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Challenges for improving smallholder dairy production in the semiarid areas of Zimbabwe

G N C Chinogaramombe, V Muchenje*, C Mapiye*, T Ndlovu**, M Chimonyo*and L Musemwa***

Department of Agriculture Management, Zimbabwe Open University, Bulawayo Region, P.O. Box 3550, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
*Department of Livestock and Pasture Sciences, University of Fort Hare, P. Bag X1314, Alice 5700, RSA
**Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry, University of Fort Hare, P. Bag X1314, Alice 5700, RSA
***Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, University of Fort Hare, P. Bag X1314, Alice 5700, RSA


A survey was conducted to identify constraints and opportunities faced by the smallholder dairy farmers in semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe. Sixty households were selected using stratified random sampling based on the year of resettlement.


Milk production was the most important livestock enterprise in the surveyed areas. The major crops grown were maize, sorghum and groundnuts. About half of the respondents had herd sizes of 6-10 cattle with an average of 5 lactating cows. Milk yield was significantly associated with farmers’ year of resettlement (P < 0.05). The newly resettled farmers produced lower milk yield (<10kg/day) compared to 10-30 kg of milk/day produced by those that were resettled earlier. The cattle in the smallholder dairy sector were dominated by Nkone (35% of the respondents) followed by Jersey (30%) and crossbreeds (25%). The majority of the farmers (60%) used communal bulls to mate their cows. Rangelands were the major source of feed for dairy cattle.  Tick-borne diseases (87% of the interviewees) and bacterial diseases (53%) were the most prevalent diseases in Irisvale and Komani semiarid areas.


The major constraints faced by smallholder dairy farmers in the semiarid areas were shortage of feed and transport. Smallholder milk producers were recommended to resort to lower-cost and locally available multi-purpose trees and agro-industrial by-products to augment the inadequate grazing resources.

Keywords: Constraint, farmer, feed, milk yield, opportunities


Smallholder dairy farming has become popular in most developing countries (Mwenya 1992; Banda et al 2000; Ngongoni et al 2006; 2007).  In Zimbabwe, smallholders’ contribution of marketed milk increased from 0% in 1983 to 2% in 1998 (Hamudikuwanda et al 2000; Ngongoni et al 2006) and an estimated 5% in 2002 (Garwe 2007). Smallholder dairy farming developmental programmes were initiated in 1983, and were mainly concentrated in the medium to high rainfall areas of Zimbabwe (Garwe et al 2001; Ngongoni et al 2006; Muchenje et al 2007). In 1998, they were then extended to semiarid areas, which were initially described as unsuitable for dairy farming (Garwe et al 2001; Garwe 2007). The development efforts in the semiarid areas targeted resettled farms that had potential to grow fodder. Fodder was considered to be the major factor limiting smallholder dairy in the semiarid areas (Garwe et al 2001; Jingura 2000; Mapiye et al 2007; Ngongoni et al 2007). There is, however, little if any, information on the other factors that limit smallholder dairy farming in these areas. This makes it complicated to devise and execute sustainable smallholder dairy development programs that assist resource-poor farmers.


Dairying in the smallholder areas is practised to produce milk for feeding the family and for sale, to produce manure to support crop production and to provide dairy animals for insurance and financing emergency cash needs and for social status (Banda et al 2000; Bebe et al 2003). Smallholder dairy farming assists farmers to diversify, spread farming risks and creates opportunity to make some idling resources like crop residues enter the human food chain utilizing marginal form resources (Ngongoni et al 2006). This broad perspective to dairy production deviates from livestock development policies, which generally focus on the marketed inputs and outputs of livestock systems and on the services directly linked to these (Bebe et al 2003). The differences in perspectives to smallholder dairy production hamper the formulation of effective livestock policies aimed at improving the livelihoods of smallholders. The objective of this study was to identify constraints and opportunities faced by the smallholder dairy farmers in semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe.


Materials and methods

Study site


The study was carried-out in Irisvale and Komani smallholder areas in Umzingwane district in Matebeleland South Province, Zimbabwe.  Irisvale and Komani are located 80km and 35km from Bulawayo city, respectively, and at an altitude of 1 300 m. These areas are found in agro-ecological zone IV characterised by low and erratic rainfall (400-600 mm/annum) and mean annual temperature range of 20-30oC. The predominant trees in these areas are Colophospermum mopane and Acacia species. The dominant grasses are Hyparrhenia and Aristida species.


Sampling procedure


Sixty households were selected using stratified random sampling based on the year of resettlement. Thirty-six households were from Irisvale which was resettled in 1984 and 24 from Komani resettled in 2002.


Data collection


A pre-tested structured questionnaire was used to collect data on household characteristics which included; socio-demographic characteristics, dairy herd characteristics, breeding practices, feeding and health management and constraints faced by smallholder dairy farmers. The questionnaire was administered between May and August 2004 at the farmers’ homesteads.


