Categories: Articles, Livestock and gamePublished On: 8th July 2024

Zimbabwe’s struggle with cattle sales

By 4 min read

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For years it became normal that rural livestock owners in Zimbabwe would respond to a drought year by selling off cattle due to a lack of pastures as many could not afford to buy feed.

Like many farming inputs, stock feed has not been spared the economic forces that have driven prices, making it difficult to sustain agriculture operations.

Cattle and goats, treasured as a source of wealth across Zimbabwe, have been casualties of low rainfall as pastures disappeared.

When a drought was declared early this year, pictures of emaciated cattle made the rounds in news reports and on social media, highlighting the challenges faced by farmers to keep their cattle alive.

During drought years, the agriculture ministry has routinely advised subsistence farmers to sell their cattle rather than watch them die of hunger.

In rural areas such as Lupane, about 150 km north of Bulawayo, villagers are selling off underweight cows for as little as USD150 as part of desperate efforts to recoup losses.

The drought left large swathes of scorched earth, leaving livestock without any food and water.
“There is nothing villagers can do. People with money are snapping up the cattle,” said Japhet Bhebhe, a civil servant working in Lupane.

“I also kept a few cattle but when you cannot afford stock feed, you just have to sell, and not even to the highest bidder because not many people have ready cash,” Japhet said.

During drought years, the agriculture ministry has routinely advised subsistence farmers to sell their cattle rather than watch them die of hunger.

It has always made sense for sellers, but buyers have been criticised for manipulating prices, in some cases villagers accepting three bags of 50 kgs of mealie meal or maize, Japhet said.

“There have been poor maize harvests and people are relying on aid agencies. If you have maize from elsewhere you can get cattle and goats here. Barter trade has once again returned because of hardships,” he said.
This is hardly new as impoverished rural areas have dabbled in barter trade for years.

It is this year’s drought that has however brought back bad memories about how villagers make desperate efforts to save their livestock while also struggling to feed themselves.

While the government has frowned upon those transactions, the ministry of agriculture had appeared to be at a loss on how to deal with the crisis.

Early this year, the ministry announced the setting up of feeding lots across the country as part of a cattle fattening programme in the aftermath of poor rains.

However, as desperate farmers dispose of their livestock rather than watch them die, the government has adopted a new tact, warning farmers to refrain from the practice. A recent statement by the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, Professor Obert Jiri, advised farmers to desist from exposing themselves to speculators who manipulate the market.

“In response to panic livestock sales, the Government declares that no sales will be conducted at the household level, but through the ward-based business unit cattle sale pens to ensure a win-win situation between the farmers and buyers or abattoirs,” Obert said. This comes despite advice early this year by the agriculture ministry for farmers to sell their cattle as drought worsened and livestock died.

The desperation of both government and livestock owners to cushion themselves from losses has become apparent as the country struggles to maintain its national herd against increasing odds driven by drought.

Most of the livestock affected by drought is found deep in rural areas, away from government officials, making it difficult for these villagers not to accept cash from people who travel from the city to buy cheap cattle.

But according to Japhet, farmers desperate for cash are not likely to heed the ministry’s warnings.

“Most of the livestock affected by drought is found deep in rural areas, away from government officials. It is going to be difficult for these villagers not to accept cash from people who travel all the way from the city to buy cheap cattle,” Bhebhe said.

Zimbabwe is on a cattle restocking exercise to boost the national herd, but the recent drought is seen reversing those efforts.

And as subsistence farmers sell of their livestock, buyers are slaughtering the cattle for resale to individuals and butcheries, when in the past well-heeled ranchers put the cattle on fattening schemes that helped revitalise the sector.

Cattle and goats, treasured as a source of wealth across Zimbabwe, have been casualties of low rainfall as pastures disappeared.

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