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May 2003

Damaras, Dorpers & Drought

1. The Irregular Newsletter

We started writing this newsletter months ago, but it never got finished. What happened to the time? Mainly coping with drought - carting water, fixing failed bores and mills, laying pipes, building lanes, culling cows, shooting weak cows and dingo bitten calves, selling calves, weaning lambs, cleaning out dams, praying for rain and cursing the government (they always claim credit for good times so I blame them for the drought). January is normally our wettest month. This year, after 3 years of drought, we got just 1mm of rain in January. Every paddock got bare and every one of our 17 dams has dried up.

2. Coping with Drought

After a decade or so of drought, we have learned a few things:

  • Assist your pasture
  • Stick to Damara sheep, they are used to deserts and droughts
  • Watch the seasonal weather pattern
  • Keep the hayshed full, and supply minimal supplements
  • De-stock early and often
  • Nothing useful ever comes from parliament
  • You can't have too much water, or too many tanks
  • Minimise the number of mobs, and maximise the number of paddocks
  • Keep the day job

Assist your pasture

Even in the worst of the drought, we still grew some feed in our dusty paddocks. There are three secrets to that:

Our first unfair advantage is our cell grazing management system. This maximises the growth you get from your pasture by giving it a rest from the pasture predators. But this grand-daddy drought found our biggest weakness - we have too many small dams, all of which go dry at once (although some had never been dry before). Our grazing cells are arranged around water points - dams, wells, tanks and bores. We now have only three water sources in over 60 paddocks - 2 wells and one bore. So, many paddocks have no water. Thus we have been building lanes, opening paddock gates and carting water to stock.

Our second unfair advantage is our varied pasture. Monocultures all live and die together. In multi-culture pastures, some plants cope better and keep growing in drought. Our best drought friend was siratro, a legume we have been broadcasting for years. Also our fodder trees - albizia and tipuana. We have not yet been forced to lop our fodder trees - they are the last line of defence.

Siratro has very deep roots. Our soil has a high clay content, and it holds some moisture for a long time. When a cell was grazed, all plants were eaten (too far unfortunately) and looked evenly bare. By the time the animals next visited that cell, (6 - 8 weeks later), most pasture plants had grown just a little, but the mighty siratro formed large green succulent looking patches. Naturally these were quickly consumed when the hungry hordes arrived.

Our third unfair advantage is our mineral rich clayey soil. When we bought this piece of desert, we looked for rich basalt soil, not the usual sandstone ridges deficient in almost everything. However, for over 100 years farmers have been harvesting and exporting the soil minerals in milk, meat and bones. This has left the topsoil deficient in some minerals. So we learnt a lot about soil fertility, and started what looks like a lifetime job to re-mineralise the soil with lime, crushed basalt, decomposed granite, trace elements, more trees, ripping and spreading manures. Well-mineralised soil produces plants better able to resist droughts. It also produces better food for humans.

Damaras in drought

Our surplus rams spend their time with our bulls, in a paddock with a bit of flat land but mainly hard rocky hills. They got mineral supplement blocks, nothing else, and were not brought in at night. We lost none to dingos or drought. (They are positively fat.) Customers in western Qld who are changing from merinos to Damaras are amazed at how much better Damaras cope with the drought. I asked one, near Longreach, how his Damaras were coping - "Well our cattle are dying, our merinos are dying and our Damaras are cycling and having lambs".

Watch the weather

Despite what we think of weather forecasters, they are getting better. They are good at forecasting weather a few days ahead, and seem to be better than a dartboard at forecasting a few months ahead. So, watch the seasonal El Nino, and cull too early, cull again later and then start serious culling. Our cattle breeder herd is half of its peak numbers and we have kept only one heifer calf from the whole of last year's calf crop. Even our faithful old Braford bull, Limbo, went to the sale yard.

Keep the hay shed full

The secret of life is to be doing the opposite to what the mob is doing - so when they are selling hay, buy it. Good advice, but this drought caught us with an empty shed, so we paid drought rates for hay carted down from the Darling Downs. We were waiting all "wet" season for rain to produce hay and bring its price down. That did not happen. An expensive exercise. And remember, most people can only afford to SUPPLEMENT, not REPLACE struggling pasture. When you are buying in 100% of animal feeds, you are running an animal welfare, not a farm. Cull as soon as the weather odds look like putting you in that position.

