Despite limited resources, Goodman Ginyigazi and Columbus Solani have faced the challenge of farming on communal land head-on. Thanks to their determination, the two farmer friends are making waves in the wool industry and proving that communal farmers can achieve commercial success. Peter Mashala found out more.
Nothing is impossible if you love what you do and you believe in it. In April this year, communal wool farmers Goodman Ginyigazi of Arizona Ezinhle Merino Stud and Columbus Dumisani Solani of Sky Merino Stud, both from the Cacadu district near Queenstown, Eastern Cape, were admitted as members of Merino SA. Despite the hardships that come with farming on communal land, these two farmers have improved their wool quality and their flock genetics consistently, winning numerous awards in the process.
“You have to be passionate about your work and you must have the kind of faith that moves mountains,” says Goodman, who has been farming sheep on communal land for 17 years. He was the recipient of the Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform’s award for Best Communal Fine Wool Clip of the Year for five consecutive years (2009 to 2013). Goodman farms in Agnes Rest, whereas Columbus is in Mantyantya near Lady Frere. The two villages, both outside Queenstown, are separated by a narrow mountainous strip.
FRIENDS AND MENTORS
“I met Goodman through a mutual friend in 2014 when I moved my farming operation from Stutterheim to Lady Frere,” recalls Columbus. “I had just bought 24 Dohne merino sheep. We’ve been friends since then and he’s mentored me.”
Switching from Dohne merinos to pure merinos, Columbus says, came about through Goodman’s teachings and coaching. The latter’s success in quality wool production motivated Columbus to follow his mentor’s example and in 2018 he sold his 83 Dohnes and changed over to merinos.
“There is nothing wrong with Dohne merinos. In fact, they are the best dual-purpose sheep and the breed of choice for farmers who produce meat and wool,” he emphasises. “But my goal is to produce quality wool, not so much to participate in the meat market.” He bought 40 young Merino ewes from Stefan Naude of Geelbek Elite Merinos in Noupoort, Northern Cape, and an additional 15 sheep from JJ Pienaar in Colesberg. “Goodman had introduced me to these farmers,” Columbus adds.
Over to Goodman, who explains that he started visiting commercial wool farmers when he decided to focus on producing quality wool. These farmers taught him that merinos produced better quality wool for a longer time compared with Dohnes. “I also learned this from my friend Webster Mbikile, an animal health technician who works for the Eastern Cape department of agriculture.”
On a mission to improve his flock’s genetics, Goodman started crossing Dohne merino ewes with merino rams. “I bought merino stud rams from reputable breeders to put to my Dohne merino ewes as a way of improving the genetics,” he says.
Unfortunately, this method did not work, as Dohne merino genetics are not easily influenced. So in 2009 he started replacing his sheep with merinos. That year he won his first award. “I sheared about 120 sheep and got about R17 000 for 500kg of wool,” he says.
Goodman’s consistent performance meant that he dominated most provincial wool growers’ competitions between 2009 to 2013. He credits this to Stefan and JJ, as well as Pieter Cloete of Pinegrove Merino Stud in Dordrecht and Andries Pienaar of Trumps Merino Stud in Hanover.
“These guys, the Queenstown-based state vet Dr Alan Fisher, and Webster carried me through with their support and advice. I bought top rams and ewes from them to build my flock,” he explains. “Every visit was like a mini-workshop packed with information.”
MOVING TO THE MOUNTAIN
Maintaining good genetics and a larger flock comes with its own challenges for a communal farmer. By 2019, Goodman and Columbus had successfully transformed their flocks to pure merinos of more than 300 animals each.
“To keep the flock clean means your animals should not mix with other people’s,” says Goodman. Many attempts over the years to get government help to secure their own farms had failed. This led to an unconventional decision to move and set up their operations on top of the surrounding mountains, where they could eliminate the risk of having their flocks contaminated.
The communal grazing was fast becoming insufficient for their growing flocks, so the move meant more grazing and less competition too. “We also avoided the risk of disease outbreaks, because not all farmers dose and vaccinate their animals,” Goodman says. Most communal areas in the Eastern Cape are overpopulated with livestock because almost every household has animals.
“Due to the economic downturn, many people have lost their jobs, especially on the mines. Many of them come back and use their pension payouts to start farming sheep,” Columbus adds. Drawing on his knowledge from his younger days as a cattle and goat herder, he knew the grazing potential on top of the mountain. “There is plenty of clean water and grass, and the place looks like a real farm.”
