Intensive sheep farming achieves a weaning rate of 180% per year

The rams are led to another kraal. Photo: Glenneis Kriel

At Pienaarsrivier, a grain and sheep farm near Riversdale in the South Cape, farm owner Kobus Horne and sheep production manager Dirk Liebenberg have dramatically improved production efficiency and reduced costs through the use of technology and a carefully planned management system.

One of the most notable features of the farm is the careful way the production facilities have been positioned and structured for the comfort of the animals and for ease of movement and management.

Sheep manager Dirk Liebenberg (right) catches up with Pienaarsrivier owner Kobus Horne who is baling the silage.

The handling facility, mowing shed, feedlot, lambing shed, feed mill, and camps for rams, ewes lambs, and ewes with lambs are all within a few hundred yards. meters.

Computerized weighing system
At the handling facility, which is shaped like a cart wheel, Liebenberg and his team use a computerized scale that sorts animals in one of five pens according to pre-programmed instructions.

The animals are sorted mainly by weight and the ewes are separated according to the number of lambs they are carrying. The computer identifies the animals by reading their RFID tags, which are attached to their ears when they are two days old.

“It used to take at least six hours to weigh and sort 1,200 sheep, now we can do it in under two hours,” says Liebenberg.

The technology also makes better use of manpower and allows Liebenberg and his team to monitor the growth of feedlot animals more closely.

“The feedlot animals are weighed weekly and sold as soon as they weigh 48 kg. We also sell the ones that don’t put on weight anymore because we can’t afford to keep freeloaders.

The farm has three production groups, each comprising 1,200 merino ewes. The ewes lamb every nine months, in January, October, April or July depending on the production cycle of the group.

Each group is divided into four sub-groups, each of 300 ewes, to spread the lambing season over the month. The goal, says Liebenberg, is to get new lambs every two weeks, spread over six weeks.

The farm has a weaning percentage of 140% per season, but having four lambing cycles in three years pushes the weaning percentage to an impressive 180% per year. This translates to 1,800 lambs per 1,000 ewes that breed each year, compared to 1,400 if there was only one lambing season per year.

Ewes are synchronized for breeding when their lambs are weaned at 100 days, with beginners included in the group once they reach 48 kg. The best performing animals in the farm, constituting one of the four subgroups, are overovulated for laparoscopic insemination with the semen of two rams purchased for this purpose.

“The idea with the upper subgroup is to improve the genetic stock of the farm. The selection of rams to use on the group will therefore be based on specific traits that we might want to improve, ”says Liebenberg.

The other three subgroups are placed with teaser rams before being served by the fertile rams.

A ratio of one ram to five ewes is used and they are led together for only three days. Two weeks later, the ewes are placed for 17 days with Dormer rams, which care for ewes that were unable to conceive in the first attempt at breeding.

The ewes are scanned 35 days later to determine the number of lambs they are carrying and, depending on the size of the fetuses, whether they are Dormer hybrids. The ewes that are not yet lamb are sold the next day.

“The system cannot accommodate sheep that are not pregnant because we are working with too many sheep. We produce around 700 ewes in each breeding cycle, 200 of which will have to be slaughtered, ”says Liebenberg.

The 120 rams used for breeding are subjected to fertility tests every six months to make sure they can perform. Most ewes and breeding rams are reared until the age of five, after which they are sold regardless of their productive performance.

Lambing house
Three weeks before the start of the lambing season, the ewes are sorted according to the number of lambs they are carrying.

They are then kept in large camps near the lambing facility, and fed ad libitum so that they can take good care of their lambs and get back into shape quickly afterwards. Taking the ewes out of the veld and giving them pellets also helps to prepare them for the food they will receive in the lambing pens.

They are transferred to pens in the lambing house the day before their birth.

“Ewes carrying multiples usually lamb earlier than those carrying singletons, with lambing times ranging from 145 to 150 days after being fed,” says Liebenberg.

Birth data, such as date of birth and number of lambs, is recorded on a white card attached to each lambing pen, to be incorporated into the rest of the farm’s production records.

Each lamb is given an energy boost within 12 hours of birth and their belly button is treated with iodine to prevent infection. Two days later, RFID tags are attached to their ears and they receive another energy booster.

Singletons (along with their ewes) are removed from the pens when they are four days old. Liebenberg and his team carefully monitor the growth of the twins and superior multiples before releasing them to ensure that they are strong enough to cope with the outdoors.

The lambing facility is carefully cleaned between the entrances to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases.

In addition, the litter, made up of straw, shavings and sheep manure, is collected after each batch of animals leaves the pens, and added to the material collected in the feedlot to make compost. This is spread over the wheat fields of the farm to improve the health and structure of the soil before planting.

Larger camps
Once they leave the facility, the ewes and their lambs are moved to a series of growing camps at three-day intervals to ensure a strong bond and identify potential problems.

During the first stage, the ewes and their lambs are kept in small camps, at the rate of five ewes plus their lambs per camp, next to the lambing shed.

They are then merged into groups of 10 in slightly larger camps behind the smaller camps, and subsequently into even larger camps at a stocking rate of 20 ewes and lambs per camp. Finally, they are moved to the larger camps, which each contain 40 sheep and their lambs.

Slow feeding is introduced at the last camp. Although lambs eat little at first, it helps them get used to the pellets and makes it easier to transition from milk to solids when they are weaned, according to Liebenberg.

When the lambs are 21 days old, they are moved with their ewes to pastures or velds on the rest of the farm. At 45 days, the lambs are tattooed and their tails cut off to prevent meat fly problems. They are also dewormed and at the same time receive a multivitamin product.

At 70 days of age, they receive a vaccine against the main diseases prevalent in the region, antiparasitic drugs and a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Ram lambs are also given a product that stimulates their appetite, helping to speed up their growth.
At 100 days of age, the lambs are again dosed, inoculated and given multivitamins and minerals.

Merino lambs are weaned at 100 days of age and hybrids at 75, as the vigor of hybrids results in accelerated growth. The ram lambs and hybrid ewe lambs are then moved to the feedlot, near the sorting camp.

An expert contractor then helps to physically assess the build and fleece quality of ram lambs produced by laparoscopic insemination. The top rams are kept for the farm and the rest sold to other farmers.

Liebenberg says they plan to select only rams without horns in the future to avoid accidental injuries.

The remaining animals are finished in the feedlot. Here they are fed at will, the troughs being filled automatically under the control of an intelligent auger system that detects the amount of food remaining. They are sold once they reach 48 kg, with the first animals usually ready for market within two weeks.

The sheep are shorn twice a year, in February and August. “The farm is too busy to mow at other times because we have to plant in April and harvest from October,” says Liebenberg.

Shearing accounts for about 40% of sheep income, and lamb sales the rest.

The goal is to produce fibers with a diameter of 18 to 20 microns, but this must be balanced with the volumes of fleece produced.

“We aim for at least 5 to 6 kg of wool per sheep, including ewes and lambs,” says Liebenberg.

He adds that feed influences the thickness of the wool, with sheep on good quality alfalfa producing a stronger fiber and those on lower quality feed producing finer wool.

Liebenberg explains that Pienaarsrivier’s intensive sheep management system, which requires considerable planning and management, was not thought of overnight, but has systematically developed from the lessons learned over the years.

“Having to switch to a system like ours would be overwhelming if you had to change everything in a short period of time, but we’ve refined our system over time to make it work for us. Today, it’s ingrained in the way we do things, almost like second nature.

Email Kobus Horne at [email protected].