‘Sheep beats wheat on my lim­ited land’ – Swartland farmer

Al­freda Mars, who plants 160ha to wheat in ro­ta­tion in the Swartland, has re­alised the lim­i­ta­tions of grow­ing this crop on such lim­ited land. Today, she fo­cuses more on sheep and feed crops, and the fu­ture looks bright. Glen­neis Kriel re­ports.

Farmer's Weekly (South Africa) - - Contents -

Grow­ing up without brothers, Al­freda Mars learnt the ba­sics of farm­ing from her fa­ther, Kikkie, who pro­duced peas for the Rhodes can­ning fac­tory in Tul­bagh.

“As the el­dest of two daugh­ters, my hands were al­ways ready to help with any­thing from har­vest­ing to fix­ing im­ple­ments,” Mars re­calls.

Her own farm­ing ca­reer started with veg­eta­bles and sheep on rented com­mu­nal land near Saron in the Porter­ville area of the Swartland. In 1998, she and five partners pooled re­sources to buy a 1 300ha farm near Gouda for R4 mil­lion. The farm had 600ha of arable land on which the group farmed 450 ewes and 100 Brah­man cat­tle.

The ven­ture, how­ever, proved a dis­as­ter. “I hardly knew the rest of the group and most of them weren’t re­ally into farm­ing. They never lifted a fin­ger, but by the end of each year they wanted their share of the prof­its, which were hardly enough to keep the an­i­mals go­ing,” she says.

The group did not have enough cap­i­tal to cover the daily run­ning costs of the farm, let alone de­velop its full po­ten­tial.

“We for­tu­nately made enough money when we sold the farm to cover the Land Bank loan with which we’d bought it. I had no al­ter­na­tive but to go back to farm­ing sheep and veg­eta­bles in Saron,” she says.

a sec­ond go

In 2014, Mars and her cousin Evan Mathews en­tered into a part­ner­ship and ac­quired a 30-year lease un­der govern­ment’s Proac­tive Land Ac­qui­si­tion Strat­egy (PLAS) for a 266ha farm, Mid­del­pos, near Gouda.

The odds for this ven­ture were much better than for the pre­vi­ous one. Firstly, the group size was smaller, which meant that fewer people were de­pen­dent on the farm for an in­come.

Se­condly, she and Mathews, who, sadly, died ear­lier this year, both came from farm­ing back­grounds and shared the same work ethic.

Thirdly, their fi­nan­cial bur­den was smaller, as the rent is just 5% of in­come, amount­ing to only R17 000 for the past five years. The two also ben­e­fit­ted from R3,8 mil­lion of fund­ing from the Com­pre­hen­sive Agri­cul­tural Sup­port Pro­gramme, which they used to buy im­ple­ments and im­prove in­fra­struc­ture. De­spite all th­ese ad­van­tages, pro­duc­tion started off poorly, with the Swartland ex­pe­ri­enc­ing three con­sec­u­tive years of drought im­me­di­ately af­ter Mars and Mathews started farm­ing at Mid­del­pos.

“We har­vested a measly 1,1t/ha of wheat in our first year and only 1,6t/ha last year. Cli­matic con­di­tions seem more nor­mal this year, so I look for­ward to a better har­vest,” she says. With four em­ploy­ees, Mars no longer sees her­self as an emerg­ing farmer. She refers to her­self as a new-era com­mer­cial farmer.

“For­tu­nately, I’ve been em­braced by the lo­cal com­mer­cial farm­ing com­mu­nity. My neigh­bour, Frans van Wyk, of­ten stops by to see how I’m do­ing. It’s great that I’m able to tap into the re­gion-spe­cific knowl­edge that my neigh­bours have ac­cu­mu­lated over years,” she says.

To in­crease her know-how, she has at­tended an en­tre­pre­neur­ial course through Kaap Agri, and un­der­gone grain pro­duc­tion train­ing at Grain SA.

She also be­longs to a wheat study group, which re­cently helped her iden­tify the bac­te­rial dis­ease black chaff, a rel­a­tively new prob­lem in the re­gion.

“It’s a seed-trans­mit­ted dis­ease that oc­curs dur­ing moist con­di­tions. There’s no cure, but it for­tu­nately doesn’t re­ally af­fect yield,” she says.

She was also per­suaded by lo­cal com­mer­cial farm­ers, who were con­cerned for her safety, to join the Berg River Emergency What­sApp group.

‘ by plant­ing more feed crops, i can in­crease ewe num­bers from 250 to 450’

sheep pro­duc­tion

Mars plants 150ha to wheat, lupines and oats in ro­ta­tion. Two years of wheat are fol­lowed by one year of lupines and one year of oats. The wheat is sold via Over­berg Agri.

