Livestock Research for Rural Development 26 (6) 2014 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

The potential for increasing cattle productivity in mixed farming systems of Zimbabwe

D Nkomboni, G Sisito, A van Rooyen*, S Homann-Kee Tui*, J L N Sikosana** and L R Ndlovu***

Matopos Research Institute, Bag K5137, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
* ICRISAT Bulawayo, P.O. Box 776, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
** Department of Research and Specialist Services, Fifth Street Extension, P. O. Box CY 594, Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe
*** National University of Science and Technology, P.O. Box AC 939, Ascot Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


Despite the importance and opportunities that cattle present to smallholder farmers, their productivity remains low. High mortality and low fertility mainly caused by feed and health related factors are the reasons of low cattle productivity in semi-arid Zimbabwe. Mortality is unproductive as cattle that die, die with the feed that they eat. As most of the rain water is used for feed production through transpiration, mortality wastes it and lowers livestock water productivity (LWP). In this study we characterize the existing situation of feed, health, herd size and assess the impact of mortality and fertility on cattle production in semi-arid western Zimbabwe. The data were collected using household surveys and participatory rural appraisals (PRAs). Farmers were categorized into poor and better-off cattle keepers’wealth groups. A simulation approach using the DynMod model was applied to evaluate the extent livestock production and LWP can be improved by reducing mortality and increasing fertility of cattle from the wealth groups.

Mortality was relatively high amongst the different classes of stock with an overall mortality rate of 0.17. Fertility was low with parturition rate of 0.48 on average. The projection of the current system showed a decline in cattle numbers for the poor and better-off farmers. For better-off farmers’ cattle, mortality rate in absolute terms was higher than the poor farmers’ cattle. Complex management with larger herds could be the reason for this trend. Reducing the mortality while increasing parturition rates improved cattle production for both poor cattle farmers and better-off cattle farmers despite the introduction of droughts after every 5years.We observed that as feed consumption increases with cattle numbers, the LWP index also increases. This results in effective utilization of feed resources. Addressing livestock management needs to be intensified as it was noted as an area of concern to address mortality and fertility challenges. Most farmers (64%) graze their crop residues in situ reducing fodder utilization. None of the farmers grow improved legumes and cereal forages for animal feeding during the dry season. Whereas, it was evident that feed shortages did not directly result in mortality except during prolonged drought when their immunity is compromised. Improving the extension services and better access to information, inputs and technologies on cattle production could have a strong impact on improving cattle productivity.

Key words: better-off farmers, DynMod model,fertility, livestock management, livestock water productivity, mortality, poor farmers


In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), consumption of animal products was projected to grow by 3.2% per year between 1997 and 2020 (Delgado et al 1999). This is higher than the human population growth (Pedenet al 2009). It has been estimated that SSA needs to double livestock production to fulfill this demand until 2020.

Given this increasing demand, livestock has a strong potential to contribute to household incomes (Delgado et al 1999). At least 70% of the resource-limited farmers in the developing countries depend on livestock as their source of livelihood (LID 1999; Peden et al 2007). In Zimbabwe small scale farmers now have greater opportunities to sell cattle, since the cattle populations in the commercial sector have declined by 75% following the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (Sibanda 2005). However, livestock productivity is low, as more than 20% of the animals in this sector die due to mainly feed-health related factors, especially during the dry seasons and frequent droughts (Homann et al 2007).

Improving livestock production in the small holder farming systems faces various challenges. Farming systems are commonly low input, in response to the erratic rainfall and recurrent droughts (Scoones 1992). Under these high risk conditions farmers are reluctant to invest in improved production technologies. Communal land tenure also prevents farmers from improving their land and combined with poor management this often results in overstocking (Hargreaves et al 2004). Furthermore, access to important extension and health services is poor in these areas and technical support often limited. Limited access and high cost of inputs such as feeds, drugs, medicines and vaccines prevents farmers from increasing livestock production (Freeman et al 2004). Most farmers have relatively small herds, lack alternative incomes and have limited resources to invest in livestock production. Farmers thus lack the necessary knowledge, resources and technologiesto respond to feed shortages and provide appropriate animal health care (Homann et al 2007).

The current trends in crop-livestock systems indicate aggravating scenarios. The size of rangelands, the traditional feed base for livestock, is reduced as more land is cleared for crop production by the ever growing human population (Otte and Chilonda 2002). With the expanding settlements livestock populations also increase and put more pressure on the remaining rangelands. Recent studies have shown that rangeland degradation is progressing and results in serious feed shortages (Sibanda et al 2011, Chirima et al 2012). Improving the value of crop residues is seen as an important option to enhance the livestock feed base, particularly during the dry season (Mhere et al 2002). Exploiting the synergies between crops and livestock is important in the study district, since cattle make important contributions to crop production (draft power and manure) and are key assets for farmers to maintain food security.

