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Dohne Merinos prove to be reliable under natural grazing conditions

According to a recent analysis by the Dohne Merino Breed Society, at least half of the Dohne Merino breeders in South Africa do not use any resources to accerate reproduction.  This portion of the stud industry can arguably be regarded as the “organic” portion of the industry.  As can be expected, the reproduction in this portion of the industry is lower. Lambing percentages vary between 110 and a high 140 percent.  Many breeders in this segment of the industry, have through experience, proven that better results are obtained with natural mating than with any other method of conception.  The value of high reproduction rates and fast growth in sub-optimal conditions, is that this type of breeding material “blooms” when the animals become older and are in full production.

Photo 1: Dohne Merinos of Ross farm, Mr Peter Blaine, running under exactly the same harsh conditions as experienced by his fore fathers 75 years ago.

Stud breeding under natural veld conditions, remains the basis of the success of the Dohne breed.  Selection under stress conditions remains, in principle, more efficient than under more favourable circumstances. Farmers, who farm in this way, can be reassured that they are selecting more effectively for hardiness and also that the conformation of their hardy animals will display well, especially when they are moved to “better” areas.

Interestingly enough, natural veld also has an advantage for good quality fine wool but phenotypically, selection for wool fineness is unfortunately less efficient.  Wool from extensively farmed sheep, becomes slightly stronger when they are moved to “better” areas.  However selection in such sub-optimal conditions is essential to ensure continued resistance to fleece rot and fly strike.

Photo 2: Dohne Merinos at Tweeddale, Cathcart- The EDCN Stud is known for maintaining extremelyhigh reproduction rates by means of natural mating, off the veld.

It is sad, that ram buyers, often do not acknowledge these “organic” breeders when it comes to the price of rams.  In the words of our industry’s advisors to ram buyers “fat is a pretty colour”.  It is however pleasing that ram buyers are becoming more aware of the good qualities of less pampered rams.  Directly after sale, these rams can be set amongst the ewes, with great success.

Advice to farmers – Both stud breeders and ram buyers alike, need to take note that breed improvement cannot be reduced to a single figure.  The general merit figure provided for each registered Dohne Merino is only a minimum guarantee of general productivity.  The pursuit of single figures can send your flock in a totally undesirable direction e.g. small fine woolled sheep, or even worse, small strong woolled sheep or big sheep without early growth.  This can be your fate if you do not correctly interpret and use breeding values for all measurements.  The options that both sellers and buyers exercise within the framework of higher productivity, will determine the sheep he/she will farm with.

Body weight needs to be looked at very carefully.  Body weight is positively related to reproduction. However bigger animals are at a disadvantage when it is as dry as it currently is.  It costs more to keep a larger animal alive.  In the same breath, feed wise, it is more expensive to produce more wool per unit of body weight.

The advantages and disadvantages related to a higher 12 month’s body weight, has long since led to the Dohne Merino breed emphasizing growth rate up to weaning rather  than adult weight.  Remember that weaning weight and 12 month’s weight are highly correlated and change almost in unison.  Selection for weaning weight can therefore help to slow down the rate which 12 month’s body weight increases.  An early maturing type animal eventually does not become so heavy and so contribute to a more efficient flock.  Lighter adult weight means that less feed is necessary to deliver the same production.  Fortunately the fad to set a minimum breeding value of e.g. +5kg  (very high) at 12 months body weight for rams on sales was of short duration.  The availability of wean direct and wean maternal breeding values, is tempering the “fashion” of “bigger” at all costs.

Photo 3: Fine wool Dohne Merino ewes at Grootfontein College of Agriculture in arid Karoo conditions.

The future – The future of the Dohne Merino lies in staying on the forefront of producing of physically and economically adapted animals.  In this regard the industry looks forward to the implementation of even more sophisticated techniques and standards such as genomic breeding values.  More accurate selection for traits such as number of lambs weaned, resistance against wire worm and carcass traits should play a bigger role in Dohne Merino breeding.


Photo 4: Dohne Merino ewes and lambs exhibiting good conformation in physical stress conditions.

Photo 5: Kromspruit Dohne ewes in the high rainfall Dakensberg grazing area. High rainfall sourveld constitutes less than ideal conditions for small stock farming. Despite the Physical environment, top gross margins are generated by Dohne Merino farmers in the area!