As we do not believe grain is suitable feed for ruminants (or humans) the only grain we will give them is sprouted grain. We looked closely into a "Fodder Factory" but decided (rightly it turns out) that we did not have enough water for a Fodder Factory. Our most useful supplements were copra meal and chickpea hulls. Expensive but high quality, and we gave Scrooge-size rations. If you are too generous, the animals stop eating tasteless dry grass and opt to live on welfare.

Look critically at your water supply

We had once believed that a lot of dams was the secret. But, when you need them most, dams go dry. Our underground water has saved us. Even that is looking frail as we start yet another dry season, so the divining rods will be getting another workout soon.

The problem with trying to upgrade water supplies in drought is, every other bugger is doing the same thing and the queue for drillers, dam sinkers and mill repairers is as long as the sermon on a hot summer day. You cannot have too many water sources or storages.

3. Ebony goes to the Ekka

We were invited to display Damara sheep in the sheep and wool pavilion at the Brisbane Exhibition ("The Ekka"). That seemed a good offer so we spent a day selecting candidates for this prestigious assignment: Criteria -

  • reasonably quiet
  • with small lambs
  • a variety of breeds, colours and sex

First selection was Ebony, a black bottle-fed pet ewe, the all time favourite of the chief judge, Mother-of-all-things, plus her ewe lamb. For a ram we chose Ebony's previous lamb, a nice young brown ram, also quiet. (For the record, at the time Ebony was a 28-month-old pure Damara ewe and her third lamb was a month old.)

Then we needed some cross-bred sheep. Another quiet "bottlie" - Libby (a black ewe who was a Damara/Dorper cross) was first choice and then the first neat looking F1 ewe with a small lamb was grabbed. The lamb had big feet with hairy sox like a Clydesdale so was named "Clyde". His mother thus became Mrs Clyde. That completed the Ekka contingent. Then of course we needed signs, feeders, haynets and hay, mobile loading ramps and all the paraphernalia usually associated with a travelling circus.

Rouseabout was forced into clean clothes and a shave; MOAT had a special hairdo. We all loaded up for the big smoke with a ute load of sheep towing a trailer load of gear and hay.

Now Ebony has one fault - she bleats loudly and continuously whenever she is near MOAT. It was peak traffic by the time the cavalcade reached Ann Street, Brisbane and it sure gave the jaded office workers something to look at and listen to.

So Rouseabout decided to re-circle a few city blocks. What an adventure. Every time Ebony's loud bleat rang out, more pedestrians stopped to look. Little kids dragged mothers over to say "Hello". One girl, looking back over her shoulder went right across Queen Street against the lights. Another on a mobile phone, could not believe her eyes, came across for a closer look. I read her lips - "I tell you it is a load of sheep - listen" - and she walked across and put the mobile phone in front of Ebony, who responded with a loud bleat. Rouseabout had such fun he wanted to circle the block again but MOAT, looking straight ahead with a red face said - "No, get on to the Ekka" (I think she was worried her lipstick did not match her blouse).

Eventually the tribe was settled in. The reaction to Damaras was interesting. Immediately above the sheep was a huge sign saying, "Damara Sheep". But 98% of people came up saying "Oh, look at the goats!" Among the 2% was an authentic visitor from Namibia who told us there was a "Damara" tribe in Namibia and it is pronounced "Dam-a-rah" like the "dam" in "damn fool merinos".

All sheep behaved well, except Clyde and Mrs Clyde were a bit overawed by all the attention for about a day. They then settled down to eat steadily for the whole time.

We saw a contrast in behaviour of kids. There was a miniature pony in the animal nursery nearby. One kid, despite being told not to, kept poking this little horse, so it bit him. Kid howled blue murder, mother demanded to see the RNA President, threatened legal action and the poor innocent horse was sent home in disgrace. (And the bite hardly made a mark on the skin.)

Another kid came up to look at Clyde. He tried to scratch Clyde through the bars. His mother said "Don't put your hand in there!" Kid put his hand in again and Clyde head butted it against the bars. Kid hollered, but the mother, (pre Dr Spock) said "Shut up, serves you right". End of story.

The best Ekka story - Rouseabout was looking at electronic gear in Myers. Got great service. When paying, the salesman noticed the Ekka pass in my wallet (probably also noticed the hayseeds that fell out as I pulled the wallet out) - "Down for the Ekka eh?" he said. "Yair" I said, trying to sound like Dave, "All the yokels are in town". "I can notice", said the salesman. Intrigued I asked "What do you notice?" - "Better manners" he replied. If it were not for the drought, I would have given him a tip.

