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Research on small ruminant production systems in Zimbabwe

L.R. Ndlovu

Department of Animal Science, University of Zimbabwe, Box MP 167, Harare, Zimbabwe

The livestock industry
Development of a research programme
Implementation of the programme
Achievements and failures
Evaluation of the research programme
Impact of the research programme
Future research programme


In 1980, very little known about any aspect of communal area small ruminant production and productivity even though small ruminants, were an integral component of communal area farming systems. The Department of Animal Science in line with the government policy of prioritising communal area agriculture, embarked on a research programme to study the existing production levels of communal area small ruminants. This information was to be used to design appropriate technologies for intervention to improve this production.

A grant was obtained from an external donor to carry out the research programme. The research was carried out with the assistance of Research Fellows registered for higher degrees. in this way the project enhanced the development of human resources The programme consisted of both on station and on-farm research On-station work emphasised biological components of small ruminant production whilst on-farm work mainly consisted of monitoring studies, with minor interventions such as the introduction of new forage species and multipurpose trees. On-station work showed that indigenous small ruminants had a high genetic potential and responded positively to increased nutrient, supplies. Monitoring studies identified management as the major constraint to goat production in communal areas. The limitation of the study was the long interval between dab collection and dab analysis which resulted in few recommendation being introduced on-farm. Personnel training was a major success of the programme as it helped produce two research officers for the Department of Research and Specialists Services a principal and lecturer of an Agricultural College a lecturer of the University of Zimbabwe and a development researcher for a non-governmental organisation.


Zimbabwe lies between latitudes 15°30' and 22°30' south of the Equator and between longitudes 25° and 33°10' east of the Greenwich meridian. It is bordered by Zambia to the north, Mozambique to the east, South Africa to the south and Botswana to the west. It has a total area of approximately 390,759 km² which is often divided into the high-veld (a high plateau, altitude 1200 to 1500 m above sea level), middle-veld (altitude 600 to 1200 m above sea level) and low-veld (altitude less than 600 m above sea level).

The climate of Zimbabwe is modified by altitude and winter temperatures in the high-veld are lower than could be expected based on the latitude. There are three seasons:

· a hot wet summer between mid-November and March; rainfall ranges from 300 mm to 1200 mm and temperatures range from 20°C to 33°C

· a cool dry season which occurs from April to July; temperatures range from 5° to 20°C during the day and frost often occurs overnight in the high-veld

· a hot dry season which occurs from August to mid- November; temperatures range from 20° to 40°C, depending on altitude.

For agricultural purposes, the country is divided into five agro-ecological zones based on soil types, rainfall and altitude (Vincent and Thomas, 1961). Details of the agro-ecological zones are shown in Table 1. Regions 1 and 2 are suitable for intensive crop and livestock production whilst Region 3 is suitable for semi-intensive systems. Regions 4 and 5 are mainly suitable for extensive livestock and wildlife production.

Table 1. Agro-ecological zones of Zimbabwe.

Region 1

Region 2

Region 3

Region 4

Region 5

Type of farming






Rainfall (mm p.a.)






Area ( %) of total land






Production system

Plantation cropsa

Food cropsb



Extensive ranging

Cash cropsc


Drought- tolerant crops


Intensive livestock

Food crops



Intensive livestock


a. tea, coffee, macadamia nuts.
b. maize, groundnuts, soyabeans, wheat (irrigated).
c. tobacco, cotton castor.

The agricultural industry in Zimbabwe consists of four subsectors, namely large-scale commercial, small-scale commercial, resettlement areas and communal land areas. The large-scale commercial subsector occupies 40% of the total area of Zimbabwe, mainly in regions 1, 2 and 3. Before independence in 1980, this subsector was reserved for Europeans. There are approximately 4500 large-scale commercial farms with an average size of 2200 hectares each. The subsector is well organised, along commodity interest groups that provide technical and marketing services to producers and negotiate prices. The subsector produces the most agricultural outputs for the formal market.

