Thousands of small communal wool farmers will lose out on progress that has been made in their industry over the past 20 years, if the state does not make its contribution to the NWGA’s successful wool improvement project. By Fredalette Uys.
Wool sheep farming in the communal areas of the Eastern Cape has undergone a complete transformation over the past 20 years. It has significantly improved the standard of living for many farming households – but a major hurdle is blocking the path of further progress.
At the start of the National Wool Growers’ Association’s (NWGA’s) communal wool improvement project in 2002, around 222 610kg of wool from communal Eastern Cape farmers was marketed for R1.5 million. In 2021, 5.4 million kg of wool was sold for R260 million, thanks to the interventions of the project.
This project is a shining example of how organised agriculture and the state can successfully work together to support transformation in rural South Africa; and it drew widespread praise.
Even the Department of Agriculture, Land Affairs and Rural Development director general, Mooketsa Ramasodi, congratulated the industry on the project at the recent NWGA annual congress in Port Elizabeth.
However, shortly after the 2019 merger of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development, government ceased its annual R10 million funding for the ram improvement project. This genetic improvement scheme plays an important role in improving communal wool farmers’ herds and consequently their wool income.
“Because the project has been stopped, there are still many communities that have not received the necessary support. We see that the quality of animals is slowly deteriorating,” said NWGA manager Leon de Beer.
“We are not saying that rams must be provided to the communities forever, but we do see that the communities that did benefit from the project generate sufficient income to now buy their own rams.”
Thanks to the project, almost 49 000 quality rams have been distributed to communal wool sheep producing communities since 2002, said Leon. Flock sizes vary between 70 and 100 sheep per farmer. There are approximately 40 000 individual communal wool farmers in 1 400 communities, mainly in the Eastern Cape who keep approximately 4 million sheep.
The aim is to distribute between 80 000 and 100 000 rams so that all communities can benefit. In 2021, the NWGA’s production advisors assisted about 100 farmers with the purchase of 150 rams from commercial farmers.
“It is not always easy to buy a ram at auction and know if he meets the genetic standards, but these rams have been specifically selected in a group scheme.”
Socio-economic surveys show that the project has had a real impact on the standard of living of communal wool farmers. Since the surveys began in 2004, every five years there has been a dramatic improvement in social indicators. This includes a drastic decrease in the number of children going to bed hungry, an increase in the number of households with savings accounts, and fewer households needing to borrow money for school fees.
All household members now have cellphones, and those with access to electricity own a TV or fridge. According to Leon, communal farmers’ income can double if their wool quality is improved, as the prices they realise are currently lower than the average wool farmer in South Africa.
Only 5.4 million kilogram of the total of 8 million kilogram of wool produced by the communal sector is delivered to market. If the full total is delivered to the formal market, communal income can increase to R700 million.
“And this is only the income from wool. Meat production can also be improved with improved pasture management.”
Communal farmers from the five production regions in the Eastern Cape gather annually to exhibit their best animals at regional competitions, followed by inter-regional competitions.
At these events, the top five animals are selected in the lamb-, two-tooth ewes, four- to six-tooth ewes and ram categories. A farmer who is placed in the top five of each category is named the overall winner.
This year, after a three-year break, the inter-regional flock competition was once again held in Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape.
“Flock competitions are also used as information days. So, when a farmer’s rams are not selected, we can explain that it is because it is a cross ram or a ram of poor quality,” explains Willem Goosen, NWGA manager of infrastructure and market development.
In this way, wool sheep farmers are encouraged to improve the quality of their livestock, thereby increasing wool production and resulting in increased profits. It also provides an opportunity to evaluate progress, explains Leon. Conformation of animals and quality of wool is examined at competitions, and thus the improvement of the project over time can be seen.
Willem says the competitions are a big attraction and are usually attended by around 300 people. Since the state abruptly stopped its funding of the ram project, which introduces quality rams through scientific-based measures, there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of communal flocks and wool.
“We can already see it in the field. The wool quality of young stock is getting worse. The farmers no longer get R90/kg for lamb’s wool. Instead, they get R60/kg.
“The farmers may have a project ram at home and one of his ram lambs in the pen. He won’t cut the young ram because he does not have another ram, but if he uses this ram it is inbreeding. He doesn’t have the funds to buy a new ram or to exchange the ram lamb for a better ram lamb, because the project does not exist anymore.”
There are currently only a handful of farmers who can pay R5 000 or more for good rams.
The NWGA’s wool improvement project rests on five pillars, explains Leon.