Statistical analysis


Descriptive statistics were computed using the Statistical Package for Social Scientists (SPSS) 11.0 for Windows (2001). Chi-square test was used to determine the association between year of resettlement and gender of the head of the household with milk yield (SPSS 2001).


Results and discussion 

Socio-demographic characteristics


Eighty percent of the interviewed households were male-headed. These results agree with Ngongoni et al (2006) and Ndebele et al (2007) who reported 73 and 84% male-headed households in Matobo and Gwayi, respectively. Table 1 shows a summary of household characteristics of the smallholder farmers in Irisvale and Komani semiarid areas. The age of respondents reported in this study are similar to those obtained by Chawatama et al (2005) and Ndebele et al (2007). This could indicate that most of the respondents were retrenched or retired man with capital to finance a dairy enterprise. The number of children was lower than that reported by Chawatama et al (2005) in Matobo and might reflect shortage of labour since children contribute significantly to household labour in livestock production. The mean household size is comparable to findings by Chawatama et al 2005 and Mapiye et al 2006 and in Matobo and Nharira-Lanchashire smallholder dairy farming areas, respectively. Family size has been asserted as the most important determinant of labour investment for smallholder dairy farms (Hanyani-Mlambo et al 2000).


Over 60% of the farmers had secondary education and 25 % had informal agricultural education. The level of the academic standard reported in this study are comparable to those obtained by Ngongoni et al (2006) and Ndebele et al (2007) for Matobo and Gwayi smallholder areas. The high levels of literacy can provide scope for an informative interface between farmers, extensionists, researchers and development agents. About 60 and 55% of the respondents in Irisvale and Komani smallholder areas, respectively, ranked dairy enterprise as their main source of income followed by crop production (30 and 25%) and beef production (10 and 20%). Irisvale and Komani areas had average land holding of 5ha which was greater than the national average of 3ha per household (Central Statistical Office 2005).

Table 1.  Summary of household characteristics (mean standard deviation) per area




Age of respondents

44.3 2.3

45.9 2.4

Number of children in household

2.6 0.5

2.4 0.8

Household size

7.5 0.6

7.1 0.3

Crops grown


The major crops grown were maize (98% of the farmers), sorghum (78%), groundnuts (50%), sunflower (33%) and round-nuts (30%).  Other crops grown are sugar beans, finger millet, castor beans, cow peas and soy beans. Although climatic conditions in the semi-arid areas are not suitable for crop production, maize is grown for home consumption. This could be attributed to the fact that maize is a staple food in Zimbabwe.


Milk production


About half of the respondents had herd sizes of 6-10 cattle with an average of 5 lactating cows. All the respondents practiced hand milking. There was no significant association between milk yield and gender of the head of household. Milk yield was significantly associated with the phase of resettlement (P < 0.05) (Table 2). Most of the farmers (55%) in Irisvale produced 10-30 kg of milk/day whilst 60% of the respondents in Komani produced less than 10kg of milk/farmer/day. This is equivalent to 4 and 2 kg of milk/cow/day, respectively. This can be due to the fact that farmers in Irisvale had more farming experience than those in Komani. The milk yields found in this study are consistent with low producing indigenous breeds and their crosses in smallholder dairy farms (Ngongoni et al 2006; 2007; Muchenje et al 2007).  Mupunga and Dube (1992) and Machaya (1994) attributed such low milk yields to poor nutrition and unavailability of appropriate dairy breeds.  

Table 2. Milk quantity produced/famer/day in resettled farms in the semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe

 Milk quantity, kg/day/farmer

Irisvale, % of farmers

Komani, % of farmers






















Breeding practices


The cattle in the smallholder dairy sector were dominated by Nkone (35% of the respondents), Jersey (30%) and crossbreds (25%). Other breeds used included, Tuli, Mashona, Friesland, Red Dane, Sussex and Aryshire. Most interviewees mainly considered adaptability (35%), availability (25%) and milk yield (20%) when selecting which dairy breed to use. Despite the dominance of indigenous breeds in the smallholder dairy sector, there have been few attempts to assess their milk production, and no selection for this trait has been undertaken. Although on-station research shows advantages in the use of crossbred dairy cattle (Smith et al 1996; Muchenje et al 2007), for resource poor farmers crossbreeding of indigenous cattle with exotics to increase production is not a recommended option, especially in the semiarid areas. This is because of the relationship between breed, level of inputs and the environment, and the consequent loss of control of the composition of a communally managed herd (Moyo et al 1993; Gandiya 1999; Garwe et al 2001). Indigenous breeds should be subjected to selection for specific production traits and an explanation of adaptation is needed (Garwe et al 2001).


The majority of the farmers (60%) used communal bulls whilst 25% and 15% used own bred and purchased bulls, respectively. About 70 % of the farmers practiced uncontrolled breeding. The fact that few farmers owned a bull implies that these bulls may be used to mate close relatives, potentially increasing the inbreeding levels in the population. Furthermore, most of the bulls would be of unknown pedigree, although generally of known genotype, implying that systematic selective breeding is lacking. Increased inbreeding and the use of unproven bulls and limited Artificial Insemination (AI) services may have unfavourable long-term effects on productivity through the degradation of the herd genotype (Bebe et al 2003). The organisation by farmers’ co-operatives of village bull schemes using bulls of proven genetic merit may be an attractive alternative to expensive AI and reduce inbreeding.


Sixty percent of the farmers observed the cows for oestrus. About 75% of the farmers separated calves from the dams two weeks after birth. Over 90 % of the farmers reported that the dry period was between 60-70 days after calving. This is in agreement with Garwe et al (2001) who reported that cows should rest for two months before calving in order to give the udder time to rest and be ready for the next lactation period. The majority of farmers (40%) culled their cows at the 7th parity. Most of the respondents kept records on milk yield (77%), date of birth (75%), mortality (65%), and purchases and sales (55%) and animal health (40%).


Feeding management


Rangelands were the major source of feed for dairy cattle. About 90, 95 and 58% of the respondents used conserved fodder, maize, stover and groundnuts straws to feed their lactating cows. Other forages used included finger-millet straw, soybean and Napier grass, Lucerne and grass-hay and silage. These findings are similar to those obtained by Mapiye et al (2006), Ngongoni et al (2006) and Ndebele et al (2007). Respondents also provided mineral blocks to supplement lactating cows. Dams (50 % of the interviewees) and rivers (35 %) were the main sources of water for the dairy cattle.


Dairy herd health management


Respondents consulted government veterinary services (67%), extension officers (65%) and drug suppliers on animal health issues. Tick-borne diseases (87% of the interviewees) and bacterial diseases (53%) were the most prevalent diseases in Irisvale and Komani semi-arid areas. This could possibly be due to use of inappropriate breeds and lack of funds to buy drugs. Farmers were restricted from dipping their animals during the dry season because of shortage water and chemicals. Most farmers (95%) de-wormed their livestock and 90% dipped their animals to control ticks. About 70% of the respondents routinely cleaned their parlor and used detergents to control mastitis and 30% used strip test to detect mastitis before milking. Over 50% of the respondents vaccinated their animals against Foot and Mouth Diseases, Blackleg, Anthrax, Contagious abortion, Lumpy skin and Botulism.




Nearly half of the respondents highlighted shortage of feed and poor transport network as the major factors limiting smallholder dairy enterprise in the semiarid areas (Table 3). Feed supply in the natural rangelands can be improved by introduction of drought resistant better quality grasses and legumes (Mapiye et al 2006) such as Fox tail grass, Star grass, Napier grass, shrubby stylo and Siratro. Cultivation of drought tolerant crops and ley pastures such as sorghum, lablab, velvet bean and cowpeas, respectively, would be a good alternative to widen feed resource base for smallholder dairy cattle in the semiarid areas (Jingura 2000; Mapiye et al 2007), but the problem of land size would limit its success. However, such introductions could be effected in fallows or appropriate intercropping techniques can be used. Another option is to improve the nutritive value of crop residues with minimal investment. Conservation of browse trees leaves and pods as hay, silage or processing them into meals can be viable.


In addition to unfavorable conditions prevalent in the smallholder semiarid areas, transport problem is compounded by lack storage facilities are not conducive for highly perishable dairy products. Thus, milk should be transported soon after milking. Electrification and construction of milk storage facilities and roads, and on-farm training on value-addition of milk can reduce the need for transport.  Group marketing can not only ease transport problems, but can result in higher premium prices and profits for the smallholder milk producers. 

Table 3. Proportion of respondents who faced a particular constraint


% of farmers

Shortage of feed


Poor transport network


Lack of capital


Water shortage


Shortage of appropriate dairy breeds


Diseases and parasites


Inadequate extension and veterinary support




A dairy enterprise generally requires a huge capital outlay.  Lack of capital hinders smallholder dairy farmers to employ workers, purchase feed, medicine and equipment necessary for day to day running of a dairy farm (Hanyani-Mlambo 2000). Therefore, farmer organizations, government and other stakeholders are recommended to provide credit to smallholder dairy farmers. Construction of dams can go a long way in alleviating water problems. Proper record keeping and selection appropriate traits for milk production from adapted breed is warranted. Research on the locally available and affordable medicine is required to control ticks and tick borne diseases. Veterinary and extension services concerning cattle diseases and their management can be adopted and adapted if the messages are documented and incorporate owners’ existing animal healthcare concepts and vocabulary (Mupunga and Dube 1992).





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Received 19 December 2007; Accepted 13 January 2008; Published 1 March 2008

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