As farming systems need to intensify, water demand is expected to increase. Improving livestockwater productivity (LWP) becomes an important aspect. Livestockwater productivity is defined as the ratio of net beneficial livestock-related products and services to the water depleted in a livestock enterprise (Peden et al 2007). In livestock production, most of the water is utilized in feed production. Developing countries deplete more than one trillion m3 of water annually to produce feed (Peden eta al 2007). More efficient feed management could increase livestock water productivity byenhancing livestock fertility and reducing mortality. Exploiting improved feeding and animal health care as well as their interactions are important components of strategies that aim at increasing LWP.

Simulating livestock dynamics can be used as tool to identify the gaps in LWP and evaluate potentials for improvements. The overall objective of this study was to evaluate the potential to increase LWP by enhancing reproduction and reducing mortality for farmers with different herd sizes. The specific objectives were to characterise the current herd sizes and composition, the impact of mortality and fertility on livestock production as well as the currently employed livestock feeding and health strategies.

Materials and methods

Site description

 The study was carried out in Nkayi district (19º 00' South, 28º 54' East) of Matabeleland North province, Zimbabwe. Nkayi is located in the semi-arid regions and has a mixed crop livestock system. The district has a comparatively high human population density of 30-40 people km-2. Rainfall mainly occurs in summer (November to April) and ranges between 450mm and 650mm per annum. In the northern part of the district, Kalaharisandy soils (associated with Miombo woodlands) support a mixture of annual and perennial grass species that are moderately resilient to degradation. The southern part consists mainlyof fertile loamy soils with nutritious annual sweet veld grass types that deplete early in the season leaving the rangelands prone to degradation. The northern part is further away from Nkayi centre and Bulawayo city and has a lower human population density. The southern part is closer to the centres, with slightly higher human population densities, better access to extension services, markets and other development support. To account for these differences, villages were selected from the both parts of the district.

Data collection

The study employed qualitative and quantitative tools of data collection. The qualitative surveys (Participatory Rural Appraisals, PRAs) assessed farmers views on the current conditions of natural resources, social and economic infrastructure, herd sizes and main livestock managementtechnologies (feeding and animal health) and were carried out in 2007. Half day workshops, in 2 villages in the northern part and 2 villages in the southern part of Nkayi, were done. During these PRAs, communities identified the herd sizes that differentiate poor and better off wealth categories. These wealth categories were used for the analysis of cattle mortality and fertility rates.

The quantitative household surveys were conducted subsequently after the PRAs in the same year. A total of 138 households were randomly sampled within the 4 villages. The household surveys collected data on herd sizes, composition and dynamics (inflows and outflows) during a 12 months observation period (January to December 2007).

The quantitative data were first analysed by descriptive statistics, with SPSS version 13 (SPSS 2004). The means, maximum, minimum, medianand standard deviations were used to describe the herd sizes, composition and dynamics and frequencies to describe farmers’ perception of main causes of livestock deaths.

Description of the model

The DynModmodel was used to simulate the current and the optimum levels of cattle populations (Lesnoff 2007). This model is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that simulates livestock population dynamics over a given time period based on parameters like reproduction rates or mortality rates. The model parameters used for this study were herd sizes at the beginning of the observation period and reproduction rates (parturition, prolificacy) as inflows and mortality rates as outflows during the 12 months observation period. Other inflows such as purchases or loans from other farmers or outflows such as slaughter, sales or loans to other farmers were too low to be included. Further parameters were live weights and feed requirements.

The cattle age groups required for the model were defined as juveniles (0-12months), sub adults (12-36months) and adults (36-132 months for females and 36-72 months for males). Parturition rates were estimated as the percentage of reproductive females in the female population. Prolificacy was calculated  as the average number of calves per birth. The rate of males to females at birth was assumed to be 0.5. Mortality rates were calculated as the ratio of deaths in an age group to the total number of cattle in that group during the observation period.

The model outputs estimate the annual population growth rates in the form of graphs.


Herd sizes and composition

Most of the farmers (70%) had small herd sizes (<6 cattle) and were therefore considered as poor. Thirty percent of the farmers owned 7 or more than 7 cattle and were considered as better-off. The average herd size for the poor household category was 4 cattle and for the better-off households 12 cattle.Adult females and sub adult males constituted the biggest groups for poor and better off households (Table 1).

