Rams use their horns in self- defence against predators. Photo: Glenneis KrielKleiheuwel, situated near L’Agulhas in the Western Cape’s Overberg region, has a rich farming heritage. It was once part of the historic Zoetendals Vallei farm that belonged to the Van Bredas of Bredasdorp, who owned South Africa’s first commercial Merino flock in 1817.
While Merinos are no longer produced on the original farm, Kleiheuwel has continued the Merino tradition, and the flock had steadily improved with each passing generation.
“My father, John Albertyn, and my husband André and I have all put great effort into breeding sheep with good wool qualities, resulting in the flock looking totally different from what it did two generations ago,” says Pam Christie-Smith, who belongs to the sixth generation on the farm.
The Albertyn family started keeping records of the flock in 1942, and travelled across South Africa in search of superior Merino rams to improve it. In time, John Albertyn bought all his rams at production auctions from breeders such as Staatmaker Merinos, Patryskraal Merinos, and Komarsekraal in the Southern Cape.
André Christie-Smith is following suit.
“The genetics of these animals are exceptional, and the sheep are adapted to our production conditions as they are produced around the corner from us,” he says.
“We buy about 20 rams a year and replace them after three years.”
His ram selection strategy is straightforward: “My purchasing decisions are based on BLUP records, specifically wool quality and whether the mother had a history of twins. Because I’m not a stud breeder, I don’t buy the most expensive animals, but usually end up buying animals slightly below the average sales price of the day.”
Wool length is a priority, and he has switched from shearing once a year to every six and eight months as prices are discounted for fleece longer than 90mm.
André’s aim is to produce wool with an average fleece length of 60mm to 70mm, although between 70mm and 80mm would be ideal. The wool diameter averages 18,7 microns for the flock as a whole and 17,5 microns for young ewes.
The wethers are shorn every eight months and the ewes every six months to avoid having to shear all the sheep in the middle of winter or during the lambing or planting season. At the time of writing, the flock comprised about 1 500 ewes, 1 300 lambs and 2 000 wethers.
Thanks to tweaks he has made to ewe and lamb management, André has increased the lamb survival rate from 51% to 79% over the past decade. The lambing percentage has increased from 71% to 114% over the same time.
Ewes are scanned and multiples are separated from single pregnancies. Sixty-three percent of the ewes that produce twins or multiples have multiples the year after.
Changing the shearing interval has meant that the ewes are now shorn just before they lamb, ensuring they are in a better condition to look after their young, says André.
The feeding regime has also been improved: “Merinos are unlikely to get too fat, with higher consumption generally turning into better wool yields. I’d rather lose a little money by feeding too much than too little. I make that money back in the wool cheque.”
The animals all have access to supplementary feed all year.
André plants 300ha a year in a rotation of wheat with feed crops, such as triticale and oats, as well as barley, of which some is sold to the malting industry. The triticale and barley are usually undersown with lucerne, with the farm having 250ha under lucerne production. The remaining 950ha are under old pastures or veld.
The farm mixes its own feed consisting of maize, triticale and barley or oats, combined with supplements.