The drought crisis has had a dire effect on the genetic potential of sheep in the Northern Cape, says geneticist and general manager of the SA Studbook, Dr Japie van der Westhuizen.
With farmers forced to reduce the sizes of their flocks because of a lack of pasture they are facing tough genetic selection choices. On top of this the remaining sheep often still suffer for lack of adequate feeding, which damages their genetic potential to restock flocks that are adapted to the specific dry-land conditions of the province.
No rains, and severe heat means that the feeding capacity on a farm is impacted, says Van der Westhuizen. “The problem with all living organisms is that you cannot survive without food, you have to eat.”
The geneticist adds that sheep are ruminant animals. These are animals with a unique digestive system, instead of one stomach compartment they have four. “They need a dense substance like grass for the whole digestive process to carry out otherwise they cannot function.”
Geneticist Dr Bernice Mostert adds that recent research conducted by the SA Stud Book’s recording scheme in the Northern Cape showed that lamb production had significantly declined by 28% due to the rampant prevalence of drought in the past five years.
With the current drought only those who are best adapted to dry conditions will thrive and procreate, she says. This meant that fewer and fewer ewes were lambing, forcing breeders to reduce flock sizes and enforce stricter selection measures amongst sheep.
“When assessing the genetic differences between lambs born in 2017 and lambs born in 2019, it is clear that farmers kept their genetically superior animals for breeding,” Mostert says.
The average weight amongst lambs were recorded at 1.1kg and 2.5kg, she adds. “Keep in mind that supplement feeding was given to sheep by some farmers,” Mostert emphasises.
The situation seems to be progressing, she adds. “A significant improvement can be seen in weaning weight, direct growth and maternal ability to wean lambs, post-weaning weight and all selection indices.”
Survival of the fittest
South Africa has been listed as one of the 30 most water-scare countries in the world. As conditions worsen it has been increasingly difficult for farmers to keep up with feeding animals in the province.
Since the drought has been downgraded from national disaster status, the extent of the crisis has been intensified. The declaration which once allowed struggling farmers to receive financial and feed assistance from the state has been repealed. Without this government lifeline farmers are barely surviving, says president of Agri Northern Cape, Nicol Jansen.
The Northern Cape holds steadfast as one of the worst hit in the country, he says. The province boasts 10 000 farms covering more than 5.5 million hectares who have suffered due to the prolonged crisis of drought.
Feeding conditions are central in unlocking the full genetic potential of livestock, says Jansen.
“The biggest problem at this stage is that the farmers do not have the capacity and the pastures to keep some animals for breeding purposes and they don’t have animals of good quality due to the lack of feeding capacity.
“Government does not realise the impact of the drought. National government withdrew the disaster declaration so they can focus only on the covid-19 disaster. This is a ticking time bomb that awaits the economy of rural areas and the economic potential of the area. It also affects the value of stock that is adapted to the harsh conditions of the Northern Cape.”
Leon De Beer is the general manager of the National Wool Growers Association (NWGA). He adds that there is immense pressure on farmers to determine the fate of their livestock by means of selection. “The added pressure of selecting the best sheep is negatively influenced by the dry conditions in the country.”
It is a waiting game and battle of the fittest, De Beer adds. “All farmers can do is keep the best animals that they want to farm with. You reduce your numbers and that is just to make sure you have enough food for those who are left.”
Meanwhile, Jansen argues that the solutions in this case are simply not clear.
Keeping animals for breeding purposes will not improve the quality of the herd nor will the process of replacing them with animals from other regions be feasible. It is always best to have the best interest of the flock at heart.
“The offspring on your farm are best for breeding because they have adapted to the conditions. The moment you bring in sheep from other regions that are not adapted to dry and arid conditions of the Northern Cape they will struggle to adjust their stomach flora that aid digestion,” Jansen says.
Van der Westhuizen echoes his insights and says that. “It all boils down to adaptability. It takes a long time for animals to adapt to new conditions, it is never easy for them to thrive under conditions where change happens suddenly.”’
Jansen adds that if there is not enough grazing (land) available for sheep, their growth will continue to be at risk impacting the genetic potential of sheep.
“It is only when the grazing improves and that is stable enough that the milk production in ewes will be sufficient enough so lambs can grow to their full-potential. That has an impact on its genetic ability to reproduce animals of good structure and health.”
Farming communities must get assistance to keep their basic breeding potential intact.
“A way of protecting the genetic potential of adapted animals to the region is by protecting a basic flock of sheep, so that you can grow out of that and you can select out of that in future for breeding purposes. Assist the farmers so that they have the potential to feed their basic stock,” says Jansen.