Livestock Research for Rural Development 26 (3) 2014 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Evaluation of smallholder dairy calf rearing systems in Zimbabwe

G H M Matondi, G B Nyamushamba, T T Motsi and E Masama*

Faculty of Agriculture, Women’s University in Africa, Harare, Zimbabwe
* Faculty of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe Open University, Harare, Zimbabwe


A survey was carried out in Wedza and Marirangwe dairy schemes to characterise calf rearing systems in smallholder dairy schemes in Zimbabwe. This was prompted by the reported high calf mortalities and shortage of dairy replacement heifers. A total of 36 farmers participated in the survey. The data were analysed using Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) version 17.

The most common dairy breed being used by smallholder farmers in the two areas was the Red Dane. Artificial insemination was used by most farmers in Wedza.  Most of the farmers had no calf weighing facilities and did not ensure colostrum management resulting in increased risk of calf death. Calf feeding management was poor, since most farmers used dairy meal instead of calf starter meal.  Calves were weaned through separation of paddocks and use of weaner plates. Interna and external parasite control was practised by most farmers. Calf scours and coccidiosis were the major causes of calf mortalities.  The majority of farmers reported that feed was the main constraint affecting production.

Key words: breeding, calf housing, health, mortality, nutrition


Agriculture in the form of smallholder dairy production can aid the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 1 which seeks to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty through regular income, channelling dairy profits towards education and empowerment of women who are marginalised in the rural areas (UNDP 2012). Smallholder dairy production is common in many parts of the developing countries, serving as an important nutritional source and income to millions of households (World Bank 2011). About 12 to 14% of the world population is estimated to live on dairy farms or within dairy farming households (FAO 2010). Milk is produced for home consumption with surplus sold locally through milk collection centres (Ngongoni et al 2006).           

Smallholder dairy farmers experience high calf mortalities which can go up to 50% (Moran 2011). In Chikwaka smallholder dairy scheme, 35% calf mortality was recorded by (French et al 2001 in Moran 2011) whereas the target calf mortality should be less than 5%. Shortage of dairy replacement heifers is one of the major hindrances to the development of smallholder dairy production in developing countries (Bebe 2008). Therefore the objective of the study was to characterise smallholder calf rearing systems in Zimbabwe with a view to identify ways to improve calf rearing methods which can be adopted by communal farmers.

Materials and Methods

Survey areas

The surveys were carried out in Wedza and Marirangwe dairy schemes. Marirangwe is located 35km south of Harare, off the Beatrice road (Sikaceya 2010) in natural region 2B, with an average annual rainfall of about 700mm. Wedza Dairy scheme is in Mashonaland East 150 kilometres from Harare. Both areas have three distinct seasons, a hot dry summer season from August to October, a hot wet summer season (rainy season) from October/November to March/April and a cold dry winter season from May to July. Average maximum and minimum temperatures are 27.5 and 12.7C respectively (Kuhudzai 2012).

Data collection

Semi-structured questionnaires were used to interview farmers from both schemes. The data were collected between March and April 2013. The questionnaire was used to collect data on socio-demographic factors such as age, sex, level of training in dairy production, sources of income, housing types, land and cattle ownership.  Data was also collected on the calf production systems including calf housing, water source, feeding, weaning, health management and breeding systems. 

Data analysis

Descriptive statistical analysis was carried out using Statistical Package for Social Sciences SPSS version 16.0. Cross tabulations and chi-square analysis were used to determine associations.

Results and Discussion

Farmer characteristics

The results indicated that 54% of the respondents were men of 35 years and below. Only 13% had some form of dairy training through workshops. 83.8% of the respondents did not solely rely on dairying as the main source of income. Small holder farmers engage in many agriculture enterprises so that they can hedge against failure of one enterprise. Further, this is done so that enterprises can be integrated, such as use of crop residues as livestock feed, and manure from livestock for crop production.  About 50% of the dairy producers were single owners of dairy cows. This is critical in terms of decision making, unlike where there is multiple ownership of livestock common in communal areas of Zimbabwe. 

Most of the respondents (47.2%) started dairying between 2001 and 2009, while 25% started before year 2000 and 25% after 2010. The fast track land reform, implemented starting in 2000 saw an increase in the small-scale dairy farmers across the country. However, the 2001 to 2009 period in Zimbabwe was characterised by socio-economic and political challenges that could have affected proper take-off of most dairy enterprises. Some of the challenges included stock feed shortages, high stock feed prices, scarcity of veterinary drugs and stiff competition from cheaper imports, on the backdrop of low local production.  

