Columnists Features

Uniting cattle communities, creating fair markets

BEING a small-scale cattle farmer in Zambia has its challenges; from disease risk, to worrying about the weather, the herd’s calving rate and even the market price.

When Silverlands Ranching Limited, an agricultural business based in Zimba, began operating, the company made the small-scale farmer its priority. A common refrain now heard in Zambia is that the best way to operate a farming business is to “do it the Silverlands way” after this comment was made by an MP in parliament. What does this mean exactly?

Prioritising the smallholder farmer was ensured through the inclusion of a hub-outgrower model surrounding its commercial enterprises as one of the cornerstones upon which Silverlands Ranching in Zambia is based.
This hub-outgrower model is aimed at impacting positively the lives of smallholder farmers surrounding the main hub by improving access to health care, opening new and fair markets and assisting with technical and skills transfer.
This model is specifically enshrined in the Silverlands Livestock Improvement Community programme (SLIC), a branch of the Silverlands Ranching Limited aimed at improving smallholder livestock in and around the southern part of Zimba district.
Silverlands consulted extensively with its neighbouring communities shortly after its parent, SilverStreet Capital, a UK-based agricultural investment firm, invested into the business. This consultation highlighted a number of difficulties that the smallholder cattle farmers were facing. There had been little dipping of cattle for over 15 years, so tick-borne diseases were a problem. The farmers were not getting any veterinary support and there was no local market for the cattle, so they were being taken advantage of by ‘traders’.
At the start of the SLIC programme in 2014, three ‘livestock technicians’ were hired and housed on the farm. These were veterinary graduates involved in the re-introduction of dips of animals and the provision of basic health care. For a fee of only K1, farmers get their cattle dipped at the various dip stations being run by Silverlands Ranching in the district. These fees are administered by the community and proceeds are used to pay for costs on managing the dips.
This was done in collaboration with Musika, a Zambian non-profit organisation that supports private sector investments in the smallholder market.
The SLIC/Musika partnership has been ongoing for over two years and results of this partnership have been fruitful. Musika provides technical advice and acts as a facilitator that puts Silverlands Ranching in touch with other organisations through established networks.
The livestock technicians find their way around Zimba communities using motorbikes that were originally donated by Musika. Musika has also supported Silverlands Ranching with a field vehicle.
In the last two years, Silverlands Ranching has expanded its ongoing projects in Zimba. The SLIC programme has now opened up 14 dip stations for smallholder farmers, up from nine in 2015 and zero in 2013 before SilverStreet invested.
This means more farmers are now accessing their facilities in Zimba area, protecting their cattle from tick-borne diseases.
Central to the work of Silverlands Ranching in the Zimba area are a set of individuals called livestock technicians who act as agents between Silverlands Ranching Zambia and local farmers in Zimba.
Harvey Kalomo is a livestock technician with Silverlands Ranching and his job involves making farmers knowledgeable about good animal health.
“I make sure farmers come to the dip stations on designated days to dip their cattle and whenever a farmer has a cow affected by disease I assist that farmer. If a cow is sick I get the history of how long the animal has been sick and if at all it has been given any medication before I attend to it,” he shares.
Harvey says Silverlands Ranching has greatly helped reduce the disease burden among animals in Zimba area and farmers have readily embraced the positive changes that have resulted from getting their animals dipped.
The benefits have been immediate and powerful. Silverlands measures a number of variables annually to assess the progress in the surrounding community herds. The latest survey showed a collapse in smallholder cattle mortality rates from six percent to around 1.5 percent, largely because of the drop in tick-borne diseases. For a typical farmer with 20 head of cattle, this means on average one less death per annum, a huge saving.
Apart from being treated at the dip stations as a preventative measure against disease, animals are also dehorned, castrated and branded.
Lewis Mutinta has also noticed the change that the work of Silverlands Ranching has brought to the Zimba farmers.
Like Harvey, Lewis is a livestock technician working under Silverlands Ranching in Zimba.
Common cattle diseases in Zimba area include the deadly East Coast Fever (ECF), blackleg and anthrax.
According to Lewis, there used to be many animal deaths recorded from corridor disease but because of the animals getting treated through dipping, hardly any deaths are recorded and the quality of the cows has improved as well.
Healthy cattle means more calves, and calving rates have improved dramatically. Silverlands’ latest survey shows that calving rates for communities not yet in the SLIC programme was around 50 percent, whereas it was over 65 percent for communities that are in the SLIC programme. For a smallholder farmer with 20 cows, this means three extra calves a year, an enormous boost for these farmers.
The programme also continues to be a success story of Silverlands Ranching through the creation of an increasingly disease-free corridor around the ranch reducing bio risk dramatically for the commercial enterprise.
One of the major projects started by Silverlands Ranching this year has been the development of a feedlot through which the company is now buying animals from small-holder farmers in Zimba, thus creating a local market.
Lewis, the livestock technician, says, “Silverlands Ranching is not just dipping animals every week but is also providing a market to the farmers by buying their cattle, so the livelihoods of the farmers have improved because of these projects,” Lewis emphasises.