Table 1. Mean cattle numbers in different age classes for poor and better-off farmers

Farmer group

Adult females

Sub-adult females

Adult males

Sub adult males

Juvenile females

Juvenile males


















Fertility (parturition and prolificacy)

The cattle parturition rates were on average 0.57 for poor and 0.40 for better-off farmers. Prolificacy rates were on average 1 for both farmer groups. Fertility was therefore higher for poor than better-off farmers.


The average cattle mortality rates were higher for better-off farmers (17%) than for poor farmers (10%). In relative terms poor farmers thus had less unproductive losses than better-off farmers. Juvenile and sub-adult cattle had the highest mortality rates in the better-off farmer category whilst the female and male sub-adults and male adults had highest mortality rates in the poor farmer category (Table 2)

Table 2. Cattle mortality rates for poor and better-off farmers

Cattle age categories

Poor farmers

Better-off farmers

Juveniles (males and females)



Sub-adults (females)



Adult (females)



Sub-adults (males)



Adult (males)






Potential herd growth under different simulation scenarios

Cattle mortality and the parturition parameters were modeled over a 20 year period, with droughts occurring at 5-year intervals, starting with the currently observed rates. Reducing the observed mortality and increasing parturition resulted in stable herd populations. Mortality and parturition rates were further varied to identify the optimum herd scenarios that are achievable by small holder farmers considering their resource limitations. From PRAs and household surveys, no improved feed technologies (urea treated stover and planted forages) were used for livestock feeding as the technologies were not known to both farmer groups. The two farmer groups mentioned that cattle were herded during the cropping season to avoid them straying into fields, but were left to graze on their own after crop harvest. Diseases were mentioned as the major cause of cattle deaths in both groups. Due to the inflationary erosion of the value of the Zimbabwean dollar, both farmer groups concurred that it was impossible to purchase inputs e.g. veterinary drugs, and that they only relied on inconsistent remittances from relatives or used ethno-veterinary means to treat diseases.

Poor farmers

Under existing mortality and fertility rates, cattle populations of poor farmers showed a stable trend with a slight decline from year 16 to 20 (Figure 1). When parturition rates were increased from 0.57 to 0.60 the herds stabilized throughout the 20 years. When parturition rates were increased to 0.65 and mortality reduced by 0.04 the populations grew to an average of 7 cattle with an annual average growth rate of 4%. Even when droughts were introduced in years 5, 10 and 15, the total cattle population grew, to an average herd size of 6 cattle.

Figure 1. Cattle population size or currently observed, stable and optimum projected scenarios for poor farmers
(OCT=Observed cattle totals, SCT=Stable cattle totals, POCTd= Projected optimum cattle
totals with droughts, POCT= Projected optimum cattle totals without droughts)
Better-off farmers

Under current conditions, cattle population declined over 20 years at an average rate of 8.0% per annum (Figure 2). Reducing mortality rates by 0.05 and increasing parturition rates from 0.40 to 0.60 increased the total population and stabilized at average herd size of 13 cattle.

For optimum scenarios parturition rates were increased to 0.65, mortalities reduced by further 0.05 and droughts included in years 5, 10 and 15. These changes increased cattle populations to average herd size of 16 cattle with an average growth of 3.4% per annum.

Figure 2. Cattle population sizes for currently observed, stable and optimum projected scenarios for better off farmers
(OCT=observed cattle totals, SCT= stable cattle totals, POCTd=projected optimum cattle
totals with droughts, POCT= projected optimum cattle totals without droughts).
Improving production systems efficiency

Increasing cattle herd sizes implies a proportional increase in feed requirements. Scenarios were created for comparing the herd size increases with production outputs (kg meat) and feed intake (tonnes) for better-off farmers (Table 3). Compared to the current situation (scenario 1),  increasing fertility (scenario 2) or reducing mortality (scenario 3) imply higher feed requirements. However, fewer tonnes of feed were used as per higher production outputs (scenarios 2 and 3).

The more efficient feed utilization is also reflected in a higher LWP index for scenarios 2 and 3 as compared to scenario 1. These scenarios further imply that efficient feed utilization can be achieved, by maintaining herd sizes at a certain level and selling off or culling surplus animals. This suggests that efforts to enhance production need to be combined with increasing off-takes, in order to increase production efficiency.

Table 3. Improving system efficiency by reducing mortality and increasing fertility


Scenario 1

Scenario 2

Scenario 3


0.17 (Observed)

Reduced by 0.05

Reduced by 0.05





Feed (tonnes)




Meat (kg)




Tonnes feed / kg meat








Herd size




# Livestock Water Productivity (LWP) is the ratio of net beneficial livestock-related products and services to the water depleted in producing these (Peden et al 2007).
Current management technologies
Livestock feeding

Farmers traditionally rely on rangelands to feed their livestock. With the expansion of settlements and croplands, crop residues became the second most important feed resource for livestock. Other feed resources, such as planted forages or purchased commercial stock feeds, were not important.