The small-scale commercial sector, formerly the African Purchase Lands, occupied 4% of all land but is mainly in Regions 3 and 4 where production conditions are inferior to those in large-scale commercial farms. The resettlement areas were created after independence in an effort to redistribute land. Government bought farms from large-scale commercial and resettled people from communal areas. Productivity in these areas has been dismal and there are efforts to reconsider the resettlement models. The communal areas occupy 42% of all land but carry approximately 60% of the country's population. Seventy-five per cent of the communal areas are located in Regions 4 and 5.

The livestock industry

There are 5.5 mullion cattle, 2.6 million goats, 400,000 sheep and 175,000 pigs in Zimbabwe. Poultry figures are not available but it is believed to be the most numerous livestock species in the country. Of the 5.5 million cattle, 2.4 million are in the commercial sector and of these, there are about 100,000 dairy animals; the rest are beef animals. Thus the bulk of the livestock industry in Zimbabwe is geared towards beef production which contributes about 25% of the total national foreign currency earning through sales to the European Economic Community (EEC). The communal area cattle are not specifically kept for beef though some are marketed for slaughter through the Cold Storage Commission (CSC), a parastatal that is mandated to purchase all cattle for slaughter and to market the carcasses. Communal area cattle are mainly kept as sources of inputs in the cropping systems (draft power and manure), particularly in Regions 1, 2 and 3.

The second most numerous livestock species are goats. Approximately 99% of the goat population is found in communal areas. Unlike cattle, goats do not contribute to the cropping system and farmers are more willing to dispose of them than cattle. Consequently, the goat has been viewed as a possible vehicle of introducing commercial farming in communal areas. Goat ownership is widespread unlike cattle ownership which is skewed with the top 10% of stockholders owning over 50% of the total communal area herd (Jackson, 1989). The major goat breeds are meat animals and are mainly of indigenous stock. In commercial farms, the Boer goat is the animal of choice. Goat meat is popular with the local population but trading is mainly through informal channels. Sheep remain unimportant in Zimbabwe with the prevalent breeds being meat types. Mutton is not generally popular with the African population and is mostly sold to European communities. In addition, the climate and vegetation of Zimbabwe is not suitable for wool sheep production. Awned grass seeds are a major constraint to sheep production as they pierce the sheep skin resulting in abscesses, thus causing depreciation in the value of carcass.

Before independence small ruminant research in Zimbabwe, particularly goat research, was negligible. Matopos Research Station kept a flock that was monitored for productivity (Arrowsmith and Ward, 1983) while at Makoholi Experimental Station goats were kept for the purpose of controlling bush and their production potential was also monitored (Barnes, 1973; Kelly et al, 1974). There was no research work on communal area goats, despite the feet that this sector owns almost all the goats in the country. In other African countries small ruminant research is gaining momentum and results emanating from these studies indicate that indigenous small ruminants are prolific and highly adapted to harsh conditions prevalent in extensive systems (Wilson et al, 1984). There therefore remains a need to assess the productivity of indigenous small ruminants in Zimbabwe under communal area conditions. This has led to the research programme under review, the main object of which was to study existing levels of production of small ruminants in the communal areas and to develop and evaluate the effective methods to improve productivity.

Development of a research programme

In the first Five Year Development Plan (1980) the Government of Zimbabwe identified goat research as a priority, particularly in communal areas where very little was known about the system. The newly established Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe was also emphasising communal area research in all agricultural fields. The Zambezi Valley, which had received little or no attention before this, was identified as an ideal site for multidisciplinary research in the faculty.

The Department of Animal Science of the Faculty of Agriculture, surveyed the Zambezi Valley area for potential livestock research programmes. The Zambezi Valley was tsetse infested and cattle were proscribed from the area by government orders. Goats were present in appreciable numbers and it was felt pertinent to investigate their production levels and then design and introduce technologies aimed at improving their productivity. The International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) funded this project in 1984 for an initial three-year period. The funding included training of two research fellows to MPhil level.

