‘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.
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’
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.
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]
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.