Most farmers used crop residues to feed their cattle, regardless of wealth categories.The majority left their cattle grazing the crop residues in situ after harvesting. About 30% of the farmers had started harvesting crop residues and kept them on open air storage platforms (Table 4). About 12% of the farmers harvested all residues from their fields, while more farmers harvested them partially. Although these conservation methods indicate trends towards more intensive use of crop residues, the actual feed value of crop residues remained low. Most farmers only sprinkled salty water on crop residues to increase intake and palatability of these feed resources.

Most farmers did not realize the lack of improved feed technologies as a cause for the mortality rates. Few poor farmers (8.6%) mentioned feed shortages as cause for cattle mortality but no better-off farmers did (Table 5).

Table 4. Proportion of farmers that harvest various amounts of crop residues for livestock feeding (%)

Share of crop residues harvested

Farmers harvesting crop residues











Animal health

According to farmers’ perception, cattle suffered from frequent diseases including internal and external parasites. The most prevalent diseases were said to be heart water, lumpy skin, rabies, blackleg, contagious abortion and calf scours. Internal parasites (tapeworms, round worms, liver flukes) were frequently mentioned. Applying improved technologies (dipping, vaccination, dosing) could prevent and control these diseases and internal parasites. Most farmers were aware of those animal health technologies. They however relied mainly on ethno-veterinary practices, because veterinary services and inputs were not available. Farmers who trained as para-veterinary workers also often lacked equipment and inputs. Government initiatives like dipping and vaccinations against specified and notifiable diseases were often not implemented. Most farmers did not have disposable cash to purchase inputs from other areas.

Farmers from both wealth groups perceived diseases and parasites as most important cause of the mortalities (Table 5). This confirms that current practices were not effective, and often not systematically applied. Farmers with different herd sizes have different potentials to improve livestock productivity once the inputs and services would be made available.

Table 5. Causes of cattle mortalities as perceived by poor and better-off farmers (%)


Poor farmers

Better-off farmers




Plant poisoning



Feed shortages







Potential to increase livestock productivity

Current livestock production is unsustainable since the populations are declining for both poor and better-off farmers. A slight decline in the herds of the poor group left them with almost static cattle numbers; however the drop with the better-off farmers is so drastic that in year 20 there are less than 5 animals. The higher cattle mortalities suffered by the better-off group of farmers could be attributed to complex management with larger herds. This better-off farmer group could have alleviated their plight by selling, but the Zimbabwean dollar then was worthless hence all the farmer groups held on to their stock. Reducing mortality rates and increasing parturition raised livestock populations in both farmer groups. This generated an average off take of 6% even when droughts were induced after every 5 years with better-off farmers. The average off-take in the communal areas is between one and three percent (Sibanda 1999). Whereas, the better-off farmers would benefit more on sales, draft power, manure and milk, the poor farmers benefit only from productive outputs e.g. draft power and milk as their herd only grew to less than 10 animals over 20 years. The latter group of farmers can to a lesser extent sell their stock. With improved management in both farmer groups, the implication is; substantial income, food security and betterment of livelihoods.

According to Otte and Chilonda (2002) mixed farming systems in the semi-arid areas of SSA have an average herd growth rate of 1.5%. Barret (1991) and Sibanda (1999) concur that the off-take rates can be an indication of cattle herd growth rates and in Zimbabwe’s small-holder sector they range between one and three percent. With reduced mortality and increased fertility in both farmer groups optimum herd growth is above the latter. Although the cattle owned by poor farmers have lower mortality and higher parturition rates than those of the better-off, the livestock keepers have to intensify management to achieve populations that can be commercialized like their counterparts. Herds that can be commercialised in Zimbabwe range between 8-12 cattle (Hargreaves et al 2004). Perry et al (2003) however argue that given the high live value (draft power, manure, milk, social uses) of cattle in the small holder farming sector, herd sizes of 20-30 should be achieved before farmers can effectively intensify production.

