THE development of the cattle industry during the first two decades of Southern Rhodesia’s existence as a colony in the early part of the 20th Century took place with the concurrent move in the young colony’s policy from mining to the development of the settlers’ agriculture and cattle ranching, aided by the intervention of the Chartered British South Africa Company (BSAC).

The vast quantities of land granted, sold or given away by the Chartered British South Africa Company (BSAC) and which was, as a rule, held initially as a speculative proposition and/or mined for gold rather than farming, resulted in a large group of ‘small under-capitalised cattle producers’; a major defining feature of settler-commercial beef production in Southern Rhodesia before the Second World War (1939-1946).

Without sufficient experience and lack of capital, the majority of the white settler-ranchers found it extremely difficult to raise cattle ‘from birth to slaughter at the right age, weight and quality’ and were thus exceedingly unqualified to meet the rigorous requirements of the world markets.

Records indicate it still took most of the early white ranchers between four and five years to bring a steer to the required slaughter weight.

The problems facing the early cattle ranchers were also aggravated by the generally wrongly assumed poor beef qualities of the local indigenous cattle which they relied on as breeding stock.

The unquestioned racist belief in the superiority of imported breeds among settlers prevented the vigorous and efficient implementation of a suitable breeding policy.  

Because of this, whole herds of cattle were up-graded too hastily. This resulted in most cattle being bred above the quality of natural pastures in the country. 

At the time, colonial ranchers were of the opinion that indigenous cattle breeds were inferior to European breeds. Everyone sought to cross their (looted) foundation stock with “…imported pedigree stock in order to introduce the desirable beef qualities of European breeds…” such as early maturity and size of European herds.

Although the first crosses between indigenous cattle and imported pedigree stock were successful, subsequent crosses were inclined to produce progressively poorer offspring.

Often overlooked by the pioneering white cattle ranchers was the fact that imported breeds could not thrive under harsh climatic conditions in Southern Africa.  

Imported exotic breeds such as Aberdeen Angus, Charolais, Devon, Hereford, Shorthorn or Sussex suffered from high temperatures and seasonal fluctuations in the quality of veld pasture in the country. 

Under local conditions, the weight of beasts would generally fluctuate between 45kg in the dry season, when the quality of pasture deteriorated, to as much as 450kg and more in summer, when grazing in the pastures is at its premium.

This process of seasonal changes to which imported breeds were subjected often resulted in stunted growth rates and the production of poor-quality animals.

The failure to stop uncontrolled breeding or repeated crossings in the industry, often under unsuitable conditions, inevitably caused many inexperienced ranchers to substitute the hardiness and thriftiness of indigenous cattle breeds for the frailty of exotic imported breeds. 

Instead of getting better progeny, most colonial ranchers produced increasingly unsuitable cattle that were vulnerable to diseases caused by the various parasites they unwittingly imported into the country; resulting in these cattle breeders incurring heavy losses on their investments, as many of the crossed herds died.

A better option was to gradually and methodically up-grade indigenous breeds to maintain their hardiness in the progeny while adding the properties of early maturity and size of the exotic breeds. However, since many were under-capitalised at the time, they had neither the financial means nor the will to take the risks involved, particularly during the depression that followed the First World War, when both agriculture and the beef industry plunged into a recession.

Extensive animal research had for long identified lack of supplementary feeding as one of the beef industry’s major weaknesses. But, because of the unprofitable nature of beef production during the interwar period, on the one hand, and lack of capital, on the other, the majority of the budding ranchers in the industry opted to rely on natural veld, which was cheaper, instead of adopting Government-recommended supplementary feeding techniques which often required expensive feed. 

Thus, by relying mostly on veld pasture, many cattle ranchers compromised the quality of beef produced, rendering most animals unsuitable for the more remunerative beef grades demanded by the market, especially those stipulated by the export market, 

Because of undercapitalisation, a host of other economic evils detrimental to the development of proper production methods in the beef industry also emerged.

Despite the existence of colonial Government-subsidised livestock improvement schemes, breeding techniques in the industry remained under-developed.  Furthermore, veld pastures were overburdened with a higher proportion of ‘free-riders’ – cattle that are unsuitable for the market.  

This meant added costs of dipping, herding, fencing, disease control and watering which also weighed heavily on the cattle ranchers’ shoulders, from which very little or no remuneration could be derived.

The situation was worsened by the inability of cattle producers to acquire the necessary inputs, such as pesticides, to ward off a host of cattle diseases. 

The practice in which milk rather than beef often became the by-product of the ranching industry, retarded calf growth and contributed to the increase in calf mortality in the industry in general. 

The threat posed by wild game further added to the early small rancher’s economic problems, especially in the country’s best south-eastern range lands, where large herds of elephants, hippopotamus and zebra made paddocking of ranches difficult as the animals “… just walked through the fences”.

Because of the threat of wild carnivores, cattle had to be herded by herdsmen in the daytime and kraaled at night.  Lions, in particular, gave ranchers a difficult time as “…their smell terrified domestic stock which could not sleep by night nor graze by day; and in the dry season, it was common for terrified animals to die of starvation.”

Enclosing cattle at night eroded the under-capitalised colonial settler-ranchers’ profits, whose profits were further eroded in other ways.  

For example; by daily driving cattle to-and-from their grazing, cattle lost their condition, yielded less meat and were easily susceptible to the spread of diseases. 

Furthermore, the continuous tramping caused by cattle moving to-and-from their enclosures not only caused erosion and created dongas but also altered and desiccated the land and pastures, thereby limiting the carrying capacity for ranches.

However, ranchers could not acquire fencing material to keep out hordes of teeming wild game which either competed with cattle for grazing or acted as hosts for the disease carrying tsetse-fly.  

The need to protect cattle, grazing and fences on ranches led to the bloody slaughter of wild game.

Records of settler-accounts show that lions, leopards, crocodiles, wild dogs and jackals were major killers of cattle and remained the white pioneer rancher’s worst economic nightmare in the years before the Second World War. 

A major factor for this was that many of the country’s game reserves had not yet been appropriately demarcated and wildlife conservation was regarded as secondary to the expansion of agriculture.

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 Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. E-mail:


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