Getting it right with sable

With the hunting industry stimulating the market for rare species, many farmers tried their hand at intensive farming of sable antelope. Many burned their fingers and sables got the blame. “They’re finicky. They die for nothing,” people said. Over the las

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With the hunting industry stimulating the market for rare species, many farmers tried their hand at intensive farming of sable antelope. Many burned their fingers and sables got the blame. “They’re finicky. They die for nothing,” people said. Over the last 10 years Willie Cronjé has taken on the challenges posed by intensive sable farming one by one. Jasper Raats reports on how he has managed to get a 100% calving rate and raise all the calves to adulthood.

In 1997 Willie CronjÉ, a medical doctor from Polokwane, caved in to a yearning to farm. He grew up on a farm and always dreamed of one day owning his own, so when a decent piece of land in Limpopo’s Swartwater district became available, he jumped at the opportunity to buy it. He initially started farming with cattle, but soon realised that as the farm was too far away from the markets, they were not an option. He then investigated the feasibility of farming with game. He had his heart set on sable antelope, a lucrative species but one with a reputation for being a fussy eater with a high mortality rate. Willie felt it was a risk worth taking.

“If you want to farm with cattle, a 100 cows with calves will cost you around R800 000. For the same amount you can buy a sable breeding herd of eight cows and two bulls. Sable heifers of about nine months old fetch prices of between R80 000 and R100 000. On the hunting market, a trophy bull of between four and five years old, earns its owner between R45 000 and R50 000, there is just no way cattle can compete with that kind of profitability,” argues Willie. With those figures in mind he approach the then provincial Department of Nature Conservation for advice and help with habitat analysis of his land. They worked out exactly how many sable would be sustainable and helped him develop a management plan. He then applied for the permits necessary to farm the animals.

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Getting to work He started farming sable in 1998. “I bought four cows and two bulls and lost a lot of sleep during those first years, wondering whether I was doing the right thing,” he says. Today he has a 100 animals and has started to diversify into other high-value game species such as roan antelope, buffalo and nyala. His buffalo are tuberculosis-free animals bought from the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape. He got his breeding bulls from East Africa where the diseases associated with local buffalo don’t occur. His breeding herd of 17 buffalo consists of 14 cows, two adult bulls and a bull calf. Two years ago he introduced a breeding herd of 12 roan antelope to the farm. The first calves in that herd will be born this year.

14 cows, two adult bulls and a bull calf. Two years ago he introduced a breeding herd of 12 roan antelope to the farm. The first calves in that herd will be born this year. But his first love will always be sable. Sable are highly selective grazers. They only eat grass at a certain height – between 8cm and 14cm – as they have a short spine and find it difficult to reach short grass. In nature, sable avoid areas where impala are abundant. Impala graze grass down to the ground and drag their feet, bending grass to a level where it’s no longer comfortable for sable to graze. For this reason Willie keeps no other grazers in his sable camps. “You can keep browsers such as nyala in a camp, as they don’t compete with the sable for food,” he explains. Unlike zebra and blue wildebeest, sable are not bulk eaters when it comes to grass. They will, however, graze on both sweet and sour grass. “Here in the bushveld they thrive on the nutritious buffalo grass,” says Willie.

Sable have a preference for savannah veld and a dislike for thick bush, so Willie implemented an aggressive bush-encroachment management programme. “The soil here is very fertile and fighting back decades of overgrazing by cattle, nature turned what was once savannah grassland into thick, thorny bush,” he says. In the sable camps he leaves small pockets of bush intact to provide natural shelter during winter and removes the other bush.

By nature sable are very territorial and in the wild a breeding herd would occupy an area of between 200ha and 400ha. Willie keeps his sable in breeding herds of between seven and 12 females with a herd bull, in camps where each herd can be managed separately. The camps are also not adjacent to one another, a passage of about 30m separates each camp, as the neighbouring bulls will break fences to fight each other when the females come into oestrus. It’s the job of a few Dorper sheep wandering around on the farm, to keep the grass in the passages short.

Sable cows have a gestation period of eight months and calve between the last week of January and the first week of February each year. They mate in May and June. To prevent fighting between herd bulls and bull calves, the latter are removed from breeding camps at between one year and 18 months of age. Willie replaces the breeding bulls every two years to maintain good genes. Bulls and bull calves are established in bull herds in other camps where there are no females to fight over. At four years of age the genetic potential of the bulls in the camps is evaluated. Horns and horn bases are measured and the ones that show good potential are returned to breeding camps. Potential buyers looking for good genetics buy bulls from the bull camps.