Dairy breeds and breeding management

At least 25% of the respondents owned the Red Dane breed. The government through the Dairy Development Programme (DDP) promoted the use of the breed due to its hardiness and low feed requirements compared to breeds such as the Holstein. Furthermore, when the Wedza dairy scheme started the Red Dane was distributed to farmers by a non-governmental organization. It is a dual purpose breed which can be used for beef production as well. Janssen-Tapken et al (2004) reported that some breeds were found in greater numbers than others because the farmers had challenges in accessing other breeds. Other cross breeds such as Jersey by Mashona and Simmental by Tuli were also recorded.  According to Mupunga and Dube (1992) due to exorbitant prices of pure exotics, their poor adaptation to the smallholder environment taking into account scarce grazing and disease management levels crossbreeding has been viewed as the only viable and feasible option to introduce milk production in the smallholder sector. Further, dairy cows cost a fortune and those who venture into the business have to be sound financially. Most of the farmers started dairying during the period of financial crisis, which could have implications on the number and breeds that they secured to start farming. Despite their fecundity, indigenous breeds such as Mashona, Nkone and Tuli, are poor in milk production (Mupunga and Dube 1992). Figure 1 shows the common breeding methods used.

Figure 1: Smallholder dairy breeding methods

Across the schemes, the majority of farmers (50%) used natural service while 27.7% exclusively used A.I. and 22.3% used a combination of A.I. and natural service (Figure 1). In Wedza 64% of farmers adopted A.I. due to the contractual obligations set by the sponsoring NGO (Land O’Lakes). The challenge with natural service is the potential risk of spreading venereal diseases whilst A.I. has the advantage that superior bulls can be used even in environments where they would be difficult to keep (Brotherstone and Goddard 2005). In addition through the use of A.I. one can use genomic testing and identifying bulls which will most likely have a positive genetic contribution to the next generation (Schefers and Weigel 2012). Breeding management is important in a dairy enterprise as it has a direct bearing on productivity growth of up to 19% (Atsbeha et al 2012). 

Calf weighing

The majority of the farmers (89.2%) did not have scales for weighing calves due to resource constraints. It was difficult for the farmers to monitor calf performance without knowing the calf weight. Only 10.8% had weighing scales or weighing bands which is very close to the 13% recorded by Mandibaya et al (1999).  Calf weighing is important because it is the basis for determining the amount of feed to be given. For instance, it is recommended to feed 8-10% of bodyweight to calves (Lorenz et al 2011) without knowledge of the calf weight animals can be over or underfed. Further, if all calves are fed the same quantity of milk, then bigger calves in terms of weight will not get enough to even maintain their weight (Lorenz et al 2011). Therefore, calf weighing is important yet, it was not being done. 

Colostrum management

Colostrum supplies a wholesome diet to a neonate. In addition, it plays a significant role in the calf’s host defence system (Stelwagen et al 2009). Colostrum has 14% crude protein which aids in prevention of mortality and morbidity (Fisher 2000). All the respondents indicated that they let the calves suckle colostrum though it is done in different ways, only 8.1% taking intensive care by bottle feeding calves (Figure 2). The majority (60%) of farmers did not interfere with colostrum intake as observed by Mapekula (2009) in a study of Nguni calf performance. However, Godden (2009) recommends that the calf should not suckle directly from the dam to avoid contamination from pathogens on the udder.

Figure 2: Colostrum management
Milk supply method

41.6% of farmers used restrictive suckling (Figure 3) lower than the 56.7% recorded by Lyimo et al (2004).  Mdegela et al (2004) identified this as the best option for smallholder farmers because calves are assured of uncontaminated milk at the right temperature. The problem is that the milk intake of the calf is not known. In the event that a cow produces more milk than a calf needs it predisposes the calf to scours and the cow itself to mastitis and the milk ejection globules can be closed thereby jeopardising milk yield for the farmer (Matthewman 1993 in Lyimo et al 2004).

