba Tholo and Madikwe herds were added, so that the Tembani herd is now of mixed Addo and East African descent.

The current East African herd sire’s horns measure an impressive 1,19m at five and a half years of age. While he was extremely expensive, says Tony, “we expect this bull to sire 250 to 300 calves over the next 10 years, paying off the investment many times over.” Sable was the first species introduced into the Tembani breeding operation on another farm, Plaas Twee, near Rooibokkraal some 14 years ago. The animals’ high quality has received a lot of attention over the years. To maintain and improve it, the Mortons have imported a young Namibian bull with perfectly shaped horns almost 1,19m long. Their roan antelope originate from Namibian and Botswana bloodlines and they’ve had great success breeding this protected species – they currently hold the South African record price for a roan bull, sold on the 2007 Stud Breeders Game Sale for R125 000 (see box: The Stud Game Breeders group).

No short cuts
“Cutting corners is not an option,” says Tony. “Prospective breeders argue they can achieve our results at less cost, but down the line we’re often proved right. We build the best, improve where we can, then carefully maintain it. This philosophy pays for itself.” Take the perimeter fence. “It’s a 35-strand game fence with five extra electrified strands,” says Tony. “It’s 5m inside the boundary with a neighbour, creating a lane that helps with fire and disease control. A 40cm-wide skirt of diamond mesh is pegged to the ground along its outer base, as high as the second strand. Alongside the electrified wires this makes the farm predator-proof, preventing burrowing underneath and leaving no gaps. We wean virtually all our offspring, which more than justifies the cost.”

Animal management
The area’s sweetveld is dominated by guinea grass (Panicum maximum) and blue buffalo grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), but supplementary feed is given in winter. Maintaining fairly consistent nutrition lets the animals fulfil their genetic potential.
“We mix our own meal-based ration from lucerne, hominy chop, sunflower oilcake, molasses meal, dried brewer’s grain and a game mineral pre-mix,” says Tony. They buy lucerne in Vaalharts, some 650km away, as it’s a tick-free area that produces a top-quality, twine-tied product sold per ton, as opposed to per bale.

Tembani controls ticks using specially designed feed bins. As the animal eats, rollers around the rim apply Deadline, an oxpecker-friendly acaricide, to its neck. In summer, a salt/phosphate mix attracts game to the bins. “We’ve had excellent results,” says Tony. The Mortons have built a passive capture boma suitable for all species on the farm. Food is placed inside, and a staff member sits in a hide and waits for the right animals to enter before closing the gate. This is cheaper and less stressful than helicopter capture. “We’re waiting for buffalo holding status,” says Tony.

Pens in the boma allow animals to be grouped, making viewing easy at sale times when the buffalo are captured, tested and held until delivery. As well as sales, Mount Joy conducts a limited amount of hunting – around 50 animals annually, including five of each high value species. “Breeding and selling breeding stock will always be first priority,” explains Tony. “But limited hunting replaces predators, eliminating weaker, old or less productive animals.”

Game breeding vision
Tony says game breeding is profitable if approached correctly and opportunities exist for other breeders to enter the industry. “There can never be too many quality bulls on the market, and there’s always a strong demand for quality females,” he says. “The satisfaction we get from breeding game far exceeds any other form of farming I’ve been involved in.” Richard and Tony believe one day South Africa will re-stock Africa’s game, and that conservation, dedication and sound management is the way forward in this expanding industry. E-mail Richard Morton at [email protected] or Tony Morton at [email protected], or visit or     |fw