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December 4, 2022
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Zimbabwe: Dairy Farming Needs to Expand a Lot More

Among the top importers on the regular lists of successful bidders in the foreign currency auctions of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe are the producers of dairy products and the expressers of oil seeds who make cooking oil and margarine.

There is improvement in local production of both, with milk production rising 11 percent a year and soya beans, sunflower and cotton receiving serious attention in the major input schemes run or initiated by the Government.

But as President Mnangagwa has noted we need to be far more self-sufficient in all basic foods and so we need to keep up the pressure and we need to refine the programmes to make them work well.

Oil seeds are well on the way to reaching this happy moment, with the smallholder sector taking a leading role in the expansion.

The major and now largely successful effort to resuscitate cotton through the Pfumvudza programme, and ensuring that the major buyer of cotton, Cottco, is adequately funded, means more than getting the major export of cotton lint back on the books.

Cotton seed was once a major component of our cooking oil in the days when we were basically self-sufficient in cooking oil and is moving back into this position, with two major brands already taking a decent slice of the market and being very competitive on price compared to soya.

Cottco and others need to remember that cotton is a double crop and both the lint and the seed are needed, one to largely export and one to feed Zimbabweans.

The present season, now moving into harvest, has seen far more stress put into sunflower, an ideal crop for smallholders and one that was once ubiquitous in communal lands, proving a modest cash income for many families.

The premium brand introduced by one go-ahead oil expresser is now far more readily available and local margarines, which according to their labels use a lot of sunflower, are now readily available.

This is important. The major global suppliers of sunflower were until a couple of months ago Ukraine and Russia, and obviously the present conflict is going to hammer global markets.

Regardless of whether we bought from those two countries, we were still importing and our suppliers are likely to raise their prices even if they continue to give us some sort of preference on supply.

Having our own 100 percent source will be essential.

Soya production, still being pushed by the larger commercial farmers using Command Agriculture although it is included in Pfumvudza, is rising.

For both soya and sunflower we do not need to cheat our farmers, but we save on transport costs and we can lock in supplies and prices if they produce.

We need to remember that improving standards of living will drive that market since cooking oil is considered a near essential, one step up from mealie meal, rather than a luxury, and as incomes rise consumption will rise fast.

Dairy is more complex. It is dominated by the A2 farmers with 96 percent of production. The Second Republic has reinvigorated the smallholder programmes with ARDA taking the lead.

Smallholder dairy farming can be viable, as is seen in countries like Denmark and Ireland, but it needs, especially in a warm tropical country, a lot of shared infrastructure and this requires groups of smallholders, near neighbours in fact, of sufficient size.

It is not something that a single go-ahead farmer can introduce on their own. They need friends and neighbours involved so the cooling tanks and tankers are viable.

At the moment the rock bottom local consumption is 140 million litres a year. We produce around 90 million litres, the expected deliveries this year, around triple the 30 million litres at the low point in 2009, but still only 64 percent of that minimum demand and 35 percent of the almost 260 million litres we obtained in 1990.

The need for imports, and what looks like a lot of black market pricing, means that many dairy products are expensive. Yoghurt and cheese, for example, have been rising in price out of range of many consumers and the fancy imported packaging, single use packaging, does not help.

The old days of fresh milk in reusable containers are long past, but those urban early morning deliveries, with bottles and tokens left out, did help keep prices down.

But according to Dairibord CEO Antony Mandiwanza, one major problem on costing is the cost of stockfeed per litre. Zimbabwean dairy farmers average US$0,66 a litre, almost double what South African and Zambian farmers manage.

Mr Mandiwanza sees growing more quality grass as a crop as one solution, with Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development Anxious Masuka seeing the need to get far more litres from each cow each day as critical so farmers get more litres for each dollar they spend.

Mr Mandiwanza wants dairy farmers to benefit from Command Agriculture, at least as far as the annual cropping of on-farm stockfeed is concerned. He has a strong point.

Stockfeeds are obviously required, but we need to return to these being a supplement, not the prime food source for the cows, and that means things like irrigated pastures, lucerne crops and on-farm silage.

These too have their costs, but nothing like 66c a litre. Dairy farmers do have that manure, home grown fertiliser, for their stockfeed drops and grass.

This growing quantity of decent stockfeed at far more moderate prices would also help sort out Dr Masuka’s requirement for far higher yields.

The average smallholder yield of 8 litres a day per cow suggests that far more adequate fodder on the farms could be a real winner. Dr Masuka estimates that 20 litres a day is practical.

We also need to remember that a dairy cow is not an annual crop. You start with a heifer calf, have to let her grow up and then produce her first calf before you have a cow that can be milked.

This is one reason why a far faster expansion in diary is expected in the next couple of years. The heifer schemes and other investments, both from Government and the private sector in the last three years are obviously going to start producing a lot more milking cows soon.

So sorting out dairy requires a wide range of programmes, not just one or two like crop farming.

We need more cows, obviously, but those cows need to be productive and that means more fodder as well as more stockfeed if we are to have a viable industry, and while all sectors require investment into the tanking and other infrastructure, smallholder sector needs more help with this along with the community systems to manage it. All parts have to be in place.

Fortunately we are getting there, but by ensuring we concentrate on all requirements, and by the look of it on-farm fodder needs more attention, we can get there a lot faster.

No one ever claimed farming was easy and dairy farming is pretty near the top of the ladder so it requires the integrated efforts to make sure we have enough cows, yielding at a good rate with proper marketing in place and all this at competitive costs so the consumers can afford to buy the milk, yoghurt, cheese and other products.

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