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Cattle breeding management practices in the Gwayi smallholder farming area of South-Western Zimbabwe

J J Ndebele, V Muchenje*,** C Mapiye**, M Chimonyo**, L Musemwa*** and T Ndlovu****

Department of Engineering Services, Bulawayo City Council, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
*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 Agricultural Economics and Extension, University of Fort Hare, P. Bag X1314, Alice 5700, RSA
****Department of Microbiology, University of Fort Hare, P. Bag X1314, Alice 5700, RSA


The objective of this survey was to assess cattle breeding management practices in the Gwayi smallholder farming area of Zimbabwe. Data was collected from 95 households using structured questionnaires between October 2000 and April 2001.


The mean herd sizes of 10, 16 and 33 were obtained in the communal, small and medium scale farms, respectively. All households reported that their cattle grazed on communal rangelands throughout the year with no or little supplementation using stover and urea blocks. Most households (65 %) in communal and small-scale areas had no fences. Tick-borne diseases were the most prevalent. Over 85 % of the communal households owned indigenous breeds which they mainly used for draught power purposes. About 95 % of the households in the communal and small-scale areas practiced uncontrolled breeding.


It was concluded that poor breeding management, lack of fences and tick-borne diseases were the major constraints of cattle production in Gwayi smallholder area.

Keywords: Constraints, inbreeding, open breeding season, tick-borne diseases, Zimbabwe


In Zimbabwe, the smallholder farming sector holds over 70 % (3.5 million) of the national cattle herd (Sibanda 1999). These cattle have numerous functions that they perform (draught power, manure, social security, rituals, milk and meat) in smallholder areas (Chimonyo et al 1999). Cattle productivity and contribution to formal beef markets (< 5 %) in this sector is low (Sibanda 1999). This is chiefly due to poor breeding, feeding and health management strategies (Mhlanga 2000; Ngongoni et al 2006). Most smallholder beef producing areas in Zimbabwe are found in the sweetveld where forages retain palatability and high nutritive value to maintain animal production throughout the dry season (Sibanda 1999). Extension and veterinary services in these areas are considered satisfactory (Agritex 1993). Thus, low cattle productivity and off-take in these areas can be largely attributed to poor breeding practices.


The major breeding problem in the smallholder areas is that herds are run as groups owned by several individuals (Khombe and Tawonezvi 1995; Mhlanga 2000). The cattle owners are therefore often not able to select the breed of bull or cow they want as a sire or dam of the herds.  Inferior cows and bulls are retained in the herd and rate of inbreeding is high (Hove et al 1991; Moyo et al 1993). Currently, there is indiscriminate introduction of less adapted exotic breeds and this is eroding the indigenous gene-pool (Khombe 1998; Mhlanga 2000; Muchenje et al 2007a).


There is need to improve cattle productivity through breeding, conservation and utilisation of indigenous animal genetic resources (Khombe and Tawonezvi 1995). However, there is little and inconclusive information on cattle breeding practices and constraints to adoption of cattle breeding programmes in the smallholder areas of Zimbabwe. This makes it difficult to implement, evaluate and improve adoption of breeding strategies, and conserve animal genetic resources in smallholder areas. Improvement of animal productivity can play a significant role in alleviating food insecurity and poverty in the smallholder areas (Khombe 1998; Mhlanga 2000). The objective of this survey was to assess cattle breeding management practices in the Gwayi smallholder farming area of Zimbabwe.


Materials and methods 

Study site

The survey was conducted in Gwayi smallholder farming area in Tsholotsho District, 180 km West of Bulawayo city, Zimbabwe. Altitude for Gwayi ranges between 900 and 1000 m above sea-level. Gwayi is found in agro-ecological zone IV characterised by low and erratic rainfall (400-600 mm/annum) and mean annual temperature of 21oC. The area is prone to seasonal droughts and severe dry spells during the rainy season. The prominent agricultural enterprises are dryland crop and extensive livestock production.  The greater part of Gwayi have pale to reddish brown grained sands derived from unconsolidated Kalahari deposits. The major vegetation type is bush savanna, dominated by Baikieae plurijuga (Umkusu), Pterocarpus angolensis (Umvagazi), Combretum apiculatum (Umangwe) and Camiphora spp (Iminyela). Colophospermum mopane (Mopane) species are found in pans and near the vleis/valleys. The principal grasses are Aristida, Eragrostis and Hyparrhenia species.

