Sydney Kawadza Senior Features Writer —
The El-Nino-induced drought has left a trail of destruction with cattle farmers bearing the brunt of arguably the worst dry spell in decades.
Zimbabwe, like the whole of the sub-Saharan region, is going through the summer agricultural season with farmers still counting loses from the devastating drought last season.
While official statistics are still trickling in from Government, which started compiling data in July, the losses run into millions of US dollars.
Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Deputy Minister (Livestock Production) Paddy Zhanda recently revealed that the figure of lost livestock had surpassed the 3 000 mark.
The lost cattle were worth about $1,5 million. Figures from independent organisations put the number of cattle lost at more than 30 000. This estimate puts the amount lost due to drought at $15 million at an average of $500 per beast.
The International Livestock Research Institute says approximately 635 000 cattle worth $250 million succumbed to draught in Southern Africa. Deputy Minister Zhanda believes there is a chance the cattle farmers can salvage the herd by improving the calving rate to recover from the effects of drought.
He says there is need to increase livestock production efficiency. “We need to work on increasing the calving rate from the current 45 percent to maybe 70-80 percent.”
Communities have taken heed of that call from Government with brilliant work being undertaken by rural farmers in Mashonaland East province. In Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe, Mr Givus Fata has taken up cattle fattening, both to beat the adverse weather conditions and to earn money from his humble livelihood.
The unassuming farmer stumbled into a pen fattening programme during a field day in Murehwa. He is now among farmers who have successfully engaged in a cattle pen fattening programme in Jenyura Village, Uzumba.
“We bumped into the programme in Murehwa where we had attended a field day and with the assistance from ZimCLIFS I can safely say it has been a brilliant investment,” he said.
The ZimCLIFS project is a four-year programme operating in five districts in Zimbabwe with the aim of reducing poverty and food insecurity. The project seeks to equip smallholder farmers with skills to improve crop and livestock production.
“They gave us seed to grow food for the cattle. Although the seed was affected by the dry spell last season we made hay to feed the cattle,” he said.
Mr Fata started fattening his two beasts which he expects to sell for at least $900 each.
“I am looking at getting two more from the sale of my fattened cattle at the market and my hope is to increase the herd to five by next auction,” he said.
Mr Fata’s story is not the only intriguing tale coming out of the rural communities of Mashonaland East. Small holder farmer Enesia Chidzawo has engaged in fodder production, a venture that has transformed livelihoods in Goromonzi District.
Chidzawo is one of 1 800 farmers in Goromonzi District who have been trained on conservation farming methods to grow animal feed crops such as mucuna and lablab under the ZimCLIFS project.
The training is aimed at addressing poor soil fertility, household food insecurity, shortage of livestock feed and low household income levels in Zimbabwe’s communal areas.
Smallholder farmers – who form the bulk of food producers in the country – face challenged such as food, nutrition and income insecurity. This is mainly due to poor access to information, better farming techniques and coping with natural disasters such as drought.
The ZimCLIFS programme is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and led by the International Livestock Research Institute.
The ILRI works in collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), CIMMYT, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Ecosystem Sciences, University of Queensland, Community Technology Development Organisation and Cluster Agricultural Development Services (CADS).
Mrs Chidzawo registered as a beneficiary of the ZimCLIFS project in the 2012/2013 season. She was introduced to fodder crop production and Timba Ugute Conservation Agriculture, which is a resource-efficient crop production practice based on enhanced biological processes.
These are done above and below the ground through minimum disturbance of the soil. The process also keeps the soil covered and growing crop or a dead mulch of crop residues and diversified crop.
Mrs Chidzawo earns enough to support her family of six with income from selling mucuna hay to other farmers. She has also used it to boost livestock productivity while improving her maize yields by rotating the nitrogen fixing legume in her maize field.
“Ever since we began producing mucuna, we have sold the seed to other farmers at $1 per kg and get up to $200 in a good year,” she said.
The Chidzawo family are taking farming as their source of livelihood but the high cost of inputs like fertilizers and seeds has limited their productivity.
“However, practising the combination of crop rotations, mulching, use of composts and manure has helped improve our crop yields without having to spend more money on fertilizers and other production costs,” she said.
Before taking up conservation farming, the Chidzawo family used to harvest 300kg of maize and 200kg of unshelled groundnuts per season owing to the poor soils and the drought.
“In the 2012/2013 season we took up conservation farming and harvested 800kg of the mucuna for our livestock.
“In the last season, we harvested 1 200kg of maize and 1 000kg of mucuna bean hay and we are expecting to harvest more than 300 kg of the forage seed,” Mrs Chidzawo said.
She said the programme has seen farmers provide adequate quality feed for livestock throughout the year including during the dry season because of the forage grown in the fields.
“I have increased my production to focus on other fodder legumes such as lablab which have greater market value although requiring greater attention during production,” she said.
Mrs Chidzawo said production levels had improved significantly.
“We now spend less money buying food and being a leading farmer has also enhanced my skills to engage in activities that generate income. In the past season I was hired to perform land preparation for other farmers at a rate of $30 per acre.”
Mr Simbarashe Nyamugoneka from Mutake village in the same district has used the knowledge from conservation farming training to improve his crop yields and the productivity of his livestock.
He grows maize, cowpeas, groundnuts and soya beans during the summer and practises gardening throughout the year.
“Before the project we never heard of fodder crop production,” he said. “We used to drive out our head of seven cattle to open pastures.”
They would, in some instances, feed them on maize stalks which lack sufficient and proper nutrient quality to maintain good health during the dry season.
“I sold one cow which had been fed for $650, an amount which enabled me to invest in my piggery project,” Mr Nyamugoneka said.
He has also adopted legume production, including velvet beans which are strategic for improving the soil fertility while providing food and nutrition requirements for his livestock.
Livestock specialist and ILRI regional representative for Southern Africa Professor Sikhalazo Dube says capacity building on the role of feeding livestock to improving productivity is required in Zimbabwe.
“We need to bring to the attention of our farmers that poor nutrition affects the ability of animals to reproduce and like human beings makes them susceptible to diseases,” he said.
“Once the understanding for the need to provide feed, of proper nutrient levels, is there among farmers, there is then a need to make available to farmers’ knowledge of feed and forage technologies that will allow them to feed their animals.
“Continued technical and material support for farmers is important. The challenges related to forage seed availability is real and needs to be addressed.”
Government is pushing for the education of farmers on how to develop pastures and feedstock for their animals. The target is to increase the calving rate to between 70 and 80 percent.
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