Obert Chifamba Correspondent
WHEN a farmer looks at his cow or ox, he sees more than just a simple economic asset whose value is reckoned in terms of the milk it produces or the draught power it provides. What he sees is an asset whose principal functions are investment and security.Cattle are endowed with an assortment of attributes ranging from the production of milk, draught power, manure to fertilise crops, insurance against unforeseen contingencies and a form of capital asset to finance the occasional expenditure.
They are a store of wealth that are sold according to cash flow needs. Their principal contribution to the farming system is the provision of draught power for crop production. Almost all farmers in communal Zimbabwe own cattle or any other livestock unit.
A typical herd contains cattle, goats and poultry. In terms of monetary value or contribution to agricultural production, cattle are the most important species: their prime role is to supply draught power for crop cultivation and manure and are of crucial importance to the farm economy.
Recent media reports of El-Niño drought inspired cattle deaths are very disturbing — not only to the farmer but the entire country because this is essentially the loss of a very reliable store of wealth, which farmers value more than any other alternatives such as bank deposits.
To them, cattle are an investment, which is easy to convert into cash. Just this past week, the Division of Livestock Production and Development in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development reported that the national figure of dead cattle due to drought had hit the 20 000 mark.
As of last month, Masvingo province topped the list with 6 566 deaths.
Matabeleland North had recorded 3 606 deaths, Matabeleland South 1 268, Midlands 1 301 while Manicaland province had recorded 3 111 deaths. Chipinge district, still in Manicaland, lost 1 300 forcing farmers to sell cattle at give-away prices in a bid to at least recoup something instead of getting utterly nothing.
Chipinge’s herd is estimated at 30 000. Today some farmers are reportedly selling cattle for between $20 and $50 yet the real value in good times ranges from $250 to over $500 depending on the size, age and sex of the beast.
These farmers’ tragedy lies in that the prevailing circumstances are forcing them to sell or barter trade their cattle to at least salvage something or else lose everything, which on the other hand, has seen prices plummeting and buyers capitalising on the desperate situation.
The law of supply and demand has turned cruel here, if you know what I mean. There is an oversupply of cattle versus very few buyers who are playing for time to make the farmers more desperate so that they accept whatever the buyers offer in the end.
There are chances more cattle will die, as the season wears on if forecasts of a poor 2015-16 season by the Meteorological Department are anything to go by.
And more cattle will be given away, as farmers battle to at least get something no matter how negligible.
It is crucial for farmers in drought prone areas to sell animals when they are still in good shape and save the cash for later restocking.
They can even use some of the money to secure grain and fight hunger. In fact, the onus is on the farmers to mitigate the harsh effects of the harsh climate on their cattle.
They need to treat cattle farming seriously like any other farming business, which should also generate some income regularly but with them playing a key role in how the cattle survive. They need to be strategic and not just leave themselves at the mercy of vagaries of the weather.
It is also necessary for farmers to understand the agro-ecological requirements of the various areas in which they do their business. And just like they choose drought tolerant crop varieties, they should also do the same for cattle.
There are breeds that thrive even under difficult conditions while there are others that do not cope when things change even slightly. Sometimes farmers fail to break the clutch of the sentimental value they attach to their cattle and do not react to salvage something from the animals even in the event of a disease outbreak or other natural disaster.
It is necessary for farmers to develop a culture of culling unproductive or less useful animals and re-stock at a more opportune time. At a critical time like this, farmers need to keep sizeable herds and sell the rest to avoid total losses or selling them for a song after they get wasted from these recurrent drought.
As a precautionary measure, farmers can also establish feedlots so that when the weather turns nasty, as it currently is, they have a fallback position and instead of selling or killing their cattle they can drive them to the feedlots.
Those farmers operating adjacent to A2 farms or other commercial farming communities need to approach the owners and negotiate for grazing pastures, that is, if their animals have proven records of vaccinations and fluent dipping.
Generally, it is prudent for farmers to realise that cattle are a capital reserve, built up in good times to be used when crops are poor or when the family is facing large expenses such as the cost of a wedding or a hospital bill.
Although commercial off-take from Zimbabwe’s communal cattle herd is low, communal farmers are productive and rational in their cattle herd management. The economic rationale for cattle ownership is firstly to provide draught power and manure for tillage and secondly to provide milk and meat for local consumption, although the role of livestock in the farming system varies significantly from one part of Zimbabwe to another.
Other functions of cattle are less readily measured and valued but are nevertheless of importance. Cattle are used for storage (as opposed to investment) of capital. Many farmers in Zimbabwe sell their small stock (usually goats and chickens) to meet occasional cash requirements.
However, in years of drought or other domestic crises the farmer’s cattle may be the only major asset, which he can turn into cash. A significant number of older unproductive animals are slaughtered for local meat consumption. Few cattle die of old age: sick animals are often slaughtered before they die on their own (so-called salvage slaughter).
Cattle are dying at an alarming rate due to a combination of feed and water shortages as well as exposure to diseases like foot and mouth and anthrax. But livestock experts say parched pastures are entirely to blame for the deaths of thousands of cattle across the country.
Last year, the livestock department estimated that the national cattle herd stood at 5,3 million animals, down from over six million in 2014.