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Genetic improvement of indigenous cattle breeds in Zimbabwe : a case study of the Mashona group breeding scheme | Print |

Carroll T. Khombe (2002)

IDEAA Regional Programme, Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, University of Zimbabwe, Box MP 167, Harare, Zimbabwe


The Mashona cattle breed is widely distributed in East and Central Zimbabwe and is the most numerous breed of cattle. Their territory extends westwards to 290 30' E (area covering Gokwe, Lupane and Tjolotjo) and eastwards as far as the border of Mozambique and over into Tete (Mason and Maule 1960). They occur in various areas of Matebeleland, particularly the Matopo Hills. They are similar to other neck-humped cattle like the Tonga and Barotse, and the chest-humped types like the Angoni and the Nyasa Zebu that are found through out southern Africa (Mason and Maule 1960). They typically Sanga that originated from the crossbreeding of zebu and taurine cattle (Meyer, 1984;Frisch, et al. 1997).

They are small cattle, with cows weighing 275 to 350 kg. Black is the commonest colour followed by red. Other colours are brown with a yellow muzzle, brownish black with a lighter back stripe, dun, yellow cream, black and white, and red and white. The tail is long and touches the ground.

The commercial and research station herds n = 3860 animals form the majority of recorded Mashona cattle and a reliable estimate of the numbers in the smallholder farming sector have not been determined, due to the prevalence of uncontrolled breeding in this sector. The population of Mashona cattle in the smallholder farming sector has been estimated at 22,000 adult animals by the Mashona Cattle Society (Indibreed 1994) and at half a million by Moyo et al. (1994). A majority of Mashona cattle are horned , although natural polled genotype are also common. Most of commercial herds and Research station herds are dehorned.

In the beef industry the value of the Mashona breed as a suitable maternal line for crossbreeding programmes in commercial beef production and as an adapted fertile breed suitable for use in smallholder farms is well established (Tawonezvi 1984, 1993; Moyo 1990; Moyo 1996). Under smallholder management systems the Mashona is the breed of choice because of its ability to remain productive (draft power, manure, milk and meat) under adverse environmental and low management regimes. However, there is a shortage of performance recorded purebred Mashona cattle with known pedigrees and with performance records) and their crossbreeds in the market. Smallholder farmers, who hold a majority of unrecorded Mashona cattle are not always earger to sell excess livestock, since they perform numerous functions (like economic security, draft, manure and ceremonial roles) other than the production of beef. This shortage has led national herd rebuilding programmes of the likes of Heifer International, Cow-Calf Loan Schemes, Cow Finance Loan Schemes and Government Herd Rebuilding Programmes to buy large parcels of unadapted exotic-crossbred cull stock from commercial farms to use for restocking smallholder farms. The impacts of these brought-in exotic animals, on the indigenous gene pool of cattle in smallholder farms is unknown, but needs urgent quantification.

The carcass grading system in current use in Zimbabwe is biased against the small-framed Mashona cattle and other small-framed indigenous breeds. This is because the grading system uses the fleshing index (ratio of carcass weight to length) increases with size of animal and tends to discriminate against small-framed breeds (Tawonezvi and Khombe, 1995). Mashona cattle in Zimbabwe are, therefore, threatened by the insatiable quest to improve on their conformation and size by crossbreeding with the larger exotic breeds (Khombe et al. 1994). The Mashona Cattle Society and research stations have initiated selection programmes to increase size of the Mashona in an attempt to avoid the substitution of the breed by faster growing crossbred cattle.

