Cattle of the rural communal farming sector


AS early as 1962, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), was officially divided into five natural regions (NRs), later modified by the Department of Agricultural and Technical Extension Services (AGRITEX).
Here, the communal lands, being very diverse in character, and the agro-ecology vary considerably between the semi-arid, low-veld and the Eastern Highlands; affecting the contributions of cropping and livestock in the farming system.
Population density also varies significantly throughout Zimbabwe and has a strong effect on agriculture, as land shortage led to more intensive crop production and to the reduction of areas available for livestock grazing.
Household income patterns, farm credit, types of crops grown, livestock holdings and levels of implement ownership vary significantly from one communal land to another.
Overall, incomes of households owning cattle are substantially higher than those of households not owning cattle.
AGRITEX emphasised the multiplicity of livestock functions in the development of livestock programmes in the communal lands.
While land use in some parts of Matabeleland may be closer to pastoralism than agro-pastoralism, the farming system in most communal lands is based on mixed farming.
Households cultivate their own small arable plots, producing subsistence food crops and sometimes cash crops such as cotton and sunflower.
Small livestock herds kept by indigenous households are typically grazed on nearby common land, herded back each night to the owners’ cattle pens.
Most rural communal lands of Zimbabwe do not have sufficient grazing area to support the draught cattle which farmers require for their crop production.
Most of the cattle in Zimbabwe’s communal herd are of Sanga type, mainly Mashona, with a number of other indigenous types such as Ngoni/Nkone or Tuli.
Social and economic aspects of communal cattle production in Zimbabwe have often and variously been examined over the past decades.
The functions most frequently identified as being important have been classified as follows:
Relating to crop production
l Tillage (ploughing, ridging, weeding)
l Provision of manure
l Transport (of inputs and produce; also wood and water, among others)
l Milk for domestic consumption (and local sale)
l Meat, hides, horns and other by-products for do- mestic consumption (and local sale)
Household finance
l Investment of crop income (capital growth through herd growth)
l Savings (capital storage: for school fees, bride wealth)
l Ritual purposes (installation of ancestral spirits, ritual offerings and bride wealth, among others)
l Social status and pleasure in ownership
Cattle production is closely interrelated with crop production in rural areas.
Cattle provide draught power for tillage, manure and transport as inputs to crop production.
Cattle consume stover and other crop wastes as inputs to livestock production.
The investment of crop income in cattle ownership leads to capital growth as the herd grows through reproduction.
Cows usually provide milk for the cattle-owning household and sometimes for local sale.
Other functions of cattle in the communal lands of Zimbabwe 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 the country sell their small stock (usually goats and chickens) to meet occasional cash requirements.
However, in years of drought or other domestic crisis, the farmer’s cattle may be the only major asset which he or she can turn into cash.
Cattle also have spiritual and cultural roles in rural society.
There is a ritual requirement for a household to keep a mature bull upon which an ancestral spirit (mudzimu) is installed by a spirit medium.
Such bulls are known as kunzi revadzimu – ancestral bull.
Indigenous tradition calls for the slaughter of a beast on important occasions such as the death of a cattle owner and at wedding ceremonies.
However, the value attached to different cattle functions is likely to vary between households, even within one area, especially in relation to size of herd held within a given household.
According to a survey (circa.1974) of 20 veld management schemes in the communal farming areas of

