Zimbabwe’s Cattle Industry is the first part in a long series of articles aimed at enhancing farmers knowledge of one of Zimbabweans most important farm enterprises. It is based on my own opinions based on my 15 year career as a practitioner and student of the worlds most noble profession, Agriculture.
Zimbabwe can be considered excellent beef cattle country. Over 90% of its agricultural land is best suited to the grazing of livestock, its climate is favorable but its support services are highly developed. In recent years beef production has been on the decline with only a handful of farms or ranches are still very in touch with the fundamentals of cattle production regardless of its potential of contributing up to one quarter of total farm income.
Origins of cattle production as an industry dates back as far as the 1930s, where the size of the commercially farmed cattle herd increased at moderate but fluctuating rates. The establishment of the Cold Storage Commission followed and this aimed at guaranteeing markets and prices. Although the continued low prices restricted the rate of expansion for the next 30 years until 1965 when price increases and other incentives enabled producers to capitalize on the available technology and a period of unprecedented growth followed. The commercial herd peaked at around 2.7 million herd in 1971 in a nation herd of around 5.6 million herd.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE CATTLE INDUSTRY
The industry had to overcome considerable obstacles such as large tracts of range land being tamed and fenced off. Watering facilities were installed. Diseases such as Foot and Mouth, Trypanosomiasis and other tick-borne diseases were controlled (not eradicated). The transport and marketing systems were evolved and the extension, veterinary and research services worked well to solve most of the technical problems faced by cattlemen. Efficient marketing and financing systems also played a vital role in the promotion of a cattle production.
A modern and sophisticated beef industry was established and some producers built up enterprises comparable with the best to be found anywhere in the world.
Turnover or of take from the commercially owned herd doubled over the following 20years. Contributing factors were localized to the reduction in mortality from 6 – 7 % per annum to about 2% per annum, increased weaning percentages and reduced slaughter ages. While the yearly weaning percentages fluctuated, the average trend indicated a gradual improvement.
Patterns of production changed. A greater proportion of the national herd was being pen fattened thus reducing the average age of slaughter and contributing to the increased off take. Yearling steers were now commonly pen-fattened in the cropping areas for slaughter. Better management and supplementary feeding reduced the age of slaughter in much of the extensive areas 4.5 years to 3.5 years, while the better herds are capable of producing a proportion of slaughter animals off grass at 2.5 years.
The national cattle production would obviously be incomplete without consideration of the subsistence herd of some three million head held in the Tribal Trust Lands. By considerable measure, the sale for slaughter productivity of this herd was at less than 5% turnover was extremely low. It was also shown that these numbers were very inaccurate considering that these cattle contributed to agricultural output in other significant ways. For example they provided draught power, milk and meat at subsistence level.
One regional survey at the time estimated the value of draught (ploughing) at 42%, of milk at 29%, of manure at 7%, of home consumption at 5% and of market sales at only 17% of the total cattle output. Return to labor and capital invested in cattle invested in cattle, but excluding land, was estimated to be of the order 30%.(Dankwerts, J. P. 1973. A socio-economic study of veld management in the tribal areas of the Victoria Province. University of Rhodesia, Salisbury)
Nevertheless the cattle husbandry standards were very low, and without doubt beef production from this herd could be improved substantially through better management and nutrition. Such achievement however, were beset by the complex problems inherent in subsistence agriculture, which are less amenable to solution than those in the commercial farming sector.
While the picture of increasing yield gave cause for some satisfaction, the rate of advance was slow. More detailed analysis showed regions where production was particularly poor. It was clear that there is room for substantial improvement if efficiency levels are to equal those of the more efficient beef producing countries. In the light of research results, extension surveys and the output achieved by the then top farmers, beef production from the commercially owned herd could undoubtedly be considerably expanded. The two main avenues through which this may be achieved are enhanced carrying capacity through veld and pasture improvement and more efficient production.
The focal points that were meant to drive expansion were;
1. Improving carrying capacity.
These estimates of potential carrying capacity varied considerably.
2. Efficiency of production.
Calving or weaning rate, mortality, growth rate and age of slaughter are aspects of efficiency which affect productivity of the national herd.
Pen-fattening had the potential of dramatically reducing age of slaughter, of increasing slaughter, of increasing slaughter mass and of raising the off take from the national.
The Cold Storage Commission was a highly efficient marketing system which has ensured stable beef prices while world markets fluctuated.
In conclusion, Zimbabwe’s cattle industry is one that was founded on thorough research, extensive extension support and a marketing platform that enabled producers to remain competitive. As far as infrastructure is concerned, all the players across the value chain invested a substantial amount of time and financial resources in assuring they could efficiently carry out their mandate.
The turn of the century ushered in a new era in Zimbabwean agriculture and most of the land previously held by the white commercial farmers was redistributed. This also meant that a lot of knowledge, skill and other resources that were available to the previous producers was not available for the current holders of the land and in that regard, the industry has been struggling to make meaningful strides in re-establishing itself as a formidable farming enterprise.
However I believe all is not entirely lost. We have the blueprints, the infrastructure (in whatever condition) and the knowledge to push beef production numbers up. Some might argue that it has more to do with the socio-economic and political environment in the country but I believe it all starts with the mentality that is within the aspiring and existing producers right down to the farm level to get the science and the processes right. Only then can all the players start moving as a unified front in terms of research, extension and marketing. There is hope for Zimbabwean agriculture, the question is are the people on the ground willing to do the work????