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October 2001

Our Damara Experience

Our lives changed the day the first load of Damara sheep ran off the Dick Smith Truck in April 1999. We knew little about sheep and had no experience of Damaras before that date - all our lives we had reared cattle. Two and a half years later we are a lot wiser. This newsletter may help others to learn from our lessons and mistakes.

1. Raising Damaras from Implanted Embryos

Our first Damara ewes were put into embryo programs and the embryos implanted into Merino ewes. We also purchased a Damara ram and a flock of F1 ewes - 50:50 Damara/Merino.

First problems were with the Merino recipient ewes - blowfly, eye blight and spear grass. Also a couple died inexplicably, and another couple looked at their coloured lamb and said "That's not mine" and walked off. One poor Damara lamb starved before we worked out that the old Merino ewe had no milk. Others struggled through the drought living on dry spear grass, but eventually we weaned all the Damaras, even the bottle fed ones, and with great relief got rid of the Merinos. They did the job but we never want to have Merinos again - poor survivors, need shearing, crutching, docking and mulesing, collect spear grass and are hard to handle - stubborn, don't flock well, defeatist.

2. Merino - Damara Cross

50% Damara blood makes a huge difference to the Merinos. More alert, more agile, more intelligent and they stick together in a flock better.

But, they still grow wool and have to be shorn. First time we used a shearer - it was a big job, cutting stuff a bit like a cross between wool and felt. There is a market for the F1 fleece but probably not worth chasing for a small operator. None of our F1's has had fly strike or eye blight or any other problem except spear grass. This is a problem for F1 or F2 weaner lambs if they go into heavy spear grass after the wool comes. Spears go though the wool into the soft skin and in places into the meat.

For the second shearing, we used Biopclip and found it a great product. A small percent of ewes are slow to shed their wool but most did easily. It is a bit messy with wool falling all over the place.

The F2's (75% Damara) have far less wool, but still enough to collect spear grass. Lambs need to be kept out of it until the spears are gone. After the age of about 18 months they cope better with spears - maybe the skins become tougher.

3. Other Sheep Breeds

Because of a shortage of ewes we have tried other ewes to cross with Damara - mainly crosses of Merino, Dorper and East Fresian. Apart from the wool, with all its associated maintenance problems, the huge benefit of Damaras compared to all other sheep breeds we have experienced is ease of handling. Damaras flock so well compared to the others who are scheming wandering rogues by comparison. Dorpers are now referred to as d... Dorpers because half of them will always find a way to crawl out of the paddock they are put in and go somewhere else. When I complained to a visiting South African about this problem with Dorpers he said - "Oh yes, at home we say - If you bring home Dorpers, drop them at your neighbour's place - in 2 days they will drift home."

East Fresians are as bad, maybe worse. This tendency to wander from the flock is exacerbated by the wool that insulates them from electric fences - they learn to become fence runners. Some cross breed Damaras learn to follow the rogues. They improve as they get bigger.

In contrast, the Damara flock stays together in the paddock where they are put. No fence runners, no maverick breakaways - their home is the flock and they stick there and can be moved in one body, on foot with no dogs. This is a great benefit of Damaras.

4. Lessons with Rams

Our first (expensive) purebred ram was a flop as a stud breeder (because of our inexperience). We put him with Merino and F1 ewes first (we had no Damara ewes at the time). He did a good job, giving us a lot of F2 lambs.

Then we added pure Damara ewes to the flock. Some months later we noticed he was rejecting advances from the clearly amorous Damara ewes - he did not recognise these coloured fat tailed things as his - he had his own grey wives with no awkward tail in the way. Not one of our Damara ewes was pregnant.

So we immediately split the flock into Damaras and Crossbreds, and got a new virgin ram for the pure bred flock. We have since learned that a Damara ram who starts with Damara ewes will serve crossbreds added later, but there is a risk in the reverse procedure.

We have also found that it is worth running at least two rams together with the crossbred flock - the competition seems to stimulate each to more efforts to serve any available ewe. The South Africans tell us that a few rams will protect the flock from predators. They say "Two baboons can kill a leopard, two Damaras can kill a baboon".

With large mobs of sheep and several rams we believe the rams will combine to combat predators. One ram on his own is not much use - the ewes flock around him and he is unable to fight or run. With more natural herds, with a few dominant rams at the centre, and many hopefuls on the fringes, the young turks on the perimeter will fight the predators.

5. Markets for Damaras

Most of our sales to date have gone for breeding, mostly to small holders attracted to the Damara strong points - low maintenance, no shearing, delicious meat, easy to handle, a great variety of colours.

There is a bit of a shortage of purebred ewes, until we all breed up the numbers, so many people start with F1 or F2 cross ewes and a pure Damara ram.