Figure 3: Calf milk feeding methods
Calf feeding

Very few of the respondents (13.8%) indicated that they used crushed maize only to feed their calves which is a similar practice recorded by Lyimo et al (2004) who noted that some farmers used only maize bran as the calf concentrate. In some cases, maize which has been destroyed by weevils and unfit for human consumption is milled for the calves to consume. Maize grain has on average of 9-12% CP, yet dairy calves have theoretical nutritional requirements of 9.0-12.6 ME/kg DM and 130 - 160 g crude protein/kg DM in calf concentrates (Lyimo et al 2004).

 75% of farmers in both the schemes did not use creep feed which they considered expensive. This was despite that creep feeding enables early weaning and hence some milk savings (Lyimo et al 2004). More farmers (44%) fed the calves individually (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Calf feeding system

Although 61% of farmers claimed feeding a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) part of that TMR was dairy meal which has a lower protein content of 14% in comparison to 18% in the calf starter meals. 22% of farmers reported that they only feed milk alone but this is not a healthy situation considering that growth and resistance to ailments is much greater when calves are fed both grain and milk than milk alone (Banerjee 2000). 44% of farmers fed their calves individually, but 14% of these fed only grass to their calves. This is disadvantageous in that most natural grasses are of poor nutritional content as well as palatability and thus do not suffice to meet the calf requirements needed for optimal growth (Chang’a et al 2010). 


Farmers prefer using either weaning plate (50%) or separate paddocks for weaning. 78.4% of the respondents indicated that they wean after 71 days.  This late weaning was also observed in the Tanzanian smallholder dairy sector where the majority of the farmers weaned their calves between 3-8 months (Chang’a 2010). The late weaning method has a disadvantage in that it has higher chances of milk induced scours and also comes with increased costs during the milk feeding period.


Most of the respondents (83.8%) indicated that they dehorn their calves using the hot iron method. Dehorning makes it safer to handle animals. Further, dehorned animals use less feeding and drinking space per animal. In addition, animals will not injure themselves which may deter the growth rate. This result is in contrast to observations by Mapekula (2009) who reported that 90% of respondents in the smallholder sector did not dehorn beef calves. 

Calf housing

Housing has a significant effect on the health of the calves, with unclean barns predisposing calves to pneumonia (Wudu et al 2008). Together, with adequate access to colostrum, calf comfort is important in ensuring the health of the calf. 56.8% of the farmers (Figure 5) use the group rearing methods in paddocks although individual housing allows individual attention to calves (Banerjee 2000), but increases labour requirements. Open paddocks do not protect the calves from cold weather and may contribute to delayed age at first calving (Helena 2008). Type of housing had a significant effect on mortalities. 58.3% of calf mortalities were from those which were group reared whilst 33% were from individually housed. The higher percentage from group rearing can be attributed to quicker disease transmission between calves.

The survival rate of calves individually housed was 41.6% whilst for group rearing was only 19%. 86.1% of the respondents reported that calf diseases were the chief causes of calf mortality. This is in consensus with the report by Lema et al (2001) in Chang’a (2010). 83.8% of farmers identified diseases as the major causes of calf mortality. 52% said scours were a cause of calf mortality. Scours are well noted to be a serious constraint to dairy production (Swai et al 2009).

Figure 5: Calf housing system
Calf health management

The majority (86.5%) of the smallholder dairy farmers from the two schemes deworm with conventional anthelminthic. The rate of deworming is significantly higher in Marirangwe (94%) because the farmers have established a drug revolving fund whereby farmers can get drugs on credit and the money will be deducted when they are being paid for the milk they deliver to the milk collection centre. 58.8% of farmers in Wedza used dosing pills which were easy to administer and were affordable. Keyyu et al (2006) noted that internal parasites affect calves in subtropical environments, which makes deworming an important routine practice in calf rearing. Chinogaramombe et al (2008) noted that 95% of respondents from their study deworm their calves. Calves with heavy worm burdens experience depressed average daily gains (Thompson and Merrick 2005).  

Calf scours are a major challenge in the smallholder dairy sector. 64% of respondents reported that they had to deal with the scouring problem. Scours contribute well over 50% of pre-weaned calf mortalities (USDA 2008 in Todd et al 2010). Scouring is largely due to improper feeding of calves. As noted before, farmers do not weigh their calves, a critical practice as calf weight determines the feed requirements. Overfeeding of milk is a major cause of scouring in calves. With the majority of the farmers practicing group housing, it also increases the chances of spreading of infectious organisms that cause scouring.  

