African farmer shares tricks

Gloria Hafemeister
Now Media Group


Sheep graze in a pasture on Thys and O'nel Roux' farm in Western Cape, South Africa.

At the gated entrance to the farm, armed guards patrol the area as a means of discouraging those who want to steal some of the sheep to feed their families.

'Police are a long way from the farm, and the presence of the guards keeps them from trying to enter our farm,' Roux told a group of Wisconsin farmers who visited recently. 'They also protect the sheep from invading lynx that wander in at night.'

He described how farms are getting bigger in South Africa to take advantage of the economies of scale, and many are becoming vertically integrated.

'Our soil has a very thin layer of top soil and lots of rocks,' he said. 'We need many acres to raise our crops. Grazing works well because we don't bring up the stones.'

Rouxwil is a working wheat and sheep farm, situated in the heart of the Overberg, an hour from Cape Town.

It is nestled between vast, rolling hills of wheat fields, orchards and majestic mountains.

The farm has grown to 850 hectares or about 2,100 acres. Roux raises cash crops, mostly hard red wheat, and also grazes a large flock of sheep, direct marketing the meat.

Much of the lamb from his farm is served in the couple's own farm-house restaurant where visitors come to enjoy the South African hospitality, taste the farm specialties and tour the farm. The farm also includes a bed and breakfast.

He told the group that in the past there was more profit in raising crops, but since the country has become dependent on the world market, it's a struggle to get a fair price for the grain. It was better in the older years when marketing was done through a grain board.

In the past, he found barley to be a profitable grain to grow, but he doesn't raise any now.

'There is now only one buyer for the grain, and growers are at the mercy of what that buyer is willing to pay,' Roux said.

Describing his crop rotations, Roux said he is practicing no-till on the hilly stony fields. He plants oats, lupine, canola and peas for the sheep. He plants lucerne (alfalfa) and medic to get nitrogen into the soil.

He swats the forage and dries it in a windrow. Swatting helps it be ready all at same time because the crop doesn't mature at the same time in the field due to shadows from the mountains.

'The biggest problem with wheat farming is Italian rye grass that grows as a weed in winter wheat,' Roux said. 'Wild oats and sticky grass are also problem weeds. We need to treat it, or it will crowd out the wheat.'

Neighbors work together a lot, but custom harvest doesn't work because too many in the area are ready at the same time. Roux provides the spraying for his own farm and neighbors.

Besides the land he owns, he rents some area farms as well. Roux subleased one of the parcels he is renting to allow a neighbor to plant about 10 acres of broccoli. After the broccoli is harvested, Roux turns his sheep into the field to graze the remaining stalks.

The sheep on his farm are dual purpose: wool and meat. He has a flock of 2,200 ewes and sometimes has as many as 4,000 on farm. His breeding program includes seven rams, each with 35 lambs.

'We inject with a drug two days before we mate to keep embryos in womb a few days longer,' he said. 'If we underdose, it won't work. If we overdose, will be bad.'

A month and a half after breeding, he ultrasounds the ewes. If there is no lamb, the ewe is slaughtered for meat. If the ewe is pregnant, she is tagged and sent out to pasture. Any ewe that is carrying more than one lamb is put in the lambing shelters at lambing time.

Lambing season was just starting when the Wisconsin group started. Roux said in the past he lost many lambs that were twins because they did not both bond with their mother. Now he has created a system that he said works very well in preserving all the lambs.

Now he brings in 300 sheep at a time, putting them in individual pens under a protective roof open on the sides. After allowing the twin lambs to bond with their mother for a few days, Roux is then able to turn them out to the pasture, and the lambs know their mother.

Roux has four full-time employees on the farm, and at shearing time, he brings in a crew to shear the wool, pack it in bales and send it to the auction house.

He makes one-fourth of his income from wool, 30 percent from breeding males and 25 percent from older ewes that he sells for meat. The black population in Africa likes the fatty old ewes, so there is a good market for them.

According to law, if someone can prove their grandparents farmed the land or are buried there, they can claim it. Claims go back to 1913, and their president would like to extend it back even further. While this worries some farmers, Roux is not concerned.

'I'm the third generation on this farm,' he said. 'If they reclaim this land, it doesn't mean they will be able to make a living on it. You can't make a farmer overnight.'