Columbus occupies the northern part whereas Goodman uses the southern side. Although Columbus has not formally measured the area, he estimates his portion to be between 200ha and 300ha. “The only challenge is lack of proper infrastructure, including a decent road up the mountain. It is a struggle to get there,” he says.
“It takes about an hour or so to get there on foot.” On the plus side, the friends say, the lack of development has deterred others from using the mountaintop area for grazing. “Everyone would be grazing their animals there by now if there was infrastructure,” says Goodman. “Because we love what we are doing, we must persevere in farming this way.”
EASE OF MANAGEMENT
Ewes and weaned lambs stay on the mountain while rams and lactating ewes are kept at home in kraals. Seasonal breeding is done by creating groups of manageable sizes. At breeding, says Goodman, the ewes are divided into groups of 50 or 60, depending on the number of ewes available for breeding.
“I bring the ewes home to prepare them 30 days before I put the rams in. I flush feed them for a month and inject them with Multimin for more trace minerals,” he says. Goodman believes the body condition of ewes must score between 3 and 4 for optimal reproductive status. “A body condition score of less than 2.5 (too thin) or more than 4 (too fat) is not good,” he explains.
Providing trace minerals and vitamins A and E four weeks before mating has a positive effect on fertility. Flush feeding three weeks before mating, according to Goodman, keeps their weight at an acceptable level and has a positive influence on conception rate. He feeds 250g per ewe of home-prepared mix every morning.
Once the ewes are prepared, the rams are put in for 21 to 30 days. “I use between four and six rams on a group of 50 to 60 ewes. This is between 10 and 15 ewes per ram to ensure optimal performance from the rams,” explains Goodman. The ewes are taken back to the mountains once they have scanned positive for pregnancy.
At the beginning of their fifth month, the ewes are brought home. They are worked in groups for management ease during the lambing period and to bring down extra feeding costs during pregnancy and after lambing. “The lambing period is labour intensive: at 4am you’re in the kraal checking that there are no lambing issues,” explains Columbus.
That’s why he feels group numbers must be manageable. When his ewes come down from the mountain a month before lambing, they are supplemented to maintain good body condition and to produce enough milk and wool. They are scanned to see how many lambs they are carrying so that rations can be tweaked according to individual ewe needs. “I feed fattening pellets, protein blocks and salt, and I inject with Multimin,” explains Columbus.
“If there is no money for pellets, I feed crushed yellow maize and SS200.” For milk production, a mix of crushed yellow maize, Maxiwol, molasses meal, SS200 and salt works well, he says. Ewes carrying a single lamb get 250g while those carrying twins get between 350g and 400g, depending on condition. Once the lambs are weaned at four months, the ewes are taken back to the mountain.
The rest of the flock receive supplements only in the form of phosphate and protein licks and blocks, season dependent, because of the good grazing on the mountain.
KEEPING FLOCKS HEALTHY
Both farmers follow an animal health protocol developed for them by Dr Fisher. “We dose quarterly and vaccinate annually, especially for blue tongue, a disease that is caused by biting insects and results in sheep mortalities,” says Columbus. They also vaccinate against pulpy kidney. The area has a serious problem with red lice. The flocks are dipped every two weeks using Zipdip, and Cydectin is injected to control sheep scab.
In January, a peak time for worms, they dose with Valbantel or inject with Dectomax. These products help to control roundworm, lungworm, milk tapeworm, liver fluke and nasal worm. “They also prevent roundworm eggs from hatching,” Columbus says. The lambs are dewormed every two weeks because they are easily affected by worms. “I use Lintex for the one-month-olds and Valbantel or Prodose Orange for the two-month-olds. Cydectin, Dectomax and UniDose are rotated every three months to discourage product resistance.
Registering as stud breeders was the logical step after the two farmers had improved wool quality. The focus is now on genetic improvement. “For two consecutive years I’ve managed to get the highest price for wool per kilogram and this has motivated me – so much so that I want to compete at a higher level. We want to be in the elite breeding class and bring some of the best genes to the market,” he says.
“I also want to start contributing to the development of other black farmers by producing quality rams and ewes for them.” According to him, there aren’t many black merino breeders in the Eastern Cape, especially not those supplying the communal markety. The result is that the increasing demand for genetics to improve wool quality from ever more communal farmers, can’t be met.
The wool business is seasonal. “As you grow in the industry, your needs grow. It is imperative that we maximise income to remain profitable,” Columbus explains. This made diversification a necessity. He selected 15 young rams from the flock two years ago to supply the local communal market with breeding material.
