After more than a decade in limbo, beef farmers are back in business
Zimbabwe’s famed beef industry, which collapsed in the 2000s following outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, is now rebounding.
The Southern African country’s global beef exports resumed in 2017, 10 years after they slowed to a crawl when the country’s economy tumbled. In addition to the foot-and-mouth disease, the beef industry had been hit by crippling economic sanctions imposed on the country by Western nations, which contributed to hyperinflation, huge foreign debts and obsolete transport fleets. Mismanagement of livestock farms worsened the situation.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who assumed office in November 2017, is now seeking to revive the nation’s most strategic asset by actively wooing investors. The country’s top commercial farmers, whose herds of livestock were decimated, are slowly returning.
A joint $48 million cash injection by private investors from Rwanda, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates is revving up the beef industry, which in 2018 also benefitted from a $130 million investment partnership deal between Zimbabwe’s state-owned beef processing firm, the CSC, formerly the Cold Storage Commission, which is Zimbabwe’s foremost beef processing agency, and the UK-based company Boustead Beef, an international beef processing company.
The country’s pension fund, the National Social Security Authority, has also pledged to invest $18 million in the CSC.
Innovative breeding technologies, including artificial insemination, have been successfully used on a new breed of beef bulls and heifers, scooping big earnings in the global beef market.
Big commercial and rural farmers are dreaming once more of the glory days of the 1990s, when Zimbabwe’s beef industry was the envy of its Southern African neighbours.
Good old days
In those good old days, Zimbabwe’s beef cattle herd topped 1.4 million and raked in about $50 million yearly from exports to the lucrative European market, particularly the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. For most beef-producing provinces of Zimbabwe, commercial beef sales accounted for about 80% of income.
At that time, the state-owned Cold Storage Commission enjoyed the privilege of a whopping $15 million up-front payment before delivery to countries in Europe.
Isaiah Machingura, Marketing Director of the CSC, connects the rebound to the fact that “the UK has opened up big markets. Our canned product is one of the best. We can slaughter 700 animals a day. We do deboning and packaging ahead of export overseas. Beef in Zimbabwe is one of the best. It only falls second to Scotch beef from Scotland,” he says, referring to a popular breed.
A resurgent beef industry is attracting thousands of rural farmers. In the past, a small number of white commercial farmers monopolized the sector.
The CSC’s new approach is to expand the beef value chain with five new products: ox tongue, stewed steak, corned beef, hair tails (for brushes) and tallow (for soap).
As a result, local start-up cattle growers and abattoirs are experiencing a change of fortunes. One indigenous beef start-up, the Makera Cattle Company (MCC), manages hundreds of bulls and currently trains 10,000 rural farmers to be paravets, or animal health breeders.
“We began with a pedigree Tuli herd species of cattle. They are indigenous to Zimbabwe and are known to be very fertile,” explains Max Makuvise, the MCC’s chief executive. A good Tuli cow can calve every 11 months, he says. “Traits like growth and conformation are easy to improve on through selection, but not fertility.”
The Tuli takes in little food and needs less space than other breeds, which maximizes earnings.
Mr. Makuvise adds that the Tuli breed is a better value than other breeds also because it has a better meat-to-bone ratio.
“They calve easily, and veterinary costs are minimal. They are usually without horns. This makes dehorning unnecessary—another reduction of expense and handling problems. It’s such an easy breed,” says Mr. Makuvise.
Although new to Zimbabwean farmers, livestock genetics is bolstering the growth of the beef industry. “On genetics, the use of bulls and artificial insemination [AI], we have succeeded in helping rural farmers improve the quality of their herds,” he adds. “AI works by inserting semen straws drawn from rich-quality bulls. This produces offspring that resist pests and diseases better, solves low calving problems and produces species that have healthy grazing attitudes.”
The Zimbabwe Agricultural Society, which promotes agricultural development in the country, in 2018 announced plans to use 6,000 high-quality semen straws to inseminate cows and increase the number of herds in the country.
But despite the growth in the beef industry, experts say that the quality of herds is still a worry.
Mr. Makuvise explains that the majority of Zimbabwe’s cattle herds are in rural communities, not in large-scale commercial farms as in the past, and that inbreeding is compromising quality.
Experts advise against inbreeding (father-daughter mating, for example), because it reduces growth rate, fertility and vigour in the herd.
Another problem is that corrupt beef dealers buy up bulls from rural farmers at ridiculously low prices and make huge profits selling to the CSC. The practice shortchanges the rural farmers.
Worse still, the beef industry is grappling with drying weather occasioned by climate change. “We preach productivity. Doubling herd size strains grazing grass and water. Climate change is a reality,” warns Mr. Makuvise.
To address the problem, he recommends innovative measures such as “feeding cattle with crop residues that would have been cut in winter. Also, we are currently doing trials on the use of maize stalks and other grasses that would have been cut during the rainy season. These could be used as supplementary feeding for cattle from September through to November.”
Muhle Masuku, an official at Livestock Zone, a beef startup, cautions farmers to continue to feed herds organic food. “I believe our meat is a niche, not contaminated by any inorganic feeds,” he says.
Another huge challenge occurs when Zimbabwean livestock, some diseased, wander into neighboring Botswana and are killed by officials acting on the orders of that country’s agriculture ministry. Botswana, which is a major beef supplier to the EU, wants to comply with international safety standards for beef export.
Simangaliphi Ngwabi, a Zimbabwean government livestock specialist, says, “We can’t blame Botswana for shooting our cattle. They can’t risk foot-and-mouth disease contamination and ruin their EU export license because our farmers let their cattle wander across the border.”
Despite the challenges, the current beef business is incontestably better than it was just a few years ago. And indications are that its growth has only one way to go—upward!