Mashona herds in the smallholder farming sector

The Mashona comprises the majority of genotypes in the estimated 3.5 million indigenous herds in the smallholder farming sector (Holness 1992). Almost all cattle in this sector are not performance recorded because of the numerous functions that they perform (draft, manure, social security, rituals, milk and meat). This breed has not been selected for growth and fertility, which are the selection criteria of breeding programmes being pursued by commercial beef producers. The socio-economic functions that indigenous livestock perform provide a big incentive for the rearing of these animals. Exotic breeds and their obvious crosses are not preferred as substitutes. Although this national pool of indigenous cattle (of the smallholder cattle) has been diluted by introduction of exotic genotypes, there remain many areas where relatively pure stocks of Mashona cattle can still be found. It is urgent that conservation strategies are put in place to protect this genetic pool from further contamination by indiscriminate crossbreeding.

The Mashona Group Breeding Scheme


The establishment of this breeding scheme was motivated by the following factors:

  • Commercial breeders recognised that they were making very little progress in selecting for growth and fertility using within-herd selection, since their individual herds were very small (200 to 700 cow herd). The limited of exchange of unrelated breeding stock across breeding herds (especially large groups of cows) was suspected to have resulted in high rates of inbreeding within commercial herds. Low fertility and high pre-weaning mortalities that were recorded in some of these herds (in a breed renowned for high fertility and survival) were attributed to inbreeding depression.
  • Establish a nucleus herd from which improvement of growth, food conversion efficiency and fertility could be attained through within-herd selection from a larger base population and use of performance records.
  • Establish a screening facility that could be used for testing new genotypes from smallholder farms and other sources.

Business arrangement

The Mashona Group Breeding Scheme is a joint venture between nine permanent members of the Mashona Cattle Society and a private investor (registered as Apex Holdings Pvt. Ltd.). Its main business is to produce bulls for use by the co-operating breeders and to make a profit by selling excess bulls and cows to both commercial and smallholder farmers. Recently, the co-operative has engaged in the export of live animals, embryos and semen.

The nine co-operating breeders secured a property, later called Nyombi Farm, in Chartsworthy/Mvuma under Agro-ecological Regional IV, which is characterised by 'miombo woodland' or wooded grassland Savanna, infertile granitic sands and a low annual precipitation of 600 mm. The co-operators contributed a total of 300 cows with high performance indices (as determined by the Beef Performance Testing Scheme1 [BPTS]). They also loaned the scheme their best bulls for one mating season. To-date the breeding scheme manages a 400 cow + heifer herd that is mated to 12 to15 bulls in single sire randomised herds. The herd is targeted to stabilise at 400 cows and 25 bulls nucleus herd.

Management system

The animals are managed using the same management system that is practised by the participating commercial farmers. Animals graze free range during the wet season (November to May), at this time they are offered phosphorus supplements. During the dry season (June to October) they are offered protein and energy supplements. All the animals are are run in paddocks where they are provided with an ad libitum supply of clean drinking water and they are neither penned nor herded. The level of supplementary feeding depends on the types of animals. Pregnant cows and cows that are nursing calves are given high priority while dry cows and old animals are given low priority. All animals are dipped to reduce the number of ticks (one week during the wet-season and once a fortnight during the dry season). They are vaccinated against quarter evil (or Black Quarter), contagious abortion and anthrax annually. They are also dosed against both round and flatworms, including liver fluke, at the beginning and end of the wet season.

Selection process

The Group Breeding Scheme utilises a three-tier selection index (Indibreed 1996). Bulls are selected on an index that utilises 30% of their 205-day BPTS index; 30% of Summer Gain Index; and 40% of winter feed gain (feedlot testing) and on-range performance tests. The top 5% of the bulls is retained for use within the nucleus and member herds. Surplus bulls are sold to other breeders and butchers. Heifers are selected on an index that utilises 40% of their 205-day BPTS Index; 30% of Summer Gain Index; and 30% of Maternal Productivity Index (ratio of calf weaning weight to cow post-weaning weight). The top 20% of the heifers is retained, but the rest are sold to commercial and smallholder farmers.