“The rams didn’t even last two weeks on the market,” he recalls. Wool producers on communal land are always on the lookout for quality rams. Many communal farmers do not have access to commercial farmers who happen to be far from their communities. “Making quality rams available to them makes good business sense,” explains Columbus. He has sold more than 40 merino rams.
“I’ve sold 11 rams to farmers in Mount Fletcher, on the way to Durban. This shows how people are willing to travel and pay for good quality. Goodman and I have travelled far and wide, particularly in the Northern Cape, where you find the top brass of merinos, and that is how we succeed.”
Columbus says their decidion to produce rams was also motivated by what they’ve witnessed during production auctions. “I’ve seen farmers like Robert Rubidge of Wellwood in Graaff-Reinet selling his ram for a whopping R220 000. JJ Pienaar from Colesberg recently sold a ram for R177 000,” says Columbus.
“We look to these guys as our role models and buy some of our rams from them. This shows how seriously we are taking our business,” Goodman adds. In addition, Goodman and Columbus grow and fatten wethers and older ewes for the December-holiday meat rush. People who are coming home for the holidays provide a good market as they buy a lot of sheep for year-end festivities.
FARMER BACKGROUND – COLUMBUS SOLANI
In 1993, after working in the mines in Mpumalanga for 10 years, Columbus Solani returned to his home village of Mantyantya to be closer to his family. He applied and was then hired for the position of traffic officer in Queenstown in 1994.
In 1997 he was transferred to Stutterheim, about 70km outside East London, where he is now based. In 2004, Columbus started farming cattle part-time to augment his salary. He bought two heifers and ran them on his friend’s farm in Stutterheim. By 2009, four years later, he had grown his herd to 52 heads. During this time, Columbus met several farmers who tried to persuade him to take up sheep farming.
“I didn’t really buy into that immediately,” he recalls. But a spike in stock theft in Stutterheim that saw him almost losing his precious bull was enough to drive him out of cattle farming. “The theft was so bad, thieves were brutally killing and stealing cattle at a shocking rate,” recalls Columbus.
“That was when I decided to get out. I sold all the cattle and decided to go into sheep farming.” He set up his new venture at home in Mantyantya in 2014. At that stage he had 23 Dohne merinos. And then he was introduced to Goodman Ginyigazi. “It was the beginning of our friendship and brought a revolution to my sheep farming business,” says Columbus.
“The idea to switch from Dohne merinos to pure merinos came from his teaching and coaching.” Convinced by Goodman’s success in the wool trade, Columbus transformed his own flock and switched to merino too. “The quality fleece from Goodman’s sheep won him a few awards and I decided to sell off my 83 Dohnes to buy pure merinos,” Columbus recalls. He says selling off those sheep was easy, because they were in such good condition.
Today Columbus’s Sky Merino Stud flock comprises 50 ewes and he has 160 ewes in his commercial flock. This growth has come from the 40 merino ewes he bought in 2018.
FARMER BACKGROUND – GOODMAN GINYIGAZI
Award-winning wool producer and Merino breeder Goodman Xolani Ginyigazi was born and raised in Agnes Rest. He was exposed to sheep farming at an early age: part of his daily duties was to take care of his father’s nine sheep after school and during the holidays.
For a long time farming was not in his future plans, but that changed when Goodman went to Ntsonkotha Senior Secondary School in Agnes Rest and met agricultural teacher Ernst Sonko. “He opened my eyes because of his passion for the subject. He encouraged my interest,” says Goodman. After matric, he went to the Free State to work in the mines for five years. Then he returned to study teaching at Lumko College of Education in Lady Frere in the early 1990s.
When his father passed away, he took over his small flock of 18 sheep. “I began working as a teacher in 1994 and started buying sheep locally to grow the flock.” As his flock grew, so did his eagerness to learn more. “I started visiting sheep farmers and learned about wool production,” says Goodman. One vital lesson was to improve the sheep breed.
The local sheep, according to him, were a mix of everything. He was advised to get Dohne merinos for wool and meat production. “I sold off the sheep I had and started buying Dohnes.” In his second year as a teacher, Goodman bought 60 young Dohne merino ewes and a ram with his bonus. This set him on a new path in wool production. By 2009 his flock had grown to 120 sheep. The wool quality and quantity improved, but not to a standard he was satisfied with.
“After my own research and meeting more farmers, I was told about the potential of pure merinos. I then started my transformational journey from Dohne merinos to pure merinos.” He has since established Arizona Ezinhle Merino Stud, with about 60 stud ewes and six rams. His commercial flock is standing at 130 ewes.