Masvingo Province, covering Natural Regions (NR) II, IV and V, it estimated that ploughing accounted for 41 percent of the total gross value of output from cattle production, followed by 32 percent by home consumption of milk and meat, 20 percent from net sale of animals (disposals minus purchases) and seven percent from the value of manure.
Manure and animal draught are not final outputs but inputs to crop production which are utilised mainly within the household that own the cattle.
This survey, conducted in the same year in Chiwundura Natural Region III in Kwekwe, ranked the objectives of cattle ownership in the order of production, consumption and social functions and as a source of cash lastly.
This ranking of cattle ownership is generally applicable throughout the communal lands of livestock production in Zimbabwe.
A study carried out in 1984 in the Chirumanzi Natural Region III, by the Department of Veterinary Services, concluded that milk accounted for 30 percent of the value of cattle functions, followed by
22 percent from draught.
In Mberengwa – Natural Region IV — the corresponding percentages were
43 percent and 31 percent respectively.
An in-depth study of agro-pastoral livestock production in the Zvishavane District, between 1986 and 1988, estimated that draught provision accounted for 57 percent of the economic value of cattle functions; followed in importance by milk provision (22 percent), transport
(16 percent) while manure, sale and slaughter accounted for five percent.
In a survey carried out to ascertain the relative importance of different cattle functions that included lobola and ritual purposes, transport and draught were perceived as the two most important functions during the exercise, followed by lobola and then milk.
Women generally ranked lobola as the more important function of cattle than did men, with farmers from sand-veld area placing greater value on manure than those from the clay veld area.
Consumption of milk and meat from local slaughter usually takes place within the household, for which there is little quantitative data.
In 1989, the Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Control Branch (TTCB), in collaboration with the Agricultural Rural Development Authority (ARDA), carried out a baseline agricultural survey in Mashonaland West Province. They were particularly interested to collect information on cattle production in tsetse-affected area.
Among cattle owners, the provision of draught power was the most important reason for owning cattle.
The second-ranked reason was as a way of saving money. The provision of milk and transport were next in importance, followed by provision of manure.
The main source of manure (ndove) is from the pens in which the animals are kept overnight. From estimated measurements, manure recoverable from kraals amounted to approximately 880kg annually on a dry basis, per average animal.
Another study estimated that between 1,25 to 1,65kg of cattle manure was collected and applied to fields to a kg of bovine live weight in the herd.
The amount being used annually per household was approximately one to three tonnes; over 95 percent being applied to maize crops.
Although these estimates varied from region to region, manure was found to be of less value in the more arid parts of Zimbabwe where returns to crop inputs are naturally less than in areas of greater rainfall and higher cropping potential.
A farm management survey found that the proportion of households applying manure to their crops was only 39 percent in Natural Regions II and II, and 90 percent in Natural Region IV.
The agricultural work of draught animals in communal areas can include ploughing, manuring, ridging and weeding — not only on the fields of the cattle owner but also on those of other farmers.
In addition to agricultural work, cattle are used for pulling scotch carts to carry wood and water, among other general transport duties. The use of draught animals for transporting water and wood vary according to availability of these commodities in proximity to residential sites.
The amount of draught work carried out by cattle varies greatly from place to place and between households.
Castrated adult males (oxen), are the main draught animals and are normally used for the most arduous tasks such as ploughing while cows are given the lighter duties. Some farmers also use steers, bulls, heifers and cows which may be used for draught power even when lactating, although the importance of cows as draught animals may vary considerably from place to place.
However, research shows that the use of cows for ploughing and other draught purposes reduces fertility and therefore the frequency of lactation. Stress factors such as work, parasitic infestations and disease also reduce milk yields.
The full utilisation of draught animals in field work is constrained in some places by limited availability of implements such as ploughs, ox-drawn cultivators, harrows and scotch carts.
The annual draught output is partly constrained by the length of the growing season, which is variable throughout Zimbabwe and determines the very short period in which ploughing is practicable. Local soil characteristics determine whether winter ploughing is feasible.
Daily productivity per animal depends partly on the soil characteristics which affect the size of the span needed for field work and the area such a team can till in one day.
Actual daily productivity is a function of the plane of nutrition and health of the animals. Cattle farmers are generally conscious not to overwork their draught animals and usually have a schedule of rest days for them. As the number of draught animals available to a farmer increases, animals are worked less frequently on the field.
People who did not own cattle and who wanted to acquire them universally gave ploughing as their first reason for wanting cattle, with provision of milk and meat for home consumption coming next in importance. Lobola again did not appear to be an important consideration.
In some pre-colonial Bantu societies, cattle ownership may have served religious and cultural functions rather than economic ones.
However, the viewpoint is still encountered frequently that communal farmers are tradition-bound in their attitudes towards cattle. While the social and ritual functions of cattle are still very real, the above studies tend to confirm that such functions no longer have a major influence upon decision-making about cattle herd management.
The most important functions of cattle in the communal lands in Zimbabwe today are economic functions, associated firstly with increased crop production through use of animal draught power and secondly with provision of cattle products — mainly milk but also meat — for the household and finally as a source of alternative income and a hedge against the vagaries of the economy.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and post-colonial heritage studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practicing artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. E-mail:


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