Shortfalls of the Group Breeding Scheme

  • The scheme relies on the BPTS to identify bulls and cows of high genetic merit. This method of selection has serious shortcomings that have been highlighted by Machaya and Tawonezvi (1992) and Khombe and Tawonezvi (1995). The method does not correct for individual birth-weight when calculating the weaning weight index. It utilises correction factors for fixed effects that are derived from the United States Department of Agriculture. Thirdly, it does not account for the existing relationships among the animals that are being evaluated.
  • The lack of performance recording among animals in the smallholder farming sector, limits the accuracy with which high performing animals can be identified from this genetic pool. It is risky to utilise animals identified from this genetic pool in registered herds since their genotypes and pedigrees are unknown. The challenge facing animal breeders in Zimbabwe is to develop methods through which animals of high genetic merit can be identified from the smallholder gene pool without compromising the genetic gains that have already been attained in the commercial herds (Khombe et al. 1994).
  • Defining the selection environment and management system/regime for the nucleus herd. Mashona cattle are adapted to produce under conditions of low levels of nutrition, high loads of both internal and external parasites, and low water availability. It is not known how this adaptability changes when the animals are reared under high levels of management, as is the practice in the Group Breeding Scheme at Nyombi Farm. It can however be argued that Mashona cattle should be selected under the stressful environments from which they evolved.

The way ahead

It is important that an advanced recording and genetic evaluation scheme is established for the Mashona breed in general and the Group Breeding Scheme in particular. The methods of selection need to be revised in light of the new animal-model based evaluation methods that are now the methods of choice. The infrastructure of sire evaluation that is currently in existence in Zimbabwe can easily be modified to use Mixed Model Equations and provide Best Linear Unbiased Prediction (BLUP) breeding values.

A strategy needs to be developed to facilitate the transfer of improved genes back to the smallholder farming sector. The availability of faster growing Mashona cattle will reduce the uncontrolled crossbreeding of indigenous cattle with exotic cattle in the smallholder farming sector.

Knowledge gaps

While the three known breeds of indigenous cattle in Zimbabwe (namely the Mashona, Tuli and Nkone) have received regional and international acclaim, there is a paucity of information about these indigenous breeds and that limits their full exploitation in commercial agricultural systems. The gaps in knowledge include the following:

  • Only three breeds have been identified from the multitude of livestock genotypes that comprise the indigenous gene pool in the smallholder farming areas. Despite the lack of information on the genotypes that comprise the smallholder cattle population and their potential uses in current production systems, there is proliferation of uncontrolled crossbreeding with imported exotic breeds. There is an urgent need to characterise the genotypes of cattle that play an important function in the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe before they are `lost'.
  • The few known breeds have a large variation that indicates scope for future breed improvement. To date, information that has been accumulated about these breeds is inadequate to allow their full exploitation.
  • The genetic pool of indigenous cattle that is currently utilised in commercial livestock agriculture is very small and is derived from a small base population. The future development of breeding programmes to improve the utilisation of indigenous genotypes in commercial agriculture will rely on the infusion of new genotypes from smallholder agriculture. However to date no meaningful and sustainable system has been developed to facilitate the identification of productive (growth and fertility) genotypes from the large unrecorded gene pool of indigenous cattle in the smallholder farming areas. There is an urgent need to develop an appropriate performance-recording scheme for indigenous cattle in smallholder farms.
  • There is currently on-going controversy on the environment and management system in which to rear nucleus herds of indigenous livestock. There is fear that rearing and selecting these animals under high management regimes (winter supplementary feeding, appropriate stocking rates, regular control of parasites and diseases) will not allow the genes for hardiness to be expressed. There is growing fear that such environments will result in a loss of the genes for hardiness, survival and fertility. There is need to establish the genetic correlation between growth and these fitness traits and also quantify the existence/or absence of genotype-environment interaction that is possible between nucleus and research station environments with the production environments in both smallholder and commercial farms.
  • The Beef Performance Testing Scheme (BPTS) has been in use for more than twenty five years, but its impacts on the traits of interest (growth and fertility) have not been established. The effectiveness of this method of selection needs to be established and its impact on the beef herd