4. The Green Drought

In Feb we had a few relief showers. Just enough to enliven the pasture. We seemed to get 10-20 mm every fortnight so the grass leapt ahead. The desert bloomed and animals started to recover. But it was a green drought - no sub-soil moisture and still not a drop in dams. Now frosts are imminent and pasture is already wilting.

5. Damaras Galore

We have sold or eaten all last season's rams, but have a lovely new crop coming on. Ages - from 12 months to one day. Pure Damaras for breeding and Daminos for the pot. We also have two very quiet bottle-raised ram lambs - one pure Damara, and one F3 (88% Damara). Lookers are welcomed, buyers treated like royalty. We can also find ewes to sell now, pure Damara and Damino crosses.

6. Another Dalliance with Dorpers

Once before we bought some dorper cross ewes. Mother- of-All-Things grew to hate them - stubborn, fence crawling, wandering, woolly nuisances. So we sold them all. Then the Paramount Dorper Stud at Warwick had a clearance sale. In the middle of the drought, what we needed like more taxes was more mouths to feed. But, if you must buy stock, buying in drought is a good counter-cyclic strategy. We spent the night before with the sale catalogue making genetic tables to try to get as much genetic variety for the minimum number of sheep. Next morning we cleaned up the truck, put "Damara" stickers on the doors, got out the cheque book, and off to the sale. Bought 12 ewes and three rams. Since then the ewes have had 2 dorper lambs (both rams of course). Now we have a flock of wandering, stubborn, woolly nuisances. Every day or so MOAT says "Tell me again why we bought these dopey dorpers?"

Why indeed? We have decided that, if you must use cross breeding with Damaras, dorpers are the best choice. They are very hardy, at least 50% hair sheep, fertile and muscley and look more like a traditional sheep. Their disadvantages are: a proportion of wool, poor flockers, stubborn and difficult to handle. They also seem to be a long time to get lambs. Some were supposedly in lamb, others have been with a ram. We have had them 5.5 months and still only two lambs. As a meat sheep, they are probably better than all except Damara for Australia in drought (most of the time). So, if you want to look at dorpers, or even buy a ram, ring us up. Speak to me - Judy will talk you into buying Damaras.

7. Mixing Species

One of our customers had a problem mixing species - a miniature stallion running with his Damara sheep killed his young Damara ram. Our experience, and what we have read, tells us to be very careful when mixing species, especially entire males.

As you know, we have a llama sheep guard. In reading about sheep guards I remember two things. First, use only gelded males, as entire males may attack the rams or try to mount the ewes. So we got a gelded male llama and have had no hint of that sort of problem.

Secondly, I have read of people using a male donkey to guard sheep. He did chase predators, but also killed lambs - he was caught grabbing lambs and tossing them in the air. I would be suspicious of stallions also, who can be playful &/or aggressive. They also think it fun to gallop thru a flock of sheep. Weaner cattle also play this game of: "let's scatter the sheep".

All entire males seem to recognise males and females in other species, and at times may fight other males and try to claim his females. We have had a bull (700kg) fighting a ram (75 kg) and the ram won. (He had horns and the bull was a poll). Another ram became a firm friend of a bull - walked around with him, slept beside him, and avoided the ram mob in the same paddock.

Animals kept confined closely with other species, may start doing funny things. And you may not see all that happens.

8. Worms

Worms are the only sheep parasite we worry about, and customers have lost sheep to worms. You need a complete worm strategy including:

  • running adult cattle thru sheep paddocks at least once a year
  • rotating and resting paddocks
  • occasional pasture burn offs probably help
  • understand the worm cycle
  • test for worms at high risk times
  • use copper and sulphur supplements
  • vary any wormicides used to avoid drench resistance.
  • select for resistant sheep (don't ask us how!)
  • don't graze too short - baby sheep worms can't climb very high

9. The Damara Revolution

The wool price is falling again, flock numbers are down, lamb prices are high, and the future for the hardy easy-care sheep looks bright. Their uses are numerous - meat, leather, orchard cleaners, hardy survivors, wool removers, or productive grass mowers on hobby farms. They are also coming into demand for training sheep dogs. They run better and have more stamina than merinos!

Bye for now. (PS if you prefer to get this newsletter by email (or not at all) please let us know.

From Mother-of-All-Things, the Rouseabout, the White Wolf, 300 Delightful Damaras and 15 Dopey Dorpers.

Viv & Judy Forbes.

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