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Harnessing the dual-purpose potential of Merino ewes

Matthew Morgan of Tarkastad has developed his family farms vertically by establishing permanent mixed pastures for his 3 000 Merino ewes to lamb on. The excellence of his farming won him the title of 2019 Toyota-Agri Eastern Cape Young Farmer of the Year.

Harnessing the dual-purpose potential of Merino ewes
The ewes lamb on 100ha of permanent mixed pastures, of which 50ha are irrigated. Photo: Mike BurgessMerinos are our pride and joy,” says Matthew Morgan (35), who returned home to farm near Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape with his late father, Jonathan, in 2009 before establishing his first pastures a year later.

“With the pastures, I tried to maximise the potential of existing land so that I could produce more lambs without a big capital outlay, such as buying a new farm.”

Today, with 100ha of pastures, Morgan has shifted from an almost exclusive focus on fine wool to a more balanced production of wool and store lambs that enables a ewe to generate an income of R1 500 a year for an expense of between R200 and R250.

Lambs and wool
Morgan’s dedication to the production of exceptional Merino lambs is symbolised by the replacement of wethers with productive ewes, despite the former’s significant contribution to wool volumes in the past.

“Yes, wethers are great bale fillers, but they spend the whole year not giving anything else [except wool] and taking up space on the veld,” he explains.

“Ewes can produce a lamb every year, which can be sold for the same value as a wether.”

In order to produce heavier lambs, he has concentrated on increasing the size of ewes to the current average of 50kg. Although this approach has seen his wool’s fibre diameter increase to between 18 and 19 microns, the clip still achieves prices 15% higher than the average achieved at most auctions.

Morgan was one of the first farmers in South Africa to produce wool worth R200/ kg a few years ago.

“We’ve focused on increasing the size of our ewes by growing them out more effectively and helping them with more feed at critical times, but they still produce a beautiful fleece,” he says.

The shearing of 12-month wool takes place in September. The clip has a staple length of over 90mm, a clean yield of 73% to 75% (largely due to the climate and good grass cover in the Winterberg), and a tensile strength of 40 Newtons per kilotex.

These impressive traits contribute to a uniquely marketable wool clip that sets it apart on the auction floor, which is a considerable advantage when markets are depressed, says Morgan.

“We produce a type and quality of wool that’s unique to the market. Even in tough markets, it will give you a little more than the average price.”

Although Morgan partnered with local farmer Dave Miller to purchase 920ha, half of which are farmed independently by Morgan, he has focused on the vertical development of the family farms of Ventnor and Redcliffe (collectively 3 200ha) with pastures.

The process started in 2010, when he began converting old lucerne lands (he believes lucerne is not suited to the area due to a lack of heat units) to permanent mixed pastures of cocksfoot, fescue, rye clovers, and certain legumes. He has increased these pastures over the years and today has a total of 100ha, of which 50ha are under Permaset irrigation.

Importantly, 90% of the irrigated pastures are gravity-fed, and he plans to convert an extra 5ha to 10ha of pastures to irrigation every year at a cost of R45 000/ha.

Morgan places great emphasis on soil health. He carries out soil samples to ascertain exactly what nutrients each land requires, rather than applying blanket fertilising. He also uses as much organic fertiliser, such as manure, as possible to ensure healthy microbial activity in the soil.

Mating and lambing
Only natural mating is practised in the flock. Morgan uses a stud of 500 ewes to produce self-bred rams, and also buys rams from breeders with similar selection goals to his. A total of 2 500 ewes (including 500 stud animals), are mated to lamb in spring, and 500 ewes in autumn, in five-week mating seasons.

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