Taking the sting out of the drought
Farmer's Weekly|June 18, 2021
Living through long periods of minimal rainfall has become a way of life for many farmers in various parts of South Africa. Brett Walker, who farms mixed livestock in the Eastern Cape, spoke to Glenneis Kriel about the various ways in which he alleviates the impact of the ongoing seven-year drought in the region.
Glenneis Kriel

Brett Walker joined his family’s farm, Longacres, in 2010 as a seventh-generation Merino sheep and Angora goat farmer. In 2011 and 2012, the farm, which is near Jansenville in the Eastern Cape, experienced the best rainfall ever recorded there. The dam was full and the adjoining Melk River ran crystal clear.

What followed, however, could not have been in greater contrast: seven consecutive years of drought, with 2021 turning into the worst as only 70mm of rainfall has been recorded thus far this year.

“My first two years at Longacres totally misrepresented what farming in the Karoo is really like,” admits Walker.

The first action that livestock farmers take when hit by drought is to reduce their animals’ impact on the veld by downscaling stock numbers. This is exactly what Walker did, but rather than selling his animals, he retained ownership by buying and renting additional land and forming partnerships with other producers.

“The problem with selling your livestock during a drought is that prices are usually low because there’s an oversupply being sold. By the time climatic conditions return to normal, prices skyrocket as farmers are then trying to rebuild their stock numbers,” he says.

The exception was his cattle herd, which Walker sold. Now, when he has excess grass, he buys light weaners that he backgrounds.

This, he explains, is a great drought strategy, as he is never stuck with cows and calves that aren’t saleable in a drought.

FEEDLOT

When the drought started, Walker established a feedlot for his lambs. “It takes too long to grow out the lambs on the veld when it’s so dry, and getting them off the veld frees up space for more productive animals, such as ewes, which are the engine of the farm,” he says.

The feedlot shortens the finishing phase by up to a third, and also significantly reduces predation losses. The lambs are taken straight to the feedlot when they are weaned between 70 and 90 days old at 15kg to 20kg. It is of the utmost importance to provide these lambs with creep feed before weaning to allow their rumens to adjust to the feedlot ration, Walker adds. “The practice helps to significantly improve lambs’ pre-weaning growth and conserve the ewes’ condition.”

FAST FACTS

Eastern Cape goat and sheep farmer Brett Walker has managed to hold onto his animals through the drought by partnering with other producers.

He established a feedlot to finish lambs in a shorter time and free up space for more productive animals.

Walker runs his sheep and goats together so that they make full use of the veld.

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