There is a growing population of Damara and Damara cross sheep in Central and Southern Queensland and they truck their output to Adelaide for export.

For smaller East Coast Producers, unable to fill a truckload, the local domestic or Muslim market seems unsatisfied. Everyone is willing to try, but we never have enough production of males to guarantee regular supplies. As numbers build up we will investigate why there are no live sheep exports from Brisbane, Rockhampton or Townsville.

6. Meatmasters

Just as the very successful Brahman cattle have spawned a flood of crossbred cattle, so too the unique benefits of Damaras are being infused into other sheep breeds. The South Africans call these sheep "Meatmasters" and are developing a new breed.

"Meatmaster" is applied to Damara crossed with any other breed of sheep, but well over 90% are crossed with Dorpers.

We had always thought Dorpers would provide a good cross with Damaras, and despite our dislike of the Dorpers wanderlust, we still believe that is so. An added advantage is that Dorpers are hair sheep, so even first crosses do not need shearing. Our first Damara/Dorper lambs are due any day.

We also wondered about a Wiltshire/Damara cross, as the Wiltshire is also a hair sheep. But one of our customers got rid of his Wiltshires to get Damaras. His reason - Wiltshires only breed annually whereas Damaras can lamb every eight months. Maybe Damaras will pass on this trait to the F1's, but we do not know.

The East Fresians were a mistake - we dreamed about getting some milk sheep so we could have fresh, grass-fed, non-pasteurised milk. But their maverick wanderlust tendencies have cured us of that dream - we have bought 2 little Jersey heifers. Once we get F1 lambs from the East Fresians, they will move on.

7. Damaras as Pets

Because we started with Damara embryos in aged Merino recipient mothers, we ended up with a few orphaned or abandoned lambs. These were raised on bottles (screw top baby bottles with straight teats are the best to use - they can't cope with the orthodontic teats). They became very quiet loving pets. The quiet rams were snapped up by people a bit nervous about starting in sheep, and money couldn't buy the ewes who went back into the flock. They are good leaders and even a year later they will walk out of the flock to get patted. This is very good to show lookers a Damara close up.

In contrast, the East Fresians, (also orphaned and raised on bottles) are quiet enough to be a nuisance to drive anywhere, but not quiet enough to be caught or patted - they will skip off like insolent teenagers.

8. The Effect on Pastures & Parasites

We were initially prompted to get sheep by a desire to run a greater variety of animals, eating a diversity of pasture and shrubs. That has been a good success. We use cell grazing, and the pastures are improving in the areas used by both sheep and cattle. Sheep prefer short grass, shrubs, weeds and hillsides; cattle eat longer grass and prefer the flats. Moreover adult cattle help to keep sheep worms in check and we think the sheep reduce cattle tick numbers.

9. The Predator Problem

Dingo's and wild dogs are a problem with small flocks with a single ram. We have foxes and wedgetail eagles, but these have not given any trouble. Dogs have.

Our first response was better fencing, which has helped. And we bring ewes and lambs home at night. Flocks of spare rams take their chances out all the time and we have not had a single loss there. (Those horns look a pretty good defence.) Nightly yarding is not good - extra work for the shepherd and the sheep, and a danger of mis-mothering at lambing time.

So, after a lot of thought and investigation we have decided to use Maremma dogs. "Sheba" our first, is now guarding Mother-of-all-Things (Judy), the house, vehicles, equipment and the chooks. The next Maremma will go with the Damara ewes (who also have "Major" the guardian Llama). Eventually the crossbred flock will get their white guard too, but for now we will run 3 or 4 rams with them.

10. Damara Producer Groups, Pedigrees, Records

There are two Australian Damara societies and both are just getting organised -

  • The Damara Sheep Breeders' Society of Australia Inc - for stud producers.
  • The Australian Damara Producers Association Inc - for commercial producers.

Pending development of a national register of stud animals, we will maintain records for all sheep purchased from Damaras Qld Pty Ltd. We use "Menagerie" as a stock recording system for sheep and a sister program for our stud cattle. We find them very good.

The Verdict

Despite the huge amount of work we let ourselves in for, learning how to manage sheep and installing sheep fences and handling equipment, we are very pleased with our Damaras and have great faith in their future. They are ideal for the small farmers around the cities, easy care, good for clearing up orchards and have a good local and export market.

We still have a few adult pure bred Damara rams for sale now, and young ones are being weaned. Our entire first crop of F2 rams was easily sold for breeding or eating. The next crop of F2 rams is weaned and can go now for grass eating, breeding or filling the freezer. Ewes are in short supply, but most people seem to be able to weasel some out of us.

Visitors are always welcome as long as you make an appointment first. Please feel free to contact us for information (free), advice (free and probably worth what it costs), and especially for wonderful Damara sheep (money required).

Viv & Judy Forbes.

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