Sampling procedure 

Ninety-five households which were willing to participate and owned cattle in Gwayi smallholder farming area were selected for interviews using stratified random sampling. The stratification was based on the type of farmer; communal (54 farmers), small-scale (32) and medium-scale (9).

Data collection 

Structured questionnaires (pre-tested) through interviews were used for data collection. The data were collected between October 2000 and April 2001. The data collected included: socio-demographic characteristics (age, gender and educational background), herd characteristics (numbers, composition and uses), crop production (types of crops grown, yields and uses), cattle feeding management (sources of feed and water and grazing management), cattle health management (causes of death and control measures) and cattle breeding management and (breeds, breeding practices, breeding programmes).


Statistical analysis


The data were analyzed using PROC FREQ of SAS (2000) to give frequencies. Chi-square tests were used to determine degree of association between socio-demographic characteristics and breeding management practices (SAS 2000). 


Results and discussion

Socio-demographic characteristics  

Most of the households (84 %) in the Gwayi smallholder farming area were male-headed and 60 % of the households’ men were working out of the farm. Male heads constituted 80, 81 and 100 % of the households in the communal, small and medium-scale areas, respectively. These findings agree with Chawatama et al (1998) who recorded 62 % male-headed households in Tsholotsho and 84 % in Chinyika and Mutoko communal areas. Chawatama et al (2005) reported that in Chikomba (88 %), Matobo (73 %) and Kadoma (73 %) districts men headed most of the households. Similar findings by Francis and Sibanda (2001) and Mapiye et al (2006) in Nharira-Lanchashire small-scale areas show that over 60 % of the households were male-headed. Men dominated (70 % households) most of the cattle production activities and were responsible for making cattle-related decisions (feeding, breeding and health management) in consultation with their spouse’s and elder children.


 The overall mean age of the household heads in Gwayi was 50 and ranged from 31 to 78 years. Most households had heads aged over 50 years (communal, 66 %; small-scale, 66 % and 55 % medium-scale). Results are comparable to Mutisi et al (1994), Mapiye et al (2006) and Ngongoni et al (2006), who reported the overall mean age of 50, 51 and 49 in Chinamhora communal area, Nharira-Lanchashire and eight smallholder dairy schemes in Zimbabwe, respectively.


There was association between level of education and farming area (P < 0.05). About 43 % of the household’s in the communal area had members who attained ordinary levels and 11 % had informal agricultural training. In the small-scale farms 56 % of households had members with ordinary levels, 16 % advanced levels, 13 % degrees, 6 % formal agricultural training and 20 % informal agricultural training. The level of education was highest in the medium-scale farming area where 44 % of the households had members with degrees and 54 % with formal agricultural training. Nyangito (1986) showed that the adoption of new and improved technologies in agriculture was positively related to education. Therefore, comparably high standards of education in the small and medium-scale farming area can be exploited in the introduction of new programmes for livestock improvement in the area.

Crop production

All the farmers in the communal areas grew maize and cotton with average yields of 0.6 t/ha and 3 bales/ha, respectively. In the small and medium-scale areas farmers grew maize (100 % of the households), sorghum (95 %), groundnuts (60 %) and sunflowers (70 %). The mean yields for maize, sorghum and sunflower were 1.5, 1.25 and 1 t/ha, respectively. These crops were mainly used as sources of cash, livestock feed and/or human consumption by most households. In support of these findings Ngongoni et al (2006) and Mapiye et al (2006) recorded maize, groundnuts and sunflower as major crops grown in most smallholder dairy schemes in Zimbabwe, and stated that maize, sorghum and groundnuts were grown for cash, human consumption and livestock feed, while sunflower was grown as a cash crop or livestock feed. 

Herd characteristics

The interviewed households had about 1600 cattle with an average herd size of 10 ± 3, 16 ± 5 and 33 ± 6 in the communal, small-scale and medium-scale areas, respectively. Similar results were reported in Nharira-Lancashire where over 90 % of the households kept 18 ± 11 cattle (Francis and Sibanda 2001; Mapiye et al 2006). Communal, small-scale and medium-scale farmers owned 42, 36 and 22 % of the cattle population in the interviewed households, respectively. About 60 % of the total cattle population in the study area were cows (747) and heifers (198). The proportion of steers and oxen in communal areas was less than 35 % of the total cattle population in the study area. Chawatama et al (1998) obtained similar results in their study of draught animal in communal areas. This is because farmers prefer selling steers and oxen than breeding cows (Musemwa et al 2007).