The creation of two main feedlots has significantly improved the quality of cattle coming out of Zimba.
The feedlots were opened earlier this year and already the response from Zimba’s farmers has been overwhelming. Farmers have the chance to sell their locally bred cattle to Silverlands Ranching since the creation of the feedlots.
The SLIC programme guarantees that Silverlands Ranching gets good quality healthy animals delivered to its door from local farmers who are now regularly dipping their animals.
Silverlands Ranching feeds them and once they are fattened up and ready for processing, they are then sold to the abattoir.
Feedlot manager, Andrew McKechnie says the cows are fed and vaccinated for about 30 days before being taken to the feedlot.
“Usually they come in at around 250 kilogrammes on average and they leave at around 400 or 450 kilogrammes,” he says.
The cattle are all from the Zimba community and local villagers walk them to the feedlot before Silverlands Ranching buys them over a scale on a live weight.
After they are vaccinated, dipped and dosed for worms, they are then fed in the feedlots and are usually ready for sale after three to four months.
The cows eat an average of 20kg of fresh food every day to gain around 1.4kg or 1.5kg a day. “The farmers usually bring them here after walking for many kilometres, so we allow the animals to overnight (rest overnight) and we give them food and some water then we put them over the scale,” Mr McKechnie explains. Once the animal is relaxed and gets used to its new environment, the sale to Silverlands can take place.
Mr McKechnie says they were overwhelmed in the beginning especially during peak buying season.
Even though it is presently still outside the peak season, Silverlands Ranching is still receiving 30 to 50 animals a week from local farmers and hopes to carry it on and expand it later as well.
In the commercial feedlot, Silverlands Ranching has about 20 feeding pens where 80 cattle are fed in each pen. They plan to double it in the coming months.
Most of the cattle in the commercial feedlot are uniform or of the same size and age and do well as a result of this uniformity.
“We started with some animals in January from the ranch, that got us started with about 650 and now every month we try and buy 400 animals to keep us going,” Mr McKechnie says.
Most of the food that the animals are fed has to date been grown on Silverlands ranch on centre pivots in the summer and is called maize silage. Silverlands is now actively encouraging neighbouring smallholder farmers to grow crops, which it can buy and convert into stock feed. This helps provide the farmers with a second income.
“The key to our success here is being able to feed the animals good quality food. The SLIC programme guarantees that we receive healthy cattle delivered to our door from villagers who are now dipping them every week and maintaining high standard animals throughout the year,” Mr McKechnie says.
“We have now started promoting the growing of sunflower and other crops such as yellow maize, both of which can be used as inputs to create feed.”
Yonah Chimbonge is the third livestock technician working under Silverlands Ranching who says, “Silverlands Ranching is encouraging small-holder farmers to diversify. With sunflower the growth rate is faster, meaning they can have income earlier than with maize,” Yonah says.
Zimba farmers who are growing sunflower take it to a mill or an expeller where the oil is taken out. They keep the oil for themselves for cooking before selling Silverlands Ranching the sunflower cake, a good source of protein to put into feed.
“We would rather buy sunflower cake than sunflower from the local small-holder farmers because they are adding value to their crop by processing it into sunflower cake and oil. We help with processing for those farmers who cannot do this. We want to increase these purchases. ” Mr McKechnie says.
Silverlands Ranching is basically providing a market for the farmers by buying the sunflower cake and it is deliberate about promoting business in the community and not taking business away from people.
In partnership with Musika, Silverlands Ranching is presently putting up sheds in strategic places in the communities to facilitate crop harvesting in the district. “We have seven sheds being built and once the slabs are done the sheds will be constructed,” Mr Wessels explains.
Seed and fertiliser is distributed in the area late which means farmers begin to plant late but Silverlands Ranching has taken the step to try and have seed and fertiliser delivered to the farmers early in the farming season.
Different feed ingredients are packed inside the Silverlands Ranching food-shed and loaded into a mixing wagon, which then goes to the feedlot and is emptied off into the feed troughs there.
A united cattle community and commercial operation now exists around the ranch reducing burning, livestock theft and poaching. Silverlands Ranching also continues to ensure the production of ever improving cattle quality.
The benefits for the small-scale farmer can best be explained by the farmers themselves. Entry Jolezya was based in Mazabuka before moving to Zimba to start farming.
He says cattle theft in Mazabuka was higher than in Zimba, which is the reason he chose to relocate. “I take my cows to the dip station every week and I also sell some to Silverlands Ranching because the price is better than at the abattoir,” Entry says.
Not only is there a reduction in cattle mortalities through access to a regular dipping programme, but a market where the small-scale farmer will be able to realise improved returns for better quality animals has also been created.
Ultimately, Zimba’s farmers are now more commercially minded and their attitude towards cattle health has completely changed.
Silverlands has executed three main actions: supporting smallholder farmers, creating a market and encouraging farmers to diversify into crops. For these smallholder farmers, this has led to dramatically lower cattle mortality rates, a huge increase in cattle calving rates, better prices for cattle and supplemental income from cropping. This means substantially higher income for these smallholder farmers. That is the Silverlands way!


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