water troughs

Build your own problem-free water troughs

This farmer in die Karoo-desert in South Africa has developed reliable, low-maintenance water troughs from recycled materials for his sheep. He’s also devised a way to prevent livestock from damaging the float valve.

Coping with extremely high daytime temperatures is a reality for both people and animals living in the Karoo, so an efficient water supply for drinking and cooling off is a priority. Johan du Plessis, a livestock farmer from the farm Schramfontein outside Richmond, Northern Cape, has thus spent a great deal of time constructing maintenance-free water troughs.

“In order to manage drought conditions, we stay within the estimated carrying capacity of the veld. We also farm with oxen that can be marketed easily when the conditions call for it,” says Johan, better known as Gaffel. Gaffel was one of the runners up in the Toyota Northern Cape Young Farmer of the Year competition.

In December’s gruelling heat, especially, Gaffel has to closely monitor the water supply to his farm’s watering points. That’s also when his family spend holidays on the farm at a camping area they’ve set up in the veld. It consists of a simple lapa and boma made from wooden slats and recycled materials found on the farm surrounding a sociable firepit.

“The one thing we can’t do without during these summer holidays is the little dam near to the lapa which the kids use to cool down. The boys, Jan-Louw and Chrislu, spend the whole day playing in the water,” says Gaffel.


The water troughs which Gaffel builds only require about two bags of cement and a float valve costing about R300. The rest of the materials are picked up in the veld: dolerite rocks for the base and other rocks and stones for the walls.

The drinking troughs for the animals can hold about 500 to 600 litres, but the little dam the kids use for swimming is somewhat larger. Water is gravity-fed to the swimming dam-cum-drinking trough and lapa from a reservoir on a nearby hill via a 32mm-diameter plastic pipe.

The ball float in the animals’ veld troughs is placed in the middle of the trough. The valve mechanism is under the water, but the ball floats on the surface and is attached to the valve arm by means of a small chain. This ensures the valve mechanism isn’t damaged by the cattle.

water troughs
The ball float is located in the middle of the trough. The valve mechanism is under the water, but the ball floats on the surface, preventing cattle from damaging it.

Workers regularly patrol the watering points on the various sections of the farm by motorbike. They also keep a weekly tally of the stock numbers. They are also responsible for predator control, using, among others, cage traps for caracal.


Gaffel always makes maximum use of the region’s rainfall. “We have been very lucky over the last three or four years to receive higher than average rainfall. We plan on living here a long time, so it’s important to continually improve our grazing.”

Gaffel is a member of the Konsortium Merino group and in its grazing system the land is divided into several production camps, for example lambs, breeding, and dry stock. These camps are grazed for about four to six weeks and then allowed to rest for 200 to 270 days. This simplifies the management of large herds of livestock that need to be moved more regularly.

water troughs
Pregnant stud ewes on typical Karoo veld near Richmond. The stud ewes managed by Gaffel are strictly selected with an emphasis on body size and conformation, as well as wool length and quality.

Gaffel’s cattle, which comprises about one-fifth of the carrying capacity, help to manage the veld. “We’ve had pretty good success preventing any soil compaction caused by the hooves of large livestock and have achieved good seed dispersal as well as effectively controlled overgrown shrubs.

Richmond is located in a dry region, so cow numbers are limited and oxen are rather used. The oxen are bought in as lightweight calves and grown out on the veld for 12 to 18 months. The cattle also utilise the Karoo grass to the fullest.


Gaffel selects sheep with a robust conformation: strong legs, a good spring of ribs, a good body mass index and top-quality wool length.

The group’s veld ram testing programme is also offered on Gaffel’s farm. About 800 ram lambs are taken in every six months. In the selection process, the rams’ test results and their BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Prediction) figures are taken into consideration, as well as their condition, wool length, and conformation.

Unclassified weaned ewes, as well as the stud ewes marked with green tags, are handled in the same way in a prestige test. Before they are selected in November they are weighed, sheared, the wool is assessed and the fleece weight noted. The stud ewes are strictly selected with an emphasis on conformation and wool length. Gaffel doesn’t use wool density as a selection criterion. The animals are sheared every eight months and have a fibre diameter of 18 to 19 microns.

water troughs
Rams with wool such as this ram, ‘Marikana’, as demonstrated here by Johan du Plessis, are used as stud sires. Johan van Rensberg (left) from Agri Northern Cape was one of the assessors during the farm visit to Schramfontein.

The weaning figure was 97% in 2014. About 8% of the dry ewes were culled. “Up to 12% of the ewes were eliminated for being dry, regardless of whether the ewe lost her lambs to predators or because of poor mothering.”

During a recent scan of about 2 500 ewes, the fertilisation rate was 93% and the conception rate was 131%, indicating a high number of twins.

ENQUIRIES: email: jlduplessis1@gmail.com or gaffel@konsortium-merino.com

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