The Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency (ECRDA) recently handed over 80 sheep rams to 95 livestock farmers in a major commercial sheep production drive in the Eastern Cape village of Mnceba in Ntabankulu some two hours from Mthatha.
The commercial drive is based on improving the poor genetic material of the local sheep, improving weaning rates, balancing the flock structure, changing the mating season and introducing vaccination programmes over a five – year period. The aim is to ensure that local livestock farmers can compete favourably with commercial farmers and to receive market related income for their stock.
The Eastern Cape possesses the most significant potential for livestock development. The Eastern Cape has the highest number of cattle, goats, chicken and horses in South Africa. However, emerging or communal farmers are largely unable to tap into and exploit the opportunities that exist within the commercial livestock development sector.
“After an assessment of the sheep flock in Mnceba, ECRDA realised that the sheep of local farmers is of poor quality with backward farming methods. ECRDA intervened after the subsistence sheep farmers approached us through the Mnceba Methodist Church for help. ECRDA conducted an analysis of the situation and decided to introduce sheep with better genetic material. The sheep were of poor quality, they were sickly, weaning rates were low, the flock structure was not balanced which meant there were too many male sheep which compromised reproduction rates. There were no vaccination programmes, sheep were small-framed and therefore could not compete with commercial farmers.
“ECRDA therefore introduced 80 sheep ram to mate with their existing 2 900 ewes (female sheep) to improve the genetic material and quality of their stock. The 80 rams are based on a ratio of 3% of the 2 900 female sheep in the area. This means each of the 80 rams will mate with 30-35 of the 2 900 ewes. They should now be able to fetch better prices for their sheep in the market. In addition, we have introduced a general sheep production training programme for the next five years to change the subsistence culture to a commercial one. ECRDA has also introduced a veterinary programme, sheep shearing as well as a new mating season,” says ECRDA livestock specialist Mathemba Mapuma.
Mapuma says this commercialisation drive is crucial because the Eastern Cape is importing sheep from the Free State province because commercial farmers are losing their sheep to stock theft among other things. In Ntabankulu, there exists an opportunity to instil a commercial culture to local farmers where theft is not prevalent. This calls for deliberate state intervention to improve infrastructure and production parameters. State interventions should encourage the growth of calving rates of communal farmers from the current 30% to 60% and above. The introduction of vaccination programmes to livestock losses is crucial to cushion the vulnerable communal sector. In addition, there needs to be a concerted effort to improve the genetic material of communal livestock owned by communal farmers which the market regards as inferior. Furthermore, government interventions should be aimed at encouraging the commercialisation of this sector in order to increase rural outcomes, participation in the mainstream economy and ensuring food security.
Mapuma says the sheep shearing programme for wool is still a challenge because there is currently no shearing shed. The Ntabankulu Local Municipality has committed to build a shearing shed in the new financial year. The construction of the shed should provide a clean environment for shearing as well as enough space for sorting and baling of the wool.
“The introduction of the shed will protect the local sheep farmers from speculators who buy their wool for next to nothing. They will now be able to sell directly to wool trader, BKB in Port Elizabeth. The BKB arrangement will provide access to international buyers and markets which should return better wool prices in line with what commercial farmers receive for their produce. This should expose them to a commercial mindset.
“Similarly the current breeding season for the local farmers is November/December. Sheep take five months to breed and they end up lambing in May or June which is the beginning of winter. Winter brings dry grass and there is therefore not much grazing exposing sheep to starvation as well as sheep losses. As a result, we are introducing ram camps so that they are kept away from females. They will then be sent back in May or June to change the mating season. This will ensure they lamb in November or December when there is enough rain so that there is enough grazing and hence more milk to feed their lambs,” explains Mapuma.
ECRDA has also begun a process of marking all the rams and hammels with a poor genetic stock in households and asking them to sell them to preserve the new stock.
“If you have too many rams and hammels you are farming backwards. They must be left with females to address the flock structure,” adds Mapuma.
This means the culture of farming livestock among communal farmers until they die without selling it needs to be eradicated. When they do participate in the market they often do not receive the market value of their livestock while commercial farmers realise full value from their products. This is largely because these farmers are not exposed to the workings of the market. Once these interventions are in place, communal livestock farmers will gain direct market exposure which should lead to the facilitation of commercialisation within the sector.
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