Recruitment of the research fellows took longer than expected and actual research did not begin until eight months after funding was obtained. The original research site at the Zambezi Valley proved too long a distance to visit regularly and a second site was added to the programme. An area in Nyanga north that was in Region 5 was chosen. This could be visited fortnightly and the journey to and from the site could be undertaken within a day. In contrast the journey to the Zambezi Valley took eight hours during the dry season and longer in the wet season when the roads leading to it became impassable.

After the initial three years, a further grant was obtained from IDRC for another three years. The objectives of the programme were not changed even though the Zambezi Valley area was dropped completely from the study and an alternate site in Matebeleland south was selected due to the fact that it had the highest concentration of small ruminants in the country. Data collected from the Zambezi Valley had been erratic and hence could not be used. The main source of these problems was the inability of the researchers to visit the area regularly to monitor the enumerator who conducted data collection.

Implementation of the programme

The scope of the research in the six years mostly concentrated on monitoring studies, development of feed resources within the farming systems, introduction of multipurpose trees and forage legumes and on-station research on feed utilisation by indigenous small ruminants. The monitoring studies included weighing goats fortnightly to determine weight changes, recording entries (births and purchases) and exits (deaths, sales etc) from flocks and collecting blood samples for progesterone assay to determine the reproductivity of does. From birth records, parameters like age at first kidding, kidding intervals and litter sizes could be estimated while exit records were used to estimate survival rates and to determine causes of exits and the effects of seasons, birth types and doe age on mortality. On-station studies included determination of the productivity of indigenous small ruminants when provided with good quality feeds and the development of feeding packages based on crop by-products and forage legumes.

In the original and subsequent proposal, one of the sub-objectives was to provide improved marketing for small ruminants and to analyse socio-economic consequences. This was not done because of the absence of a socio-economist willing to participate in the programme. In the second phase of the project one of the objective was to monitor diseases and develop integrated disease control packages in conjunction with the Department of Clinical Studies at the Faculty of Veterinary Science. This was not achieved as it was not possible to secure the services of a graduate willing to undertake the studies and register for a postgraduate degree. Job opportunities elsewhere offered higher remuneration.

The first two Research Fellows engaged in the project concentrated on on-station research work and this left data collected in the monitoring studies in abeyance for long periods. Consequently, any errors made by the enumerators were not detected until six to eight months later after data had already been entered into master sheets, record books and computer. This delay in inputting the data and verifying it, meant that most data had to be discarded if it seemed dubious. The enumerators and/or farmers often could not recall what occurred so far back.

Achievements and failures

A major objective of this programme was to provide baseline data on the productivity of indigenous small ruminants. Sheep flocks in the areas were very few and therefore monitoring of these flocks was discontinued. Monitoring of goat flocks provided, for the first time in Zimbabwe, information on the productive potential of indigenous goat breeds in communal areas. The collated material is summarised in Table 2. One of the major facts emanating from this was that even though the indigenous goats showed oestrus au year round there were definite kidding seasons in April/May or July followed by another broader peak in September to December. There were hardly any kiddings in June in both areas surveyed.

Table 2. Productivity of indigenous goat breeds in Zimbabwe (means and standard errors)


Nyanga north

Gwanda south

Goat breed

Small East African Goat

Matebele Goat


Age at first kidding (days)



Weight at first kidding(kg)



Kidding intervals (days)



Pre-weaning growth rate(g day)



Weight at 150 days (kg)



Litter size



Pre-weaning mortality (%)



Peak kidding months

March April; September to December

July September to December

Seasonal effects on growth performance and survival of kids in both areas were identified. In the wetter area (Nyanga north) the hot wet season (November to March) resulted in poor growth and higher mortalities whilst in the drier area (Gwanda south) feed availability seemed to be the major constraint. Kids born in the cool dry season (April to July) grew slowly but did not die in numbers as large as kids born in the hot dry season (August to October). The implication of this is that there was no "ideal" season for breeding communal area goats. The current practice of uncontrolled all year round breeding was proved to optimise production in communal area farming systems.