Managing the hunt

The bull camps are far bigger than the ones of the breeding herds and these are also used for trophy hunting. Willie is a staunch supporter of the fair-chase principle and both biltong hunters and trophy hunters on his farm have to hunt on foot. At the end of the day it’s the trophy market that stimulates the entire industry and the demand is nowhere near tapering off. “There are between 30 million and 40 million hunters in the US alone and for many of them a large sable bull is high on their trophy wish list,” explains Willie. As political stability dwindled in Zimbabwe, South Africa became the prime destination for European and American hunters.

Willie says he has found that feeding plays a major role in the development of a bull’s horns. On a farm were sable live exclusively off the veld, the bulls’ horns only reach a trophy size of about 44in to 45in in six to seven years. But he has produced trophy bulls at three to four years old. With good genes and a good feeding programme, he achieves horn growth of about 2,5cm per month. Genetics play an important part in the management of a breeding programme. A trophy bull with good horn development is likely to sire sons with similar trophy traits. Such a bull is allowed to service a breeding herd before it’s sold on to either the hunting market or to other breeders. The trophy market also stimulates the need for female animals. “To get bulls, you need breeding cows,” Willie explains.

The value of cows

A sable cow has a 14- to 15-year lifespan and Willie out of principle does not cull his old cows. In fact, he gives them extra feed supplements to maintain their health. “The old cows calve every year and even if they don’t, I’m happy to let them live out their lives for the calves they have given me over the years,” he says. Sable heifers reach maturity at two years of age and can have their first calves at three years.
One can expect about 10 calves from a cow over its lifespan.

The main challenge to the intensive sable farmer is keeping the animals alive and healthy. When it comes to successful sable breeding, Willie says that nutrition is again probably the most important aspect of the operation. Over the past four years between 95% and 100% of his cows have calved. All the calves have survived to adulthood. He’s sure that this is the result of meticulous feed and parasite management. The animals are fed in large, rubber feeding troughs made from old truck or tractor tyres.

“It’s important that there is a trough for each animal in the herd. If not, the animals that need the feed most don’t get their share,” explains Willie. The feed is a special high-protein mix of lucerne, yellow maize, oats and bone meal. Another important component of the overall management programme is tick control. Willie’s water troughs are located in small thorn kraals. The animals have to walk through an opening where a weight sensor activates two spray nozzles that squirt out a dose of tick dip according to the animal’s weight. The dipping programme starts in early January when the cows get ready to calve and is sustained until the beginning of winter in May. This, says Willie, is one of the major secrets to his calves’ survival rate. He explains that the brown-ear tick is probably the biggest killer of sable calves, infecting them with theileriosis and causing anemia which affects their immune systems.

Sable cows hide their calves in the veld for about two weeks after calving. They move them every two to three days to prevent a build-up of scent that in nature would allow predators to find them. For the first two weeks of its life, a calf spends its days lying in long grass waiting for its mother to come and feed it. During this time the calves are extremely susceptible to ticks that crawl into the ears.

The two nozzles of the tick-off dip system spray the animals that come to drink, on their backs and under their bellies. The dip is absorbed by the skin and into the bloodstream and lymphatic system. When the calves suckle, some of the dip rubs off onto their heads and ears and they end up getting the same protection from tick infestation as the adults do.

Another aspect of the tick control programme is to burn between 25% and 30% of each camp every year. This, explains Willie, is nature’s way of controlling ticks. A fire in winter destroys about 96% of the tick’s eggs. It also controls bush encroachment and improves the land’s carrying capacity. In the days when the bushveld was still mainly cattle country, farmers couldn’t afford to sacrifice grazing to natural fires. Over the years aggressive combating of veld fires led to an explosion in tick populations in South Africa’s cattle farming areas, while dipping was the mainstay of tick control.

 “Before we implemented the dipping system, I lost up to 30% of my calves every year to tick-related diseases,” says Willie. He adds that even though he does have a number of caracal living on the land and the odd leopard passes through, he has had no major problems with predation to date. He puts this down to a healthy guineafowl population – the staple of the caracal.

While it’s expensive to start an intensive game farming enterprise due to the cost of fencing off camps and buying animals with the best genetics, there are trade-offs. Willie manages his entire operation with only a foreman who uses a donkey cart to drop off feed and check on watering holes and the tick-off systems. The biggest expense, he says, is feed and the veterinary costs associated with darting animals with a tranquillizer gun if they need to be moved or treated for disease or infection. “You can’t chase game into a kraal like you do with cattle. When we dart them, the vet checks the hooves for abnormalities, de-worms the sable and checks for parasites,” he explains.

He has customers who come from as far as the Northern Cape to buy animals from him. Sable that are sold are darted and loaded onto buyer’s trucks on the farm. His main clients are people who buy small breeding herds, but his goal is to build a reputation as a breeder of good genetic material for the trophy market. He wants to provide the hunting market with quality trophies and limit the selling off of his breeding stock. Contact Willie Cronjé on 083 653 5753 or e-mail [email protected]