Comparison with other studies shows that mortality rates in this study (0.17) were higher than after independence (1980s) when the economy was healthy (0.04 to 0.14) (Barret 1991). In 2007 the mortality rate for the cattle of the seven surveyed districts including the study area was similar (0.18) because of the similar challenges (Homann and van Rooyen 2007). Parturition rates are slightly higher than previously reported with an overall rate of 0.48. Barret (1991) reported rates ranging from 0.36 to 0.45 in the semi-arid small holder farming areas of Zimbabwe. The parturition also conforms to calving rates that were between 0.40 and 0.50 before independence (Tawonezvi 2005).The cattle owned by poor farmers had a better parturition rate (0.57) than those of those of the better-off farmers (0.40). This could have been attributed to inadequate bulls as farmers rely on neighbours’ bulls. Other causes of low parturition are health related especially abortions and silent heats that were reported by farmers during the PRAs. It is noted that mortality rates for adult females in this study were higher (0.10 for poor and 0.15 for better-off farmers) than those for the cows in the semi-arid zone farming systems of SSA (0.06) (Otte and Chilonda 2002). Calf mortalities (0.20) according to the latter authors were still lower than the mean for calves of better-off farmers. On average, significant improvements (in mortality and fertility) gained after independence have retrogressed in the late 1990s.

Feed utilization and LWP

Livestock mortality in SSA is high (Otte and Chilonda 2002; Peden et al 2007). This undermines livestock production, the amount of beneficial livestock products and LWP. The efficiency with which feed is utilized in declining livestock populations is low. From this study it is apparent that when the population grew, the feed utilized to produce extra meat was lower than when the population was low (e.g. from scenarios 10 heads of cattle utilises 2.5 tonnes feed/ kg meat yield whereas 15 heads use 1.6 tonnes feed / kg meat produced). The LWP in the scenario with increased populations was almost double that of low population scenarios. This system analysis has also been reported by Descheemaeker et al (2009). It becomes evident therefore that reducing mortality and increasing fertility benefits livestock production and with efficient utilisation of feed resources improves LWP also benefitting farmers in terms of off-take.Thus combining animal health (for the quickest impact on reducing mortality) with improved fertility management results in the fastest and the simplest way of achieving betterment of farmers’ livelihoods.

Strategies for the use of the residues include maintaining their value (early harvesting, storage) as well as improving their quality by chemical treatment and or biological means e.g. mixing with leguminous residues/ browse.

Crop residue utilisation offers a better opportunity for increased livestock water productivity (LWP) as almost all the water used in growing the crops is utilized. It should also be noted that crop residues and other by-products do not consume additional water and therefore present a huge opportunity to increase feed water productivity and LWP (Peden et al 2007). More research is required into the potential contribution of crop residues to improve livestock feeding.

Livestock management

For intensification, farmers suggested that critical inputs (drugs, vaccines) and veterinary services be improved. Although the communities’ perceptions are that diseases were the main causes of low livestock productivity over feed, animal condition, land degradation and limited rangelands are evidence of feed shortages (personal observation).During the dry season feed shortages are experienced, but only a few farmers do mitigate these challenges through appropriate dry season feed strategies e.g. by harvesting crop residues and improving their quality through technologies like ammonia (urea) treatment. As crop residues contribute to maintenance energy requirements within a 150 day dry season, their improved management could reduce feed shortages substantially. Forage legumes and cereals are not grown as farmers argue that they do not grow enough to nourish themselves and let alone feed for livestock. The farmers’reasons for not using the improved feed technologies were lack of knowledge as access to extension services was limited. After an on-farm trial on Mucuna pruriens and Lablab purpureus in 2009, feedback meetings indicate that farmers are interested in growing these forages crops. Napier grass ( Pennisetum purpureum), known as Bana grass in Zimbabwe grows well in the semi-arid regions and is a likely fodder for the district.

Socio-economic conditions

At the time the study was conducted, there was a national economic down turn and political instability resulting in animal health extension organizations and institutions being dysfunctional and hence the high mortalities to diseases. Due to high inflationary pressures, there was high staff turn-over in the livestock extension services leading to collapse of invaluable support to farmers.Even with adequate staff it has been observed in other studies that the public institutions are limited in budgets, transport and equipment to better deliver to farmers (Tawonezvi 2005, Freeman et al 2004).The fall of the local currency meant that farmers were left with no disposable income to purchase the inputs e.g. veterinary drugs, medicines and supplementary feeds. Political instability worsened the situation as farmers were not free to execute their farming activities. Many farmers have developed a dependency syndrome emanating from food and inputs relief from Non-Governmental Organizations(NGOs) and are not keen to come up with home grown solutions using the local resources e.g. feed technologies like treatment and storage of stover for dry season feeding,  but rather wait for aid.



Contributions from the farmers of Nkayi during the surveys are greatly appreciated. Thank you to all the students and enumerators who participated in data collection. We acknowledge the financial support from BMZ, Germany.


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Received 29 November 2013; Accepted 1 April 2014; Published 1 June 2014

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