MERINO SA President Julian Southey talks about the need to be adaptable and to change your farming practice from that of previous generations in order to rise to current economic challenges and benefit from the knowledge available today.

When MERINO SA President Julian Southey talks about his farming enterprise near Middelburg in the Karoo he always includes his wife of 37 years, Trish, as a key partner in their business.

“Ours is a family farming business, which started with Trish and myself and which grew to include our two sons, Robert (35) and Stuart (33), both of whom are now farming with their wives and children,” says Southey (61), a  4th generation Merino farmer whose family Merino business comprises 3000 commercial ewes and 500 stud.

Speaking like a true Merino man, he regards the Merino as “the best genuinely dual-purpose breed available today.”

“Merinos are bigger, stronger and more economically viable than ever before,” he says. “Over the past 30 years Merino breeders have evolved the ‘modern Merino’ into an animal with a wool to meat ratio of approximately 30:70. This obviously varies according to where you farm in South Africa, but it illustrates the change,” says Southey, explaining that when he joined his father on the farm in 1972, they were “wool farmers”, and their core business was wool.

“Our whole emphasis back then was on shearing 6-7kgs of wool per ewe per year and on weaning 85-95% of their lambs. Today, we shear 4.5-5kgs of wool per year, wean 100-130% of our lambs (depending on whether they are on veld or irrigated pastures) and our core business is lamb.”

It’s all about being adaptable, moving with the times and acquiring new knowledge to rise to changing economic needs, Southey elaborates. “There is no place for doing things a certain way ‘because that’s how we have always done things’ when the old ways are no longer appropriate.”

His 6500-hectare family farm, Manor Holme, dates back to 1860. He and Trish live on this farm, while his son Stuart lives on nearby Southfield (1500ha) and Robert lives on Lucernedale (1400ha). They farm as a unit, and have an additional 200ha-plus under irrigation on Orange River water, with 70ha under centre pivot, 25 under dragline and the rest are laser-leveled flood lands, which cuts water use by 30%.

They lamb one-third in March/April and two-thirds in September/October. They sell approximately 3500 animals each year – a combination of old ewes, hammel lambs, ram lambs and surplus t-tooth ewes – aiming for the seasonal peaks in early December (for Christmas), July/August (mid-winter market demand) and Feb/March (for Easter). They market animals through two private livestock agents, and through two of the large co-ops – BKB and CMW, while they market their wool through BKB. Rams are offered for sale on the farm during September and January. They also offer rams on the January and September sales of the Eastern Cape Veld Ram Club of which they are founder members.

“Our agents constantly keep us informed about market prices,” says Southey who regards himself as more business-orientated than his father, Bob. “I focus on productivity and market demand, in combination with quality, whereas my father focused on the quality of his wool.”

His great grandfather, WR Southey, who established Manor Holme in 1860; his grandfather, JO Southey; and his father, Bob Southey, were all excellent stockmen, which, believes Julian Southey, is one of the traditions that should be retained. “Too many farmers today try to farm from behind their computers. No computer can teach you to be a good stockman.”

“However,” he continues, “while my forebears knew a lot about a great many valuable things, they did not know about the sustainability of the veld and the sensitivity of the Karoo. They saw themselves as stock farmers and they had a huge amount of stock, double what I have today. Which is why, if you look at photos from the 1940s and 1950s, you see extensive bare patches and ‘short Karoo’.

“By comparison we have rehabilitated the veld and as a result we have wonderful grasslands and vleis. Rather than seeing ourselves as stock farmers, we see ourselves as managers of the veld where we use sheep and cattle to convert the veld to meat and fibre,” Southey explains. “It’s a mindshift that we as a family have made since the mid-2000s when we started understanding holistic farming practices.” This happened after they attended the first of several courses offered by Resource Consulting Services (RCS) in South Africa. RCS is a farmer education and training programme, founded by Terry McCosker in Australia, with a branch in South Africa.

“We started understanding how to manage the animal’s stomach to best utilise the veld at all times of the year,” Southey continues. “For example, we used to think that when the grasses turn white in winter they are no use as grazing, but we now know they are a valuable resource if used properly, in combination with licks like the McCosker Brew that stimulate the growth of rumen bacteria.”

Excess grass when the rains are good is another valuable resource. With all the rains in the Karoo last year, the grasses grew abundantly in the summer. Southey bought in weaners and hammel lambs to make use of this resource while it lasted. “I bought in lambs at between 25-30kg and took them up to 40-45kgs before selling them,” he says. Over the last couple of months he has been buying in lighter weaners, under 25kg and selling them at 35kg because the feedlots are in such short supply.

“Rift Valley Fever and the 2009 drought has led to the short supply and the feedlots have been paying incredible prices for weaner lambs, almost R1000 per lamb,” Southey explains. “At the same time, while R1000 sounds exorbitant, compared to R6 per lamb in the late 1960s, our margins are shrinking and our expenses are much higher. Just look at diesel and electricity as one comparative expense.”

He reads and rides supply, demand, profits and margins in the same way for beef, and has a fine herd of 180 Sussex cows. “We like the English breeds because they are small-framed, they calve well and they have proven to be hardy on our veld,” says Southey who hastens to add that they certainly haven’t “arrived” in their farming business. “We have simply learnt some basic principles that when applied correctly have helped us farm more successfully.”

At the same time it hasn’t all been plain sailing and he describes how they have had the same knocks and failures as everyone else. Last year, for example, they lost 80% of their autumn lamb crop to Rift Valley Fever.

It was Southey’s second experience of the epidemic. “The previous Rift Valley Fever epidemic hit us in 1974 – and we inoculated from then until 2003, when we thought we could stop. Then it hit again and last year was an expensive lesson.”

Instead of panicking, he and his sons sat down and, in consultation with their vet and Grootfontein Agricultural College, they developed an immunisation programme. “As soon as we were past the safety zone we put the rams back in, despite it being the middle of winter and despite being totally out of our traditional mating cycle,” he explains. “In a crisis you sometimes have to forget about traditional cycles. We are now back in cycle and we have recovered all those lambs. It sounds easy, but it wasn’t.”

Like all farmers, he’s concerned about the Clone 13 debate and hopes the new vaccines will be trouble free. “Perhaps we need to think about putting in a direct order from Ondestepoort because there is such a long chain from there to the co-ops to our fridges.”

This, like so much about farming, comes down to a management issue. “Farming is absolutely hands on, there is no getting away from it. For example, many farmers don’t look after their boundary fences today but you have to do this as an essential part of predator control,” says Southey who says well-maintained boundary fences are a major part of his weaning success. He doesn’t trap or use poison; instead he uses Anatolians, adding that he’s had some wonderful guard dogs and some duds. He’s also introduced Alpacas of late.

“I believe in trying new things, even if it sometimes leads to error, that’s how you learn,” he says. Fortunately there hasn’t been too much error this year. “We’re having an incredible season with the meat prices and the recovery of the wool. The wool pipeline is empty, accentuated by Australia’s losses from last year’s drought. There is big demand and as farmers we must take advantage of it.”

Message from Julian Southey to his fellow Merino breeders and woolgrowers:

“The global economy is still in uncertain and turbulent waters, but as South African Merino producers we can look back on an extremely positive year from a production, economic and animal health perspective. There is an infectious optimism and confidence in our industry, which is fundamentally sound and highly profitable in this difficult economic climate. Our Merino wool and lamb (meat) are quality, world-class products, produced in an ethical and sustainable environment. Rest assured that we at MERINO SA will continue to look for innovative ways to promote and market our breed and we look forward to the challenges and opportunities around us, where we hope to make a difference, especially in our emerging farming community.”