■ Between 20 to 40 small farmers are grouped together with nearly 2 000 sheep between them to shear and class. The formal South African market requires wool to be sold by the bale, so the farmers’ wool clip is grouped together as they cannot fill a bale on their own. Wool is traditionally sold informally to hawkers, who pack the wool into bales to get better prices. By grouping their wool together, farmers can participate in the formal market and can potentially quadruple their income.
■ As an accredited AgriSETA service provider, the NWGA provides training and mentoring in 13 basic wool sheep farming learning areas. These focus on key areas such as shearing and wool classing training, as well as nutrition, breeding, selection, field management and animal health.
■ Through infrastructure development, farmers gain access to proper shearing equipment and facilities. It is estimated that only 20% of communities have access to proper shearing infrastructure. Shearing houses are mainly funded by the state, but the private sector, including mines and banks, also provide support. The shearing sheds built by the NWGA are 132m2.
Built with building blocks, they have skylights in the roof to allow natural light through, and are equipped with handling facilities, shearing equipment, shearing tables and dip tanks. By providing proper infrastructure and equipment, communal farmers are able to sell their wool on the formal market and improve their earning potential.
■ The commercial sector has been working together since 2002 to breed quality rams for communal farmers through the genetic improvement programme. Communal farmers’ self-bred sheep are removed, slaughtered and sold, and replaced with quality rams in order to improve farmers’ clip and wool income.
This involves a group scheme of commercial farmers from the same area as the communal farmers, so that the rams can adapt easily. There are more than 20 000 ewes collectively in the group which annually breed more than 10 000 ram lambs from which the top 3 000 are selected. An independent selector selects the rams according to the prescribed breed standards, and places them in communal flocks at two-tooth age. Participation in the project by communal producers is voluntary.
■ Access to the export market is obtained in cooperation with brokers. Brokerage agents are introduced to communities, with farmers able to choose who they want to market through.
WOOL BAN HURTS SMALL FARMERS
The bulk of communal wool is destined for the Chinese market. Communal farmers in particular got the short straw when China introduced a ban on the import of South African greasy wool in April because of foot-and-mouth disease.
“We need to get the ram project going again, to raise wool standards and assure communal farmers that they will be less affected in future,” said Billy van Zyl, chairman of the NWGA.
“Figures from the past 25 years show that this is possible. We are in an upward curve and communal farmers’ wool quality has already improved a lot. The ram project is just what the farmers need to get more security.”
According to Leon, communication has been ongoing since 2019 with various senior members of the Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development to get the project restarted. Since the department’s merger with the Department of Agriculture, there have been several unsuccessful attempts at communication, says Leon.
The matter was raised again during Ramasodi’s visit to the NWGA congress. “What we have to understand is that when we get funding again, it will take a reasonable amount of time to contract farmers to once again adjust their production cycle to breed rams, which takes at least 18 months.”
It is a great honour for competition parti- cipants to walk away with the title of category winner. The overall winners of the competition in region 24 of the Utlaonang project, in Mount Fletcher, were represented by Nthuseng Mokupo. This project runs a total of 2 500 sheep owned by 32 farmers.
According to Nthuseng, this group of farmers intends to eventually produce their own young ewes and rams to sell to neighbouring communities to generate income. However, a lack of fenced camps to keep the sheep remains a challenge, she explains.
The project was initially part of the NWGA’s exchange programme for rams, and was able to buy another 15 rams through Wesbank. Because they no longer receive government aid, they now buy their rams from commercial farmers in the Barkly East and Elliot area, with the assistance of production advisors.
“I can increase my income through wool sheep farming by selling wool. Wool quality improves every day in our scheme.” Ndevula Hastag was a farm worker on a sheep farm for 34 years and today farms 450 sheep on communal land near Rossouw. He buys his own rams from farmers in Barkly East and Dordrecht – and this is how he learned about sheep farming.
He farms with Merino sheep as he can earn income from wool and also sell lambs for meat. However, he would like to learn more about wool grading, and says internal parasites remain one of his biggest challenges, even though he administers the necessary doses.
Bonani Fanteni farms 120 ewes on communal land near Rhodes, in region 25, and was very excited about his award. He believes his time of moving backwards is over and from now on he will only go forward. Limited grazing on communal land prevents him from expanding his herd; and he sells his rams and old ewes every year and keeps the best ewes.
The flock competition was a good learning experience for him, as he can see which sheep are culled and which make the final selection. He can clearly see the difference and knows he is on the right track.
“When uniformity and crimp are the same, then I know it is a good sheep.”