GOVERNMENT has failed to utilise large swathes of farmlands it owns through the Cold Storage Company (CSC), risking thousands of livestock facing starvation countrywide following poor rains.
The country, like the rest of the southern African region, is in the grips of a drought blamed on a weather phenomenon called El Nino.
About 28 000 cattle are estimated to have died so far due to dwindling pastures and water, although government is yet to confirm these figures.
As climate change ravages the globe, droughts have been recurring, taking a heavy toll on mostly rural livelihoods that are dependent on livestock.
But while livestock are starving to death, CSC’s ranches, which are rich in grazing land, are largely empty.
CSC, notorious for mismanagement, has been failing to restock its herd in order to fully utilise the pastures.
Its herd is estimated at slightly above 700, located in nine farms countrywide.
Restocking them to the previous levels of two million would require about US$1 billion, which the parastatal cannot afford.
Eddie Cross, CSC chief executive officer in the 1980s, said the empty pastures owned by the parastatal could be used in drought mitigation programmes countrywide.
He said cattle should be transferred from worst hit regions to CSC pastures in order to save them.
CSC’s ranches cover over 250 000 hectares in all provinces, with the largest located at West Nicolson near Beitbridge.
Apart from the ranches, CSC also owns feedlots at its abattoirs that could be used to control the impact of drought on the national herd.
Cross said in 1983, the parastatal bought cattle that would otherwise die, using standard weight and grading systems.
These were then moved to ranches and feedlots.
“In 1983 I bought 280 000 herd of cattle and slaughtered over 700 000, nearly a million,” he said.
“After the drought we sold the cattle back to the industry. The extra product produced by the abattoirs in the drought (about 50 000 tonnes of beef) was sold in regional markets. Angola took 20 000 tonnes in frozen carcasses from us,” Cross said.
As the drought takes its toll on livestock, cattle prices have crashed to as little as US$180 per beast.
“The live cattle we kept alive by feeding them on the ranches with low cost bulk feed manufactured on the ranches from raw materials brought from the northern provinces and the irrigation schemes in the Lowveld. The CSC financed this and, at the end of the whole exercise, made a small loss. Today, the CSC does not have either the financial or the institutional capacity to undertake an exercise of this nature. The food and water situation in the southern provinces is dire. We have no crops at all and some 3,5 million cattle and one million goats are under threat from starvation and severe water shortage. My estimate is that 700 000 cattle and many thousands of goats will die. Donkeys are dying at present. This is very unusual so early in the rainy season and this demonstrates the severity of the situation,” Cross said.
Responding to a question in Parliament recently, Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister, Joseph Made, urged farmers in arid areas to de-stock.
“Farmers that are in the arid lands that do not have sufficient rainfall and enough pastures, should de-stock before the livestock die of famine or lack of grazing,” he said.
“I am saying so because in some areas there has not been any rainfall. As a result, we do not have grazing pastures. We will not be able to give them supplementary feeding for their cattle as government. There are areas where we are moving cattle from one area to the other to ensure that there is enough grazing. The key point is that livestock farmers should de-stock and sell most of their cattle before they die,” Made said.
The beef industry was once the pride of the commercial farming sector.
CSC had an annual quota to the European Union of 9 100 tonnes of beef per annum.
It also had a US$15 million revolving facility with the bloc under which it was paid in advance.
The company used to earn the country at least US$45 million annually.
In 2000, the country’s cattle herd was estimated at 6,8 million.
In the past 16 years, this number has plunged by about one million due to a number of factors, including drought and disease outbreaks.
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