Last update: April 10, 2012 08:55:33 AM E-mail Print


Mutton-production capacity of Karakul Sheep

DF Badenhorst, Heinichen W 


THE karakul breed of sheep has won a worldwide reputation for the pelt obtained from the newborn lamb. In spite of this inevitable custom of slaughtering new-born lambs, the number of karakul sheep in the Union has increased progressively, as appears from the agricultural census figures as at 31 August 1948 and 31 August 1951, when the numbers were 1,109,725 and 1,631,470 respectively. These numbers are still increasing.

Although karakul sheep are found in three provinces of the Union, they are concentrated mainly in the drier regions of the Cape Province such as Kenhardt, Hay, Prieska, Herbert, Hopetown, Britstown and Gordonia where more than half of the total karakul population is found.

This development is a matter of concern to many people, as it is argued that these regions, formerly a good source of meat production, i.e. food for human consumption, have become the nursery of a so-called luxury article, which does not nourish the body. From the point of view of national nutrition, this anxiety is not unjustified, but on the other hand, it should be borne in mind that the export of karakul pelts has become a very important source to the State for obtaining foreign exchange.


Reasons for Increase

Before dealing with the mutton-production capacity of the karakul, let us briefly touch on the reasons why the karakul population has increased so rapidly. Fundamentally. they are economical since. in present circumstances. it is more profitable to the farmer to keep karakul sheep and produce pelts than to farm with other sheep breeds in these dry regions and produce mutton. To confirm this statement. the following reasons may be advanced, namely:-


  1. The karakul is better adapted to this generally dry region on account of its origin and habit.

  2. Where farmers apply themselves to karakul farming and the majority of lambs are slaughtered soon after birth more ewes can be kept on the same veld, since there are no young sheep, which have to be raised until they react slaughtering age. The productive life of the ewe is long and consequently replacement by young ewes takes place slowly

  3. As a result of long distances and poor transport conditions is far more easy to transport a large number of pelts by motor car than to market slaughter sheep by ordinary transport facilities, since slaughter sheep which have to be driven over long distances lose weight and, consequently, the quality of the meat is reduced.

  4. In times of drought when normally lambs cannot be raised and frequently have to be slaughtered, from sheer necessity, the karakul lamb realises its usual income as the pelts do not decrease in value as a result of drought.

  5. Since more lambing ewes can be kept, it is easier to apply veld management and improve the veld, as the total number of sheep on the farm is smaller.


From the foregoing it would appear that karakul sheep cannot make any contribution to the mutton market but that is by no means the case. During the past few months the vigour d of karakul lambs under reasonably e normal veld conditions was investigated at the Grootfontein College of Agriculture, and it came to light that the mutton production capacity of the karakul is fairly high and compares favourably with that of other breeds is under veld conditions.


Gains in Weight

The lambs weighed, were those born on and after 2nd August, the weights being taken on 20th November when all the lambs were weaned. The oldest lamb therefore was only 108 days old when weaned. The average daily weight increase of the lambs was determined by taking 10 lb. as the average birth weight and then subtracting this from the weaning weight of each lamb and dividing this weight by the age in days of each lamb. In this way the following results were obtained: -

(1) Lambs of crossbred ewes (fourth to sixth cross) average increase per day 0.44 lb. (maximum) 0.54 lb., minimum 0.32 lb.).

(2) Lambs of purebred karakul ewes - average increase per day:-

(a) Ram lambs 0.56 lb. (maximum 0.67 lb., minimum 0.34 lb.).

(b) Ewe lambs 0.47 lb. (maximum 0.55 lb., minimum 0.35 lb.).

(3) All lambs average an increase per day of 0.48 lb. (maximum 0.67 lb., minimum 0.32 lb.).


From the above figures it is clear that, on an average, the lambs gained almost half-a-pound in weight per day, the best weight increase being two-thirds of a pound. If the birth weight it is not subtracted to obtain the average daily weight increases, the heaviest lamb reached the amazing weight of 78 lb. at weaning. This weight was not the exception, since of a total of 77 lambs, no fewer than 21 (i.e. 27.2 per cent) weighed more than 60 lb. on the day of weaning and 16 (or 20.8 per cent) between 55 and 60 lb.

On comparing the average daily weight increase of lambs bred from cross- and purebred ewes respectively, it will be found that the weight increase of the lambs of the latter was more rapid than that of those of the former under similar veld conditions, which is ample proof that the vigour was not transmitted from the original foundation ewes, viz. the Blackhead Persian ewe, but from the purebred karakul sheep.

Weight increases such as the abovementioned are possible only because the karakul ewe is a particularly good producer of milk and the lamb has the inherent character for rapidly putting on weight.


Karakuls for Mutton Production

These figures indicate that the karakul can play a role and an important one at that in the mutton production of the country, thus solving the problem of inadequate mutton supplies for national nutrition.

In addition. it holds out the possibility that should the market for pelts drop to an unprofitable level which within limits seems most unlikely since large areas of the globe must make use of pelts as clothing against the cold a switch-over to mutton production will be easy.

It is however essential to the karakul farmer to make use of this vigour of the lamb now while prices are high and not to slaughter lambs with pelts of poor quality but to raise them as slaughter lambs in years when veld conditions permit. and on reaching the slaughter weight of 65 to 70 lb. to sell them immediately. By following this practice there will be a smaller percentage of poor pelts on the pelts market and the mutton market will be supplied to the advantage of the farmer as a slaughter sheep will ensure a higher income than a poor pelt.

The karakul sheep has the potentialities of feeding and clothing the nation, but circumstances to a great extent beyond human control will determine the form of contribution namely mutton or pelts.



Farming in South Africa 28