The results also emphasised how limitation of management contributes to high rates of pre-weaning reproductive wastage caused by involuntary exits from flocks. Animals that went missing or died due to unknown causes accounted for 85% and 81%, respectively, of total deaths by ages 30 and 150 days in Nyanga north (Table 3).

Table 3. Causes of mortality and cumulative numbers of death of kids in flocks in Nyanga North at ages 30 and 150 days.


Age of kids (days)






Death due to unknown cause












In Gwanda south where records were kept for perinatal deaths, deaths within 48 hours of birth accounted for 69% of deaths by 30 days of age while kids that went missing or died due to unknown causes accounted for 27% of the total deaths (Table 4). Perinatal deaths are often due to absence of stockmen during parturition and kids are either squashed by dams or fail to suckle colostrum within 12 hours of birth. By the age of 150 days, management-related deaths accounted for 74% of the total deaths in Gwanda south (Table 4). Diseases were proportionately less important (Table 3 and 4), accounting for 13 and 21% of the total deaths in Nyanga and Gwanda south, respectively. This implies that productivity of communal area flocks can be improved without recourse to expensive veterinary interventions. Earlier reports from the research programme (Hale, 1986) and from the Faculty of Veterinary studies (Honhold et al, 1988) had suggested that diseases were the primary cause of pre-weaning mortality. However, their conclusions were based on a narrow database and could be misleading. Borne and Monicat (1992) using a large database, reported results similar to this study from surveys of six different communal areas.

Table 4. Causes of mortality and cumulative numbers of death of kids in flocks in Gwanda South at ages 30 and 150 days.


Age of kids (days)



Dead within 43 h of birth






Death due to unknown cause












On-station results indicated that the indigenous small ruminants responded to good nutrition environments which resulted in increased productivity. Growth rates of indigenous lambs were found to be comparable to those of Merino lambs (Hale, 1986) although the carcass composition of slaughter lambs was inferior to that of temperature breeds (Kusina et al, 1991). Metabolic energy requirements (MJ/kg0.75) for maintenance, pregnancy and lactation of indigenous does were found to be lower than those estimated by the National Research Council (NRC) of the USA (Sibanda, 1992). These biological responses were not readily transferable to communal areas since the diets used are not ordinarily available to communal area farmers.

The development of feeds and feeding packages based on resources readily available to the communal area farmers was less successful. Leucaena leucocephala (CV Hawaii Giant) seedlings were planted in Nyanga north in 1988 and four years later they still had not bloomed into trees that could be regularly lopped for feeding. Attempts to introduce Lablab purpureus were thwarted by the shortage of seed and when available the resultant crop was hit by frost before seed setting. This meant that farmers would have to acquire seed for each new planting season and the added costs were not justified by the calculated potential gains. Farmers interests in lablab was high despite this set back and requests for seed continued to pour in.

Feeding packages based on maize stover supplemented with sunflower seeds and groundnut hay failed to sustain pregnant does and resulted in massive abortions (Warambwa and Ndlovu, unpublished data) (Table 5). However it would appear that low energy intakes, per se, did not result in abortions in indigenous goats as it was possible to sustain goats through to parturition on lower energy intakes from a diet of good quality star grass/lucerne hay mixture (Sibanda 1992; Table 5). Quantity and quality of protein appeared to be more important.

Table 5. Effect of diet quality on productivity of does.

Diet A¹

Diet B¹

Diet C²


Maize stover




Groundnut hay




Sunflower seed












Stargrass hay




Chemical composition

Dry matter (g/kg)




Crude protein (g/kg)




Metabolisable energy (MJ/kg)³


5 3


Animal performance

Mean liveweight (kg)




Dry-matter intake (kg)




Metabolisable energy intake (MJ/kg)




Goats aborting (as % of total)




1. Warambwa and Ndlovu - unpublished data. Diets also contained limestone flour and cotton salt.
2. Sibanda (1992).
3. ME was calculated from effective rumen degradabilities using equations adapted from MAFF (1984).

