Nesigwe — Livestock farmer Siphiwe Moyo walks briskly under the scorching sun until she arrives at a shady tree in the middle of a parched, unplanted maize field. She is making a second check on three emaciated cows.

Moyo is relieved to see them still standing. She and her husband, Daniel sometimes have to lift the weakened animals back to their feet three times a day in a bid to keep them alive.

As another drought ravages Zimbabwe, farmers in livestock-rich Matabeleland, in the country’s west, are again counting their losses as animals die from thirst and lack of food.

Zimbabwean farmers, hit by more frequent droughts as climate change takes hold, have made efforts to change livestock practices to better cope with dry times — but not all of the new adaptation strategies are holding up, they say.

As a result, in a region where livestock is a store of wealth for most families, drought is again drying up income and reducing savings, farmers say.

“The cattle are our bank,” Moyo tells the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as her cows, two of which are pregnant, stand in the shade. If the cows die, “we will lose five animals in one go”. 

Dying cattle

In September and October, Matabeleland North reported losses of nearly 2,600 cattle as drought dried water supplies and pastures, says Polex Moyo, an officer for the province’s department of veterinary services. He believes the losses will be even higher, with many livestock “in very poor condition”.

A year ago, by comparison, 766 cattle were lost over the same period, he says.

Cattle are dying in part because cash-strapped farmers can’t afford to buy the supplementary feed their animals need, particularly with the price surging as demand soars, says Kenneth Nyoni, a trader in agricultural inputs. A 50kg bag of commercial cattle feed is now selling for a third more than a year ago, he says.

A devaluation of Zimbabwe’s currency in late 2016 led to the collapse of the project, as the currency farmers brought in from cattle sales couldn’t buy enough feed to keep other animals alive

Daniel Moyo says his family has already sold three goats to buy cattle feed in an effort to keep the three emaciated cows alive, and he expects to sell more goats. But the struggling cows are also eating some of the family’s own maize meal mixed with salt and maize stalks saved from a 2017 harvest. 

“We have never lost animals to drought before because the situation was never this bad,” he says. Another 20 cattle the family owns “are at risk too unless we get rains soon and they have water and grass”.

Moyo’s neighbours in other villages in Nkayi District are already seeing their animals die. In Tshutshu, village head Mbulawa Sibanda says he has seen 15 cattle lost to drought in the past few weeks. The bush is filling with rotting animals, and more will die even if rains come, he says, as pastures take time to recover.

Ngwiza Khumalo, the headman of nearby Mhlabuyatshisa village, says his community has lost 18 cattle in the past three weeks. The deaths come as most rivers in the district have dried up and livestock needs to travel ever-longer distances in search of water, Moyo says, adding that  farmers started reducing their herds as the drought hit, but many took action too late.

Struggling feedlots

A project in Nesigwe village, to put cattle into feeding pens during droughts — a move that cut losses in a previous drought — has also struggled in recent years, says Moyo, who chairs the effort.

When the project was first established in 2015, farmers fed animals in the pens with commercial feed, with the cost offset by the much higher price the fat cattle brought at market in a year when they were in short supply. The cash earned from sales then helped feed other animals, keeping more of them alive.

But a devaluation of Zimbabwe’s currency in late 2016 led to the collapse of the project, as the currency farmers brought in from cattle sales couldn’t buy enough feed to keep other animals alive, says Muhle Masuku, a farmer who helped launch the project.

In September, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that Zimbabwe’s economy is likely to shrink in 2019 as inflation soared to 300%, the highest rate in the world after Venezuela. A shortage of foreign currency, water and electricity, combined with rising inflation, have sent the costs of goods and services surging in the country, which declared a drought disaster in August.

Reason Ndebele, a farmer in the village of Mtshengiswa, says saving cattle during drought often requires hard work as well as cash. He has hand-dug a well deep into the dry bed of the Shangani River to provide water for his 25 cattle, and pulls up 30 20l buckets of water each day for them.

He sold some animals to pay for supplementary feed for the rest — something not everyone is willing to do, he says. “Many farmers are not even keen to sell one animal to buy livestock feed and save 20 animals.”

Farmers — many of which grow crops as well as raise cattle — are also struggling to afford quality seeds and fertiliser, local officials says.

“While farmers are losing cattle in Nkayi, many families are also going for days without food and cannot afford to buy inputs to prepare for farming this year,” says Kufakwezwe Ncube, a councillor in Nkayi Urban Ward 29 and former chair of the Nkayi Rural District Council. He has called for urgent government help to supply food aid.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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