Last update: April 10, 2012 11:43:52 AM E-mail Print


Improvement of the Merino Flock

F.J. Labuscagne 


IN most districts of this country, farms are considerably smaller today than some years ago, and land values have also greatly increased. Consequently, pasturage is limited in many areas and is generally expensive as well. Where farmers have, in addition, to provide for winter grazing by the cultivation of crops, or for droughts by laying in a stock of animal feed, costs are even higher.

When such items as capital needed for investment in land and for improvements, costs of upkeep and care and other working expenses in connection with sheep-farming are added to the costs of grazing, then the production costs of mutton and wool are fairly high. Economic sheep farming can only be ensured by an improved flock in which every individual animal can be relied upon to contribute it fair share to the income.

The improvement of a flock is accomplished mainly by three factors, viz.: (1) regular and careful classing of the ewes; (2) the use of suitable rams; (3) the provision of adequate feed or pasturage.


The Meaning of Classing

The classing of a flock means the grading of sheep into various groups according to the degree of merit or profitability, by judging the aggregate of each individual's qualities in relation to the standard of excellence for the breed in question.

Each flock is, however, treated on its own merits and the numbers in the different groups and their quality will depend upon the average standard of the flock as a whole.

For the classing of sheep to be reasonably successful, it is essential that it should be undertaken by a person who is competent to judge the good and bad points in the conformation and wool of the particular breed of sheep. In addition, the classer requires a working knowledge of how to judge the aggregate of the various qualities.


Requirements for Classing

It is difficult to make a success of the classing without the necessary facilities, and consequently the following requirements are indispensable: -

(a) Serviceable, clean kraals and pens. -The kraals and pens needed are as follows: -a large kraal for the unclassed sheep, a small drafting pen with a gate leading into the large kraal and two or three kraals which are easily accessible from the drafting pen, and in which the different groups of classed sheep can be kept. A modern arrangement of drafting yards usually makes provision for all these requirements.

The small drafting pen is needed to ensure that the sheep will not be driven about or be manhandled too much before reaching the classing place, as often happens when the drafting yard is too large.

By classing each of the different groups into separate kraals, the classer is enabled to examine each group separately during and after classing without having to sort out the groups again. By keeping the groups apart whilst working, he can also observe the differences between them more clearly.

It is essential that the kraals and pens should be clean; dirty, dusty kraals not only soil the wool, but also make the work most unpleasant for all concerned.

(b) Labour. - The speed with which the work can be accomplished depends upon the classer himself, the time and facilities at his disposal and the number of catchers available. Usually from three to five catchers are used for this work. In addition to the catchers someone is needed to hold the sheep. If the sheep are to be branded at the same time, someone will also be needed for that purpose. A shortage of labour will inevitably cause delay. Although haphazard work is to be deprecated, the classing of sheep can nevertheless be carried out satisfactorily at a fairly high speed.

(c) Seats. - At the gate of the drafting pen the classer and the person holding the sheep sit on boxes or stools facing each other and with sufficient space between them for one sheep to stand comfortably; the gates of the kraals for the classed groups ought also to be near this gate. The holder holds the sheep's head whilst the classer holds the hindquarters between his legs. This method of holding ensures that the sheep will stand fairly naturally and still, and thus facilitates judging. It is preferable to the method where the catchers hold the sheep and the classer does the work standing. In the latter case the sheep have too much scope for jumping about and are even liable to fall to the ground.

(d) Branding Material. - Since sheep are usually classed when their wool is fairly long, it is not desirable to use paint or branding oil on the wool of the different groups; the sheep can, however, be earmarked. Usually the ears of the culls, i.e., the sheep rejected for breeding purposes, are punched or, else are cut with a knife, so that there is a permanent mark. The branding marks sometimes disappear, and the culls might get mixed up with the best ewes, which are usually not branded. Raddle can be used if the classing takes place, shortly before shearing. If oil or paint marks are made on the wool, the damaged wool should be shorn off at shearing time.


Time of Classing

The best time for classing is when the wool is just about twelve months old; it should not be less than eight months old. The nearer to twelve months the wool is, the smaller will be the possibility of changes in the fleece, and the sheep can accordingly be classed with greater accuracy. It is desirable that young sheep should already have been shorn as lambs.

Although the age of the wool is not of great importance in judging the conformation, there are certain points such as hair and especially body development, which can be more easily discerned in the case of short-woolled sheep than in the case of long-woolled ones.

It is not desirable to class ewes in advanced pregnancy or with lamb at foot, since in the first case, they may be injured and the lamb be still-born; and in the second case, lambs sometimes get separated from their dams, and if this is not noticed in time the lambs may starve.


Condition and Age of the Sheep

It is desirable that the sheep should be in fairly good condition when classed, since condition influences wool production, conformation and character of the wool. The poorer the condition of the animal the more marked will be the detrimental effects. For this reason it is most undesirable to class a mixed flock consisting of dry ewes which are usually in excellent condition and ewes that have reared lambs and are in poorer condition. In such cases it often happens that the good wet ewe that as reared a lamb and has done her duty towards providing an income for the owner, is rejected on account of her poor condition, while a really inferior dry ewe is sometimes put into the highest class on account of her good condition.

When classing it is best to separate the dry ewes, or those in good condition, from the wet ewes, or those in poor condition. Each group may then be judged according to its own standards. A much severer criterion ought to apply in the case of dry than in that of wet ewes.