Evaluation of the research programme

The research programme evolved at a time when government policy had shifted towards emphasis on small ruminant research. Consequently, several government institutions were also working on small ruminant research projects. Matopos Research Station had started a long-term goat breeding and selection project which had several minor components including management systems, housing and behavioural studies. There were also development programmes funded by the French Government that aimed at introducing exotic dairy breeds into communal areas plus the establishment of fodder reserves. The proliferation of the goat projects provided personnel for the programme under review and peers to discuss ideas with. Marketing of goats through the Cold Storage Commission (CSC) was gazetted and this provision of a goat market outlet in communal areas increased interest in goat management by the farmers. Unfortunately the CSC price structure was inflexible and did not reward communal farmers on the quality of animal or carcass but on liveweight only.

The research programme provided training at postgraduate level to two MSc students, three MPhil students and one PhD student. The trained personnel have subsequently joined government institutions as researchers, administrators and lecturers. No technologies were generated from the project but it supplied useful information for developing management strategies. The biggest drawback was that the research team was unprepared to manage and analyse the survey (monitoring studies) data. The initial forms in which data were collected was cumbersome and required significant manipulation before the data could be entered into the main record sheet. Also shortage of full-time personnel to enter and verify data meant that a great deal of information had to be discarded. This led to long delays before analysis and the patterns of production and constraints to production were identified. The introduction of computer packages for data entry, management and analysis (ideas from ILCA, Ethiopia and 3-way from Wageningen University, The Netherlands) has considerably altered the scenario with all previously collected data now being analysed and cross-checked.

On-station results were aimed at establishing the genetic potential of indigenous breeds if optimum nutrition and management was provided. Results showed that growth rates on-station studies were twice as high as those obtained in on-farm studies while pre-weaning mortalities were maintained at close to zero. However, the cost of feeds and veterinary supplies that had to be used to achieve these productivity levels were untenable in communal area systems.

A weakness of the programme was its inability to conduct market studies on demand and supply of goat meat in the country. The current pricing system is too low to encourage farmers to adopt technologies that require capital outlay and labour inputs.

Impact of the research programme

There had been no formal assessment of the impact of the research programme. Hence qualitative indicators of the impact will be discussed. To carry out the monitoring studies, all goats in flocks under study were ear-tagged for identification purposes. This also assisted farmers to identify their animals easily since different colour codes and numbers were used for each flock. Stock theft is prevalent in the areas under study and ability to spot one's animal at a quick glance has immense benefit in recovering strayed/stolen animals. Discussions with farmers confirmed that most requests from farmers outside the project to join were motivated by the latter consideration. The use of ear tags, as opposed to ear notching, as a means of identifying animals is however, constrained by the scarcity of ear tags and their high cost.

Close monitoring of flocks allowed farmers to quantify their losses. Whenever enumerators visited a flock the farmer supplied the reasons for the absence of any animal. Sometimes the farmer would not even be aware that a particular animal was missing. Thus the introduction of record keeping benefited the participating farmers. It is hoped that they will maintain records even after the termination of the project.

Future research programme

The research programme under review indicated that the all year round breeding practiced by communal area farmers optimises production in the system. However, there are heavy losses at pre-weaning due to the lack of proper management of perinatal does and of kids after 30 days of age. Future research programmes will focus on improving management and will mainly be on-farm trials. Availability of feed would enable farmers to keep advanced pregnant does around the homestead whilst the rest of the flock grazed. This would work to enhance chances of early intervention during kidding, should any problems arise and would also enable farmers to ensure that kids suckle colostrum as early as possible as it is of importance in providing immunity against several diseases to the young. Feed availability would also enable the farmers to restrain kids from following adult animals especially when they had not yet reached one month of age. Losses due to missing kids would be reduced in this manner. Technologies for increasing feed availability need to be investigated and appropriate multipurpose trees and forage legumes have to be identified and introduced in the areas. As goat producing areas are semi-arid the herbage to be introduced must be drought-tolerant. Utilisation of indigenous browse species also needs to be investigated.

Adoption of improved management packages requires a thriving market environment for the product (goat meat in this case). Market research studies on goat and goat meat are therefore urgently required.


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