Cattle auctions have historically been big business in Zimbabwe’s low rainfall southwest, where cattle ranching formed a large part of the country’s agri-economy.

Commercial farmers who thrived before the land reform programme, held regular cattle sales in different sites on the outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city.

Large herds of cattle commercially bred here formed part of the larger national economy as both local and international buyers flocked to government-gazetted cattle sales.

These controlled auctions were also a way to ensure quality and health standards.

In recent years cattle auctions have quietly disappeared, replaced by individual sellers, many of whom are small-scale subsistence farmers who do so out of economic need.

Because they are desperate, farmers are selling off their cattle at prices below market value.

Zimbabwe has the potential to grow its herd into one that is competitive with neighbouring countries. (source: Pexels)

Amid low rainfall that has resulted in poor pastures, subsistence farmers are also selling off their cattle to buyers who say they have resources to put the livestock on cattle fattening schemes.

This, however, has had the unintended consequences of driving unregulated cattle sales at a time the agriculture ministry says it is on a drive to increase the national herd.

Cattle fattening schemes by opportunistic buyers have been criticised for creating artificial supply and demand bottlenecks in the absence of regulated cattle sales. Unregulated cattle sales have also led to the sale of uninspected meat, analysts say, leading to health hazards for consumers.

This is happening as the government has put in measures to boost the national herd after years of a steep decline in the number of cattle across the country. Officials have blamed tick-borne diseases, among other things, for the reduction of the country’s national herd.

According to official statistics, dairy cattle numbers dropped by eighty-three percent from 2009 to 2020, while beef cattle dropped by twenty percent during the same period.

Official cattle auctions also disappeared as both commercial ranchers and smallholders struggled to reboot their stocks.

The agriculture ministry says it is aiming to increase the national herd to Zimbabwe cattle auctions slow down, but the numbers need to grow eleven million by 2030, spurred by the government’s drive to turn around the agriculture sector.

Presently, the national herd is estimated at five million six hundred thousand cattle, a mix of beef and dairy cows.

Under the Livestock Recovery and Growth Plan, the agriculture ministry has received support from the country’s national budget with specific focus on promoting the growth of the national herd.

Dairy cattle numbers dropped by eighty-three percent from 2009 to 2020, while beef cattle dropped by twenty percent during the same period. (source: Pexels)

The funding will go towards the construction and rehabilitation of thousands of dip tanks while also improving the monitoring and detection of diseases. Zimbabwe has in the past lost thousands of cattle to foot and mouth disease, interrupting cattle auctions across the country.

Last year, the agriculture ministry announced it was aiming to increase the value of the cattle industry to about USD3,6 billion by 2025, up from USD1,5 billion.

At the height of the country’s beef production and before the closure of the national meat processing parastatal, Zimbabwe was known for world standard beef that made its way to European diners. All that changed with the farm invasions where champion cattle were reportedly slaughtered for barbecues by veterans of the liberation war who took over white-owned farms.

However, with renewed interest in the sector, government is committing more resources to boost cattle production as it broadens the agriculture sector’s value chains.

Last year, David Marapira, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, noted that Zimbabwe had the potential to grow its national herd to twenty million and compete with neighbouring countries, some of whom have over forty million cattle.