Parasite control

A number of technologies are used for dipping cattle against external parasites largely ticks. These include hand spraying, use of tick grease, plunge dips and pour-on dips (Table 1).  

Table 1: Methods of parasite control


Hand spraying

Hand spray and tick grease

Plunge dip and hand spray

Hand spray, pour on and tick grease

Farmers (%)





The majority  of the respondents (about 64%) use hand spraying with a combination of hand dressing or pour on dips as indicated by Karugia (2012) who observed that the majority of smallholder dairy operators use knapsack sprayers due to the challenges associated with maintaining a plunge dip. 

Milk processing and marketing

The milk from these two schemes was mainly being sold to the milk collection centres so the farmers could take advantage of economies of scale when processing as the processing facilities are beyond the reach of many individual smallholder farmers. These centres offer other services as in Kenya where they assist with A.I. services and loan facilities (Karugia 2012). In the Wedza scheme emerging dairy farmers are given cattle on a loan basis and in the Marirangwe scheme there is a drug revolving fund.  

Constraints to dairy farming

94% of farmers in Wedza stated that stock feed shortage was the major production constraint.  Wedza is a communal area with limited arable land for crop and pasture production. The situation was better in Marirangwe where more than 50% of farmers had land holdings larger than 41 hectares. Diseases such as calf scours were the major cause of calf mortalities. Results from this study are supported by Khatun et al (2009) and Todd et al (2010) who noted that neonatal calf scours was one of the major causes of mortality and morbidity. Wedza dairy scheme recorded higher calf mortalities (19.2%) compared to Marirangwe dairy scheme (12.9%).  Moran (2011) reported 16% mortality at Chikwaka smallholder dairy scheme in Zimbabwe, which is comparable to results from this study. It is possible that smallholder dairy schemes in Zimbabwe are facing similar constraints of high calf mortalities. Considering the cost of buying replacement heifers, smallholder farmers should invest more effort to reduce calf losses.  



Atsbeha D M, Kristofersson D and Rickertsen K 2012 Animal Breeding and Productivity Growth of Dairy Farms. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 94 (4): 996-1012. doi: 10.1093/ajae/aas033.

Banarjee G C 2000 A Textbook of Animal Husbandry 8th Edition. Oxford &INH Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi

Bebe O 2008 Dairy heifer rearing under increasing intensification of smallholder dairy systems in the Kenya highlands.

Brotherstone S and Goddard M  2005 Artificial selection and maintenance of genetic variance in the global dairy cow population. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2005.1668 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29 July 2005 vol. 360 no. 1459 1479-1488

Chang’a J, Mdegela, R Ryoba R, Loken T and Reksen O 2010 Calf health and management in smallholder dairy farms in Tanzania. Tropical Animal Health and Production 42(8): 1669–1676.

Chinogaramombe G N C, Muchenje V, Mapiye C, Ndlovu T, Chimonyo M and Musemwa L 2008: Challenges for improving smallholder dairy production in the semiarid areas of Zimbabwe. Livestock Research for Rural Development. Volume 20, Article #34.

FAO 2010 Status of and Prospects for Smallholder Milk Production.

Fisher H 2000 The relationship Between the Immunoglobulin Concentration in Holstein Colostrum and the Total Serum Protein in Holstein Heifer Calves.

Godden S M 2009 Microbial Hazards Associated with Feeding Colostrum. Accessed 10/10/2013

Helena H 2008 Rearing strategies of young dairy calves in relation to production, behaviour and welfare.  Reference??

Janssen-Tapken U, Kadarmideen HN and Gibson J 2004 Evaluation of small-holders’ breeding strategies in production systems of Kenya and Ethiopia. International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Kenya.

Karugia J 2012 Thesis of technologies for enhancing productivity of dairy cattle in Western Kenya.

Keyyu J D,  Kassuku AA, Kyvssaard NC, Msalilwa LP and Monrad J 2005 Cross sectional prevalence of helminth infections in cattle on traditional, small scale and large scale dairy farms in Iringa District, Tanzania. Veterinary Research Communication. 30(1):45–55. doi: 10.1007/s11259-005-3176-1.

Khatun M, Arifuzzaman M and Ashraf A 2009 A Comparative Analysis on Factors Affecting Calf Mortality of Buffalo in a Breeding Farm.

