Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Choose the best sheep farming system for your farm

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

  • The late Dr Jasper Coetzee, an expert in the field of sheep management, believed that a producer ought to adapt the system to his or her own circumstances.
  • Sound nutrition and management mean that lamb mortalities can be kept to a minimum. An ewe’s condition score at the start of the breeding season must be between 3 and 3,5 if she is to conceive.
  • Flock management rests on three pillars, namely reproduction, health and adaptability.
  • Sheep farming is grouped into four main systems that can be summarised as extensive system, semi-extensive system, semi-intensive system and intensive system.
  • Most sheep farms in South Africa are geared towards extensive farming.

There is much debate surrounding the value of intensive and extensive livestock systems, and the profitability of each. Ultimately each system has its place, and the implementation of a specific system is subject to the circumstances and available resources on the farm, along with management capacity.

The late Dr Jasper Coetzee, an expert in the field of sheep management, believed that a producer ought to adapt the system to his or her own circumstances. However, there are four requirements that all lambing systems must meet, namely a low lamb mortality figure (less than 10% of the lamb crop), low labour input, minimal nutritional supplementation, and cost efficiency.

Hennie du Toit, a livestock and grazing specialist from Agropedo, agrees with these requirements, but adds that the nutrition and condition of animals should be the centre of a profitable sheep farming enterprise. If this is managed properly, he says, the other requirements will automatically fall into place.

“Sound nutrition and management mean that lamb mortalities can be kept to a minimum. A ewe’s condition score at the start of the breeding season must be between 3 and 3,5 if she is to conceive. Providing enough top-quality flush feed and lick supplements in winter and summer will afford your ewes a solid start. If the system is expertly managed, aspects such as cost efficiency and minimal labour input will fall into place naturally,” he believes.

Read more about sheep production here.

Flock management

According to Hennie, flock management rests on three pillars, namely reproduction, health and adaptability. “Reproduction plays the biggest role in the profitability of a sheep farming business,” he says, adding that producers employ several systems and that each is worthy of a place in the sheep industry.

Sheep farming is grouped into four main systems that can be summarised as follows:

Extensive system: This system only makes use ofnatural grazing. Different feed options (such as flush and creep feed) are also utilised to promote the management and profitability of the system.

Semi-extensive system: This system relies on more than just natural grazing. Maize stovers, for instance, form part of the winter grazing programme. The size of the farm might be the same, but a slightly bigger net profit is realised since lambs can also utilise some of the maize stovers, and therefore require less creep feed.

Semi-intensive system: This system makes use of cultivated pastures as a feed source. The same sized flock can therefore be maintained on a smaller farm. The profit per hectare will increase, whereas the profit per ewe will decrease due to rising feed costs.

Intensive system: This system yields the lowest profit per ewe. Irrigated pastures serve as the main feed source. Although more expensive to run, this system can accommodate a very high stocking rate. The size of the farm therefore decreases, but the profit per hectare increases drastically.

Read more about the fundamentals of intensive precision sheep farming here.

Management of extensive systems

Hennie says most sheep farms in the country are geared towards extensive farming. It is also the least capital intensive. “Sheep farmed in an extensive system live off the veld. The only structures that require capital are overnight and handling facilities. Breeders making use of an intensive system will have a bigger capital outlay, but with the advantage of fewer lambs being lost and profit being maximised,” he explains.

Dr Coetzee divided the extensive system into sub-systems, provided that the producer can use whatever is at his or her disposal on the farm. Ewes in extensive systems, he explained, are divided into flocks of 200 to 250 ewes per camp, with camps preferably smaller than 200ha.

When sheep are farmed extensively it is impossible to constantly keep an eye on the lambs, with the result that lamb losses easily go unnoticed. In this case it is essential to gather ewes and lambs together regularly in order to keep proper record of ewes with lambs, ewes that have lambed but that do not suckle their lambs, and ewes that have failed to lamb.

Dr Coetzee suggested that flocks of sheep be divided into more manageable groups, or that the system should at least allow for easy handling of sheep and easy spotting of problems within each group.

Small-flock system: The small-flock system is very popular among sheep producers. Ewes and lambs are divided into small groups, giving the lambs an opportunity to bond with their mothers. The fact that some mothers struggle to find their lambs, or vice versa, is often one of the major contributors to lamb mortalities and the motivation for implementing this system.

Drifting system: In the drifting system, ewes are kept in smaller camps. This lambing system requires four adjacent camps with sufficient grazing. Once it is time to lamb, pregnant ewes are moved to another camp every day, while the ewes with newborn lambs remain in the camp. This way, newborn lambs and their mothers are left alone for three days so that a close bond can form between them. They are then moved to separate camps on day four.

Small-camp system: Thesmall-camp system makes use of lamb camps. The use of the small-camp system is gaining traction among producers who farm extensively. The small-camp and small-flock systems are often combined. The lambing camps are no larger than 5 to 10ha, and some producers make use of permanent small lambing camps and permanent pastures consisting of one or more annual crops.

Read more about how to manage metabolic disorders in sheep during spring here.

Managing intensive systems

a growing number of producers are making use of the intensive system, or lambing pen system, especially in areas where predators are a problem. Once they’ve lambed, each ewe is moved to a lambing pen to protect the ewe and her lamb(s) from inclement weather and predators. Intensive systems are typically used on smaller farms with a high percentage of ewes, or during droughts, or when ewes lamb simultaneously.

The intensive system makes it easier to identify and supervise ewes and their lambs. It also limits lamb mortalities, but is much more labour intensive.

Hennie says that when designing and developing an intensive system, it is important to first identify a suitable site. “It is crucial to find the correct location and select the most suitable design when considering an intensive or lambing pen system – changing the system after it has been constructed is a costly exercise.

He says several factors influence the choice of location. “Firstly, there is the question of whether the construction of housing and handling facilities will affect your income to such an extent that the costs can be recovered within a reasonable time. Another factor is the effect the system will have on the environment. Potential soil erosion that could be caused by poorly planned stormwater ditches should receive attention beforehand.

“Also study aspects such as access to the production unit from main routes, the workshop and the feeding area. Electricity and water supply, drainage, waste handling and expansion possibilities are all factors that must be considered in order to properly plan and manage the intensive unit.”

Learn about how to care for ewes and lambs during the lambing season here.

In summary

There are many factors to consider when deciding on a system for your sheep farming enterprise. The most vital of these is to develop a system that will suit your farm, and to enlist the help of experts to assist you with the planning and implementation of your chosen system. – Koos du Pisanie, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Hennie du Toit on 084 515 6817.

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