Feeding management


All households reported that their cattle grazed on communal rangelands throughout the year with no (90 % of the households) or little supplementation using stover and urea blocks (10 % of the households). Farmers confirmed that Gwayi experienced seasonal variations in both quantity and quality of feed, with winter being the worst season. The decline in quality of grazing is due to a drop in the crude protein content of rangeland herbage from about 15 % in early November to about 3 % by the end of May (Sibanda 1999; Muchenje et al 2007b; Ndlovu 2007). All the cattle obtained water from rivers, wells and boreholes but these sources were unreliable especially during the dry season.


In Gwayi, all the cattle were grazed at recommended stocking rates for agro-ecological zone IV; 1 livestock unit (500 kg) to 12-15 hectares. The majority of the households (65 %) in communal and small-scale areas had no fences and if available they were in poor condition. Fencing is essential in controlling breeding, grazing, thefts and trespassing. While live fences may play a role, local leaders should formulate by-laws governing the movement of livestock during the dry season, when most of the uncontrolled grazing and breeding occurs (Mapiye et al 2006). Most of the households (65 %) in the medium-scale farming areas faced the problem of uncontrolled rangeland fires during the dry season and proper construction of fireguards was suggested as a control measure.

Health management 

The most common diseases mentioned by farmers include heartwater (85 % of the households), gall sickness (60 %), black-leg (30 %), contagious abortion (24 %), tuberculosis (15 %) and lumpy skin disease (12 %). Calves were the most vulnerable group, especially during the dry season and beginning of the rainy season. Lantana camara was the most problematic poisonous plant in all the communal areas. In some households (15 %), cattle deaths were as a result of accidents such as rangeland fires and train crushes. Comparable to findings of this study, Chawatama et al (2005) in Chikomba, Matobo and Kadoma communal areas and Hanyani-Mlambo et al (1998) in Gokwe, Rusitu and Marirangwe small-scale areas identified cattle diseases, especially tick-borne diseases as a serious constraint.


The veterinary extension provided treatment and vaccinations against important diseases, such as anthrax, foot and mouth disease, contagious abortion and black-leg in all the areas. Over 50 % of the farmers in the communal and small-scale areas treated minor diseases using ethno-veterinary medicine whilst those in the medium-scale areas (90 %) used modern veterinary medicine.  Veterinary extension personnel encouraged farmers to dip their cattle weekly during the rainy season and twice per month in the dry season.  The majority of the households in the communal and small-scale areas used communal plunge dips whilst medium-scale farmers used private spray dips to control ticks. About 70 % of the households in the communal areas could not afford to buy chemicals for treating and dipping their cattle, and for those who could afford the chemicals were not easily accessible. There were times when the cattle spent several weeks without being dipped because either water or acaricides were in short supply. This was also observed by Francis and Sibanda (2001) in Nharira-Lancashire. Research on cheap and accessible ethno-veterinary medicine is required to improve control of ticks and tick borne diseases in the smallholder areas.


Cattle breeds


Most of the households (88 %) in the communal areas owned indigenous breeds, particularly Nkone and Tuli. About 47 % of the households in communal areas had exotic breeds or crossbreds amongst their herds. In the medium-scale farms 44 % of the farmers owned other breeds of cattle in addition to the indigenous ones. The dominant breeds in the small and medium scale farms were Brahman (68 % of the households), Hereford (55 %), Nkone (52 %), Tuli (48 %), Simmental (40 %), Africander (10 %) and their crosses (30 %).  Most farmers are of the perception that the high producing, but disease prone and feed demanding exotic animals are the best (Francis and Sibanda 2001; Muchenje et al 2007a). Communal and small-scale farmers mainly relied on cattle for draught power whilst medium-scale relied on them for cash. Other uses of cattle were meat, milk, hide, dung and socio-cultural roles. These findings support findings by Chimonyo et al (1999) in Sanyati and Chawatama et al (2005) in Chikomba, Kadoma and Matobo districts.

Breeding management

The majority (95 % of the households) in the communal and small-scale areas practiced an open breeding system. The herds of individual households mixed freely with neighbours’ herds, particularly in the communal areas where there were no fences. Inferior bulls were rarely castrated (90 % of the households). This results in uncontrolled breeding and/or progeny of inferior quality (Hove et al 1991; Moyo 1995; Khombe 1998). An open nucleus breeding scheme should be advocated, particularly in the communal areas where cattle populations are small and within-herd selection is ineffective (Moyo 1995; Mhlanga 2000; Nitter 2000).


