THE success of the Command Livestock project, which was approved by Cabinet last week, hinges on the country's ability to export beef regionally and internationally, experts have said.
The Command Livestock programme will see government promoting commercialisation of cattle farming in Zimbabwe and creating markets for farmers.
With the advent of the land reform programme, most of the country's cattle herd is now owned by smallholder farmers.
Smallholder farmers now own 90 percent of the 5,4 million national cattle herd, 80 percent of the three million goats and 600 000 sheep and 100 percent of the 372 000 donkeys.
However, cattle reared in the communal sector do not meet the quality expected by the international markets.
"Improving animal genetics, disease control, pastures, fertility and the calving rate, which currently stands at about 40 percent to 80 percent, will be at the centre of Command Livestock. Government will not finance Command Livestock. Instead, the private sector will finance the programme," said Agriculture Mechanisation and Irrigation Development deputy minister, Paddy Zhanda.
He said success of the livestock initiative would greatly depend on exports.
"Without that we will have a problem," said Zhanda.
Zhanda said livestock farming was facing challenges that include low calving rates, lack of a commercial mindset, poor fertility rates, poor off take of cattle in the smallholder sector, lack of proper disease control, poor genetics and poor pasture management.
"There is need to change the mindset of cattle farmers. Some of these farmers keep these cattle for sentimental reasons instead of their commercial value and with such a mindset we are unable to commercialise the sector. Off take is poor because there is no commercial value," he said.
"Disease control is at the centre of production to ensure the quality of meat produced. Without the requisite markets then we have a problem. Regional and international business is therefore not viable."
Historically, annual off-take from the commercial herd has been around 20 percent while that from the communal herd has been less than three percent.
Most of the communal herd is now comprised of small cattle breeds with low weights such that the national average carcass has declined from 200 kilogrammes to an average of 165 kilogrammes.
This has increased the cost of doing business for livestock producers.
Cattle prices have also remained low.
In the communal sector, issues such as inferior bulls, uncontrolled breeding and poor nutrition also affect the weight of the carcass resulting in livestock of inferior quality for the export market.
Sales from the smallholder sector are also not consistent and cannot provide a steady supply for the export market.
"Export markets are very demanding on quality, requiring meat from younger and better breed animals from the producers. The markets also require that sources of animals are also free from diseases or major transmittable diseases such as foot and mouth disease," Livestock and Meat Advisory Council administrator, Crispen Sukume, said.
The beef industry was once the pride and joy of the commercial farming sector.
The commercial cattle herd, meticulously bred over 110 years to survive in Zimbabwe's harsh conditions, used to be one of the country's richest assets, earning US$100 million a year, mainly in European exports.
Zimbabwe suspended all beef exports to the European Union in 2001 after the outbreak of foot and mouth in the main cattle producing southern parts of the country.
The ban is yet to be lifted 16 years later.
The EU was Zimbabwe's main beef export market, followed by South Africa, with which it had an agreement for an annual export quota of 5 500 tonnes.
Zimbabwe also exported beef to several Asian and African countries.
Livestock is a long term project and requires long term finance and access to cheap finance instead of the current interest rates of 12 percent. A2 and commercial farmers are therefore finding it difficult to grow their herds because of the lack of medium to long term finance.
"As a form of financing cattle, we are also expecting to reintroduce the Cold Storage Company grazier scheme through Command Livestock, but this should attract private capital. It should be emphasised that the programme is not for free, just like the maize programme farmers are expected to pay back what they owe government," Zhanda said.
It is anticipated that commercial beef production from the smallholder sector will be further enhanced when the new Carcase Classification System is introduced.
This will bring Zimbabwe in line with international meat classification trends, which have now also been adopted by regional beef exporters, Namibia and South Africa.
Unlike the current meat grading system, the Carcase Classification System will no longer favour bigger carcases from larger cattle breeds, unfairly penalising small farmers who traditionally keep smaller indigenous breeds of cattle and which now constitute the bulk of the national herd.
CSC used to control beef production in Zimbabwe and still has a monopoly as far as beef exports are concerned, but the company is essentially dysfunctional.
Zimbabwe is unable to meet the export conditions due to reduced productivity and inability to meet international phyto-sanitary conditions.
The country's national herd has declined from 6,8 million cattle in 2006 with an annual slaughter of 650 000 to an annual slaughter of 300 000 from 5,4 million cattle.