In order to judge the different groups for size and conformation it is desirable, when classing, to separate the young ewes, namely those younger than four-toothed, from the older ewes. A mixed flock of old and young ewes is apt to affect the accuracy of judgment in regard to uniformity of build, especially in the best- group, where this attribute must receive careful attention. The young ewes are usually smaller than the full-grown ones. Consequently, the group, will not appear uniform in regard to this important attribute, more especially when sheep of good and "poorer condition are in the same flock".

On the whole, the test can be made somewhat less severe in the case of young dry ewes than in that of the older ones, since improvement is still possible in young sheep. In any case, in classing young sheep, it is not desirable to lay too much stress on density of fleece, since young sheep with dense wool are liable to have fleeces, which are too short and dense once they are full-grown.


The Comp osition of a Flock

An unclassed flock usually consists of sheep of various types and qualities. The ratio of good to inferior sheep various in the different flocks according to the degree of improvement which has already been effected. In some cases from 80 to 90 per cent of the flock are good sheep, whilst the figure may be as low as 40 to 50 per cent in other cases. The various types of sheep usually found in a flock are as follows:

(a) Culls. - Such sheep are unsuitable for breeding purposes on account of some pronounced fault in conformation and/or wool. The chief defects with regard to conformation are: defective jaws; woolly face; jowls; narrow chest; hollow back; slab-sides; goose-rump; cow-hocks; large folds round the neck, on the body and especially towards the tail; and insufficient size in relation to age. Defects in wool are as follows: short wool, i.e. wool of less than 2¼ in. after 12 months; wool of inferior quality; kemp in parts of or in the whole fleece; defective staple formation such as excessively ropy and watery wool; exaggerated tarry tip; yellow pasty yolk and black or brown blotches in the fleece.

(b) Poor producers. - These sheep yield too little wool and/or are undersized for their age. Too little wool is produced either because the wool is short or because the fleece of the full-grown sheep is too loose. Undersized sheep usually yield small fleeces. Such sheep have small carcases with the result that as slaughter-stock their mutton yield is also very small.

(c) Off-type sheep. - In most flocks the majority or the sheep are animals with uniform qualities. This uniformity is known as " type". Consequently, a flock can be fairly uniform as regards a certain type of conformation, for instance plain-bodiedness, size, etc., as well as certain wool characters such as fineness, length, quantity, etc. One or two, and sometimes even a considerable number of sheep, may differ from the majority by, reason :of undesirable folds and/or small build with short wool. Their presence results in lack of uniformity of type in the flock. Sheep with excessively dense fleeces for a flock under veld conditions must also be regarded as of an undesirable type.

(d) Poor breeders and dams. - In this group we have the regular skips, i.e. those ewes that never lamb; ewes that regularly refuse, to suckle their lambs; those with too little milk under good grazing; conditions arid old ewes. Ewes that regularly skip or refuse their lambs and those with too little milk, should be marked during the lambing season, so that they may be identified when classing; a classer cannot determine such defects with any degree of accuracy on sight. Bad dams cause unnecessary work, since their lambs must usually be reared by hand or tended in other ways. Old, broken-mouthed sheep or those that are so old that they cannot under ordinary circumstances rear a lamb, are rejected on account of age.

(e) The paying group.- Finally we come to the most important group, consisting of sheep that justify their keep. They are the ewes showing the minimum defects with regard to conformation and wool. Any defects they may have, are present only in a slight degree. These ewes conform to type, i.e. they are large, plain-bodied, strongly built sheep with a reasonable amount of wool of good length, i.e. of. A 3 in. or more and good quality and body. These are the ewes that will breed the future ewes for the flock or the wethers that are suitable for shearing and the mutton market. These ewes lamb regularly, suckle their lambs and have enough milk to rear them under normal conditions, and in addition, yield a paying clip.


Procedure in Classing

Owing to variations in quality in most flocks and since each flock has its own peculiarities in some respects, it is necessary that each flock should be treated on its own merits. The same method of classing can be followed throughout, but the standard applied will not necessarily be the same in all cases. It will differ for flocks from the same locality as well as for those from different areas of the country. The difference in grazing, veld and climatic conditions has to be taken into account. Consequently, the standard for a good sheep in one locality will, depending on the conditions, have to be higher or lower than in another locality.

Just as in classing wool, the first and foremost task is to fix a standard based on the quality of the different groups. If the removal of culls is the sole aim, the flock will have to be divided into only two groups, viz. flock and culls. If, on the other hand, the classer has to take into consideration the standard of production, remunerativeness, and, in many cases, numbers as well, the following fairly easy and effective procedure is recommended. This method ensures good work, especially where the classer is unfamiliar with the flock.

The first step consists in classing, the sheep in the following three groups:

(a) The best, consisting of ewes that definitely conform to the remunerative standard and are of the desired type. They will possess the best aggregate of good conformation and wool attributes. Whereas constitution and size are important attributes, uniform good length of fibre in relation to age, quality, and a reasonable amount of wool, must be taken into account when judging the fleece. An average wool production of from 8 to 12 lb. will be a reasonable amount for wool of a fairly light condition.

(b) Ewes of a poorer quality than the first, consisting of animals with defects which are not sufficiently pronounced to justify their being regarded as culls. Such sheep will usually be poor producers on account of their small or lanky build or short or loose wool. In other words, there will be some doubt as to whether it would pay to keep them. Sheep, which are not too far off-type, may also be classed with this group.



Farming in South Africa 20