Sixty-eight percent of the communal farmers did not own bulls whilst in the small and medium scale each household owned at least one bull. Therefore, implementation of breading seasons in communal areas should not that open season breeding has some advantages for the farmers, it increases mating chances for their cows (Khombe and Tawonezvi 1995; Mhlanga 2000). The Bull/cow ratios of 1: 20 in communal, 1:13 in small-scale and 1: 10 in medium-scale farms were lower than the recommended ratio of 1: 25 (Agritex 1993). Communal farmers kept bulls for more than 8 years whilst in the small and medium-scale they were kept for less than 6 and 3 years, respectively. Keeping bulls for more than 3 years increases the likelihood of bulls mating with their daughters; this causes inbreeding (Hove et al 1991; Moyo et al 1993; Nitter 2000). Farmers were recommended to rotate available cluster bulls among farmer clusters after every two to three years.  Efforts were made to promote sharing and exchanging of bulls amongst the farmers. These strategies can reduce the possible negative effects associated with inbreeding. Future research should focus on establishing the extent, causes and rates of inbreeding in the smallholder areas of Zimbabwe.


Cows experiencing calving problems and those failing to have one calf per year were retained in the herd. This reduces the resources available for the productive cattle. There was no structured breeding season. This can result in the birth of calves in the winter months when the nutritional status of the rangeland is at its lowest (Sibanda 1999; Ndlovu 2007; Muchenje et al 2007b). However, most farmers (85 % of the households) in the small and medium scale observed that cows were naturally bulled between March and July when they are in good condition. Most of the cows calved down between December and March in all the communities. This coincided with the growing season when most of the feed was available. About 15 % of the farmers in the communal areas reported that their cows calved down in winter. Over 50 % of the households in the communal areas and 20 % in the small and medium scale indicated their cows had calving intervals of greater than 2 years. Most cows in the communal (50 % of the households), small-scale (53 %) and medium (56 %) areas were bulled after 6 months of calving. The causes of long calving intervals within a breed include poor nutrition after parturition, shortage of bulls and absence of systematic weaning (Chimonyo et al 2000; Khombe 1998; Ngongoni et al 2006).


The majority of the households in the communal (50 %), small-scale (60 %) and medium-scale (75 %) areas weaned their calves. Most of the farmers weaned the calves between 6 and 8 months after birth, 35 % in the communal, 34 % in the small-scale and 56 % in the medium-scale areas (Table 1). Early weaning (6 to 8 months) is beneficial as it prevents loss of weight of the cow and improves conception (Chimonyo et al 2000; Sibanda 1999). Over 90 % of the communal farmer’s practised natural weaning (Table 1) whilst 78 % of the medium-scale farmers practised systematic weaning by using the separation or weaning plate method (Table 1).

Table 1.   Weaning age and methods used by smallholder farmers in the Gwayi area

Farming system




Weaning age (months)





35 %

34 %

56 %


24 %

20 %

44 %


26 %



Not known

15 %

46 %


Weaning method





91 %

75 %

22 %


9 %

25 %

78 %

Breeding improvement programmes 

Farmers rarely selected high producing cows or bulls as dams or sires for their future progeny. About 10 % of the communal, 30 % small-scale and 56 % medium-scale farms practised crossbreeding, respectively. Recommendations for crossbreeding have been poorly adopted in the communal areas due to unavailability of exotic bulls. The extension encouraged farmers to crossbreed indigenous cows and heifers with exotic bulls. This was done in order to combine the hardy characteristics of indigenous cattle (namely tolerance to poor nutrition, heat stress and local disease challenge) with high beef-producing qualities of the exotic breeds (Agritex 1993; Moyo et al 1993; Mhlanga 2000). However, extension messages did not emphasize that such crossbreeding programmes were usually associated with the risk of loss of genetic diversity and reduced hybrid vigour in later generations of the crossbred cattle. 


Crossbreeding with exotic breeds can be recommended when resources and market demands allow the potential of such stock to be exploited (Moyo 1995; Nitter 2000; Muchenje et al 2007a). Farmers with training in agriculture tended to practise crossbreeding compared to those without agricultural training (P< 0.05). All communal farmers did not keep records apart from mandatory stock records. It is, therefore, important to educate smallholder farmers about the benefits of keeping records, cattle breeding and conservation of animal of genetic resources.





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Received 5 August 2007; Accepted 13 September 2007; Published 11 December 2007

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