From subsistence farming to commercial: what needs to change.

Today we continue to look at productivity in livestock production. Or better to say, we look at what causes poor productivity and how to solve the issues.

One of the common failings of small holder farmers to move up from subsistence into commercial or semi-commercial livestock production  has been an issue of low productivity, low off-take and low incomes.

Productivity is different from production. Productivity looks at the optimisation of resources: at efficiency.  Keeping 10 animals on 5 ha veld is unproductive. Keeping 1 or 2 would be better. So what am I driving at? What are the causes of sub-optimal productivity?

1. Over-stocking:- I have seen a farmer in Chivhu keeping 80 cattle on his 45 ha farm, struggling to sustain them on his veld. Needless to say, the animals got very thin in the dry season, and some died from starvation. He was simply trying to do the impossible. The veld can only sustain so many animals, beyond which both the veld and animals start to suffer.

Of course, part of the problem could be cultural. Cattle in Zimbabwe are not just about business: they have multiple functions, and so keeping them cannot be judged on economic efficiency alone. However, things are changing, more and more people are reckoning with the cash economy. The sooner people realise that the better.

Solution: Determining carrying capacity of the veld can be a very technical activity. Equally, it can also be a common-sense activity. Do not keep more animals than the veld can sustain, and watch your veld for signs of deterioration: swathes of bare earth, absence of good grasses (coupled with invasion by weeds and unpalatable species e.g cat’s tail sporobolus/tsinde), bush encroachment etc. If you can, divide the veld into paddocks for easier management e.g rotational grazing.

Tragedy of the commons: the issue of overstocking is compounded when people use communal resources. This has been termed the “tragedy of the commons”. Nobody owns the veld, so nobody has any incentive to invest in it or manage it well. The end result is environmental degradation and the loss of the very physical resources that support farmers’ livelihoods. This has been common in A1 resettlement areas and the communal areas.

2. In-breeding:-In our college days, we visited a communal dip tank in Gweshe (Mashonaland Central) as part of our training. One striking feature of the animals was that they were really small, stunted. The government Animal Health Inspector told us that the breeds used to be much bigger, but through years of inbreeding, the mature sizes had significantly gone down.

Solution:– No easy solutions here, especially if there is communal grazing. But at household level, it is prudent to castrate all male animals that you don’t want to breed. That controls breeding, and prevents the mating of closely-related animals. Leave intact only those bulls that you choose to breed.

3. Disease burden:- Tropical animals suffer their fair share of parasites, pest and diseases. Together with feed shortages at certain times of the year, this contributes to sub-optimal growth rates, poor conception rates and mortalities. I have never seen a small holder farmer to sell an animal to finance the purchase of drugs and equipment!

Solution: Farmers need to realise that investing in drugs, vaccines and food supplements is an investment, not a cost! Either way, selling some cattle at certain times of the year to stock up on drugs and chemicals helps to keep the remaining animals healthy and productive.

Next instalment we discuss the important issue of drugs: what to stock and why, and how to store the drugs. Till next time, keep sharing and keep the feedback coming.

4 thoughts on “From subsistence farming to commercial: what needs to change.

  1. Very good lesson and so touching where the naked truth is said. Our A1 areas are a difficult place to manage because a neighbor does it his way while no one is above law.

    1. True. It’s one of the weakness of the A1 resettlement system. It really requires cooperation to management communal resources, and in most cases that’s very difficult.

  2. This is an informative corner! In Zimbabwe farmers are grappling with limited knowledge about livestock production on commercial scale. The peasantry animal husbandry approach was inherited and generationally passed on up to the present. Resultantly reaping hunger, losses financially and commodity status.

    Borrowing from the Folk high Schools of the Scandinavian countries and the Land-Grant colleges and universities of America would be both prudent and helpful. During the 1800- 1900s,they developed Agricultural colleges in each County. They made sure democracy in enrollment was key thus giving students from rural background access to education. They made sure that both theory and practical are taught in sympathy with demands on ground. They made sure each Agricultural College is state funded and well appropriated. Today USA has the most outstanding agricultural sector providing enough and surplus near, far and wide. It boasts of high technology and industrialisation because of gvt political will and financial resources.

    Zimbabwe, if it is to extricate and disentangle itself from the agricultural mediocrity, a lot of real commitment to 1) educate farmers practically is called for. 2) do away with the dogma of dishing out agricultural land and inputs to cronies and kith who dare go to farms. 3) invest in agricultural infrastructure and make
    agriculture subject mandatory at every educational level.
    This is the issue from another angle and this corner.

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