Be­cause of the rel­a­tively small size of her farm, how­ever, Mars is plan­ning to ex­pand the sheep com­po­nent of her busi­ness and

change her crop ro­ta­tion. Grow­ing th­ese grains in­volves far higher risk than sheep pro­duc­tion and it makes lit­tle eco­nomic sense to main­tain plant­ing and har­vest­ing equip­ment for such a small farm.

Be­cause of the re­cent drought, Mars has un­til now had to buy in most of the sheep’s feed. To boost live­stock po­ten­tial, she plans to es­tab­lish medics on some of the lands used for wheat pro­duc­tion. This means the medics will be planted in the fifth year at the end of the wheat ro­ta­tion cy­cle, and sheep will then be al­lowed to graze the lands.

She also has 13ha of land with ac­cess to ir­ri­ga­tion, on which she in­tends plant­ing lucerne.

“I’ll be able to in­crease ewe num­bers from 250 to 450 by plant­ing more feed crops,” she says.

BUILD­ING THE FLOCK

Most of the ewes had al­ready had their first lambs by the time Mars ac­quired the farm. She is now build­ing the ge­netic po­ten­tial of the group by buy­ing in good-qual­ity breed­ing stock from stud breed­ers, and replacing older ewes with off­spring with high-qual­ity wool and sound con­for­ma­tion.

Wool rep­re­sents about 70% and meat 30% of her in­come from sheep pro­duc­tion, so her pri­mary breed­ing goal is to in­crease wool pro­duc­tion from 4,5kg/ewe to be­tween 5kg and 5,5kg/ewe.

She also plans to pro­duce clean wool and im­prove wool fine­ness from 20 mi­crons to 18 mi­crons. In ad­di­tion, she is aim­ing for re­place­ment ewes with good con­for­ma­tion and no de­for­mi­ties.

The sheep are sheared ev­ery six months, around Septem­ber and Fe­bru­ary, but Mars wants to ex­tend the pe­riod be­tween shears to eight months to en­able her to sell longer fleece. CMW is con­tracted to man­age and shear the sheep on the farm.

She em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of feed­ing an­i­mals well to un­lock their full ge­netic po­ten­tial. The ewes and rams re­ceive flush feed­ing con­sist­ing of lupines, mo­lasses and maize from about six weeks, and are given mul­ti­vi­ta­min licks be­fore the mat­ing sea­son starts.

The rams are walked daily to get them in shape, with one ram be­ing used for ev­ery 30 ewes.

Ewes are placed on a high-pro­tein diet com­pris­ing mo­lasses, maize and hay six weeks be­fore they are due to lamb to en­sure they have enough milk. They also have ac­cess to high-pro­tein licks.

“The idea is to get ewes back in shape as soon as pos­si­ble to en­sure they take dur­ing the next re­pro­duc­tive cy­cle,” she says.

LAMB­ING

Mars is keen to in­tro­duce teaser rams as she be­lieves they will help to re­duce the time it takes for ewes to con­ceive.

“Hav­ing all the ewes lamb at the same time will ease man­age­ment and feed­ing,” she ex­plains.

So far, the lamb­ing po­ten­tial of the flock has been only about 70% due to the drought, but the wean­ing po­ten­tial has been 125%. The use of tem­po­rary lamb­ing cages since the start of this year has re­duced lamb losses from

90 last year to only five this year.

“The lamb­ing cages greatly im­prove our man­age­ment and have also re­sulted in only three lambs be­ing re­jected by ewes this year. We suf­fered huge losses be­cause of the drought and pre­da­tion by cara­cal last year,” she says.

She plans to build per­ma­nent lamb­ing cages by De­cem­ber in two old build­ings on the farm.

Lambs re­ceive creep feed from about four days af­ter birth and are kept in the cages un­til they are 10 days old. For a month there­after they are kept in small groups of about 10 ewes with their lambs, be­fore be­ing moved to larger flocks.

Lambs are sold live at auc­tions when they are about 100 days old and weigh 40kg.

“For me, it makes more sense to sell at auc­tions as there are more buy­ers, re­sult­ing in price com­pe­ti­tion,” she says.

• Email Al­freda Mars at al­[email protected]

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Pho­tos: Glen­neis Kriel

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Al­freda Mars is in­creas­ing the pro­duc­tion po­ten­tial of her sheep to re­duce risks associated with wheat pro­duc­tion.ABOVE: Al­freda Mars (front) with (from left) her daugh­ter, Falon-Lee, and work­ers, Richard Chris­tians and Jan Meyer.

TOP:Wheat is pro­duced on 150ha.LEFT:The lambs re­ceive a high-pro­tein ra­tion.ABOVE:Al­freda Mars re­cently won the OVK tro­phy for the best in­ter-race sheep from Nampo Kaap.

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