Rescuing Zimbabwe’s livestock industry

Among the many sectors of Zimbabwe’s economy that have declined progressively over the years is agriculture which, until the millennium 12 years ago, was thriving and was the key foundation of the economy.

Opinion by Eric Bloch

Agricultural production was not only of very great substance, but was also impressively varied, and included tobacco, maize, wheat and diverse other grains as well as cotton, citrus, sugar, and much else.

One of the very significant elements of the country’s agriculture was livestock, which was not only the mainstay of rural communities, but also serviced the requirements of the urban populace and was a major contributor to Zimbabwe’s exports (within the region, and to markets in the European Union).

Tragically, however, all of Zimbabwean agriculture has very markedly declined, and that includes the livestock sector. A major contributor to the decline was the racist ousting,from the turn of the century onwards, of most of the very experienced and highly productive established farmers.

The economic devastation triggered by that action by the State was intensified, and maximised by the simultaneous withdrawal of all rights of title and ownership to the lands, precluding newly-settled farmers from access to funding necessary for the conduct of their farming operations, as they were rendered devoid of any collateral value required to access loans.

Compounding the decimation of agriculture has, during the past decade, been several years of very adverse climatic conditions, occasioning an insufficiency of water resources in general, and minimised recourse to irrigation (exacerbated by the extent that much of the country’s irrigation infrastructure had been cannabilised and disposed of by newly-settled farmers, and such systems as continue to exist also limited in usage in consequence of erratic availability of energy).

Yet another major contributor to the decline in agriculture has been the diminution in production by communal farmers, and that has resulted in very considerable hardships and poverty for innumerable villagers residing in the communal areas.

Some of the negative effects of the decline in livestock rearing has been the consequential diminution of export operations, and the reduced supply-driven rises in prices for domestic consumers, and the adverse impacts upon Zimbabwe’s already considerable trade deficit. The Cold Storage Company imports much beef and beef products from Botswana, intensifying hardships for rural communities. With that in mind, this columnist recognised the substance of a recent submission to him by one reader, who wrote:

“Large numbers of communal cattle are dying during the present season, blamed upon the drought. During (that contributor’s 56 years in Matabeleland) there were several droughts like the present one. In commercial farming, however, livestock survived under proper veld management. Grass eaten by cattle is shallow-rooted, and will produce sufficient leaves with a rainfall of approximately 100 mm. This leaf matter must be looked after to sustain livestock during both rainy and dry seasons.

The present set-up in the communal areas, on village level, is the available land around the dwellings. The communal grazing area is shared by all. The animals are released from their kraals after milking, into the communal grazing areas. Some are herded by non-school going children and the elderly, but many are not.

As a result, cattle stray into available land. To prevent this, an average of 50 trees are cut down for fences, which fences are replaced every two to three years. Minister Sipepa Nkomo has said seven million trees are cut annually.
Fencing of lands probably accounts for half of that figure. The number of animals per owner varies, ranging from 900 to 300, 50, 20,10 and for others five.
The big number owners employ herdsmen, but with most cattle being let out in the morning and brought in at night. The animals go for the sweet grasses and move on. There is no controlled grazing for them, and once the dry season arrives there is no more grazing available, and cattle starve to death. Survivors are in such poor condition that it takes the whole incoming rainy season to make up for the weight loss.”

The reader, who succinctly summarised that major constraint upon the wellbeing of millions of villagers, did not only identify a pronounced reason for the diminution of effective livestock breeding and wellbeing in communal centres, but also suggests ways of improving grazing in communal lands. He suggested that:

Firstly, there should be formation of livestock associations at village level. “Members should contribute financially for the employment of herdsmen, being one or more, depending on the number of animals to be looked after. One of the herdsmen should be trained to identify and treat diseases and illnesses at an early stage, and in the use of vaccines, antibiotics and other basic veterinary methods, as early diagnosis and treatment saves lives and more than offsets the cost of employing the herdsmen.

Secondly, as a policy of short duration, high density grazing,should be pursued. The aim of this is to force the animals to graze all the plants at a given time, to give the sweet annual grasses a chance to reproduce through seeding.”

The third recommended action depends upon the number of animals in the herd. The available grazing area should be subdivided appropriately (say 50 animals per five hectares). In doing so, the condition of the grazing must be considered. Although ideal, fencing the divisions would be too costly, but instead painted poles can be used, at distances of, say, 50 metres, or closer in wooded country, dependent upon the condition of the grazing land.”

The reader giving this advice recognises that this is “just a basic outline” of the project of enhanced utilisation of grazing, and that “the main task is to convince communities of the necessity to reverse the condition of hope, but inadequate or ineffective maximisation of available grazing, as presently prevails in very many areas.”

However, as simplistic and basic as these measures are, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Council of Chiefs should vigorously promote their implementation, although concurrently Zimbabwe must intensively develop dams and concomitant irrigation schemes wheresoever potentially viable, throughout the country, for the benefit of both commercial and communal farmers. In so doing, urgent attention is needed to address the massive over-siltation of very many dams and rivers, the refurbishment of such irrigation systems as still exist, and the development of new dams and irrigation facilities wheresoever possible.

Doing so will enhance both commercial and communal farming, and a partial recovery of Zimbabwe’s decimated agricultural sector.
In the event Government restores collateral value to Zimbabwe’s rural lands, agriculture will become a major contributor, and probably the foremost one, to the long-awaited economic recovery so greatly needed for the wellbeing of Zimbabweans.

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