Kuhudzai N 2012 Zimtrade Market brief focus on Mashonaland East

Lema M, Kassa T and Tegegne A 2001 Clinically manifested major health problems of crossbred dairy herds in urban and peri-urban production systems in the central highlands of Ethiopia. Tropical Animal Health and Production. 33(2): 85-93.

Lyimo H, Mtenga L, Kimambo A, Hvelplund T, Laswai G and Weisbjerg M 2004 A survey on calf feeding systems, problems and improvement options available for the smallholder dairy farmers of Turiani in Tanzania.

Mandibaya W, Mutisi C and Hamudikuwanda H 1999 Calf rearing systems in smallholder dairy farming areas of Zimbabwe: A diagnostic study of the Nharira-Lancashire Area.

Mandibaya W, Mutisi C, Hamudikuwanda H and Titterton M 2000 The quantity and composition of milk taken by calves reared by restricted suckling in smallholder dairy farming areas of Zimbabwe.

Mapekula M 2009 Milk Production and Calf Performance in Nguni and Crossbred Cattle Raised on Communal Rangelands of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

Matthewman R W 1993 Dairying. (Edited by C Rene) Tropical Agriculturalist. McMillan Pub. UK

Mdegela R H, Kusiluka L J M, Kapaga M, Karimuribo E D, Turuka F M, Bundala A, Kivaria F, Kabula B, Manjurano A, Loken T and Kambarage D M 2004 Prevalence and Determinants of Mastitis and Milk-borne Zoonoses in Smallholder Dairy Farming Sector in Kibaha and Morogoro Districts in Eastern Tanzania. Journal of Veterinary Medicine 51:123–128. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0450.2004.00735.x

Moran J B 2011 Factors affecting High Mortality Rates of Dairy Replacement Calves and Heifers in the Tropics and Strategies for Their Reduction. Asian-Australian Journal of Animal Science 24.No.9:1318-1328 September 2011

Mupunga E G and Dube D M J 1992 Smallholder development programme in resettled and communal areas in Zimbabwe.  Proceedings of a Workshop on the Future of livestock Industries in East and Southern Africa held from 20-23 July n Kadoma,  Zimbabwe. ILCA, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 165-172

Ngongoni N T, Mapiye C, Mwale M, Mupet B and Chimonyo M 2007 Potential of farm-produced crop residues as protein sources for small-medium yielding dairy cows. African Journal of Agricultural Research Vol.2 (7).pp.309-317 et al.pdf

Schefers J and Weigel K 2012 Genomic selection in dairy cattle: Integration of DNA testing into breeding programs. doi: 10.2527/af.2011-0032 Animal Frontiers January 2012 vol. 2 no. 1 4-9

Sikaceya N 2010 The impact of fodder flow systems practiced by small scale dairy farmers on milk production and economic viability in Marirangwe smallholder dairy scheme of Zimbabwe.

Stelwagen K, Carpenter Haigh B, Hodgkinson A and  Wheeler T 2009 Immune components of bovine colostrum and milk doi: 10.2527/jas.2008-1377 J ANIM SCI April 2009 vol. 87 no. 13 suppl 3-9

Swai E, French N, Karimuribo E, Fitzpatrick J, Bryant M, Kambarage D, Ogden N 2009 A longitudinal study on morbidity and mortality in young stock smallholder dairy cattle with special reference to tick borne infections in Tanga region, Tanzania. Veterinary Parasitology.160 (1-2):34-42.doi:10.1016/j.vetpar.2008.10.101

Thompson M B 2005 Effects of milk feeding period and antihelminthic treatment on fecal egg counts and growth in pastured dairy steers.

Todd C, Millman S, McKnight D, Duffield T and Leslie K 2010 Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug therapy for neonatal calf diarrhoea complex effects on calf performance.

UNDP 2012 The Millennium Goals Report 2012.

World Bank 2011 Module 4 - Smallholder Dairy Production. Accessed 10/10/2013,,contentMDK:20933229~menuPK:2757506~pagePK: 64168445~piPK:64168309~theSitePK:2502781,00.html

Wudu T, Kelay B, Mekonnen H M, Tesfu K 2008 Calf morbidity and mortality in smallholder dairy farms in Ada’a Liben district of Oromia, Ethiopia. Tropical Animal Health and Production 40:369–376. doi: 10.1007/s11250-007-9104-3.

Received 20 October 2013; Accepted 30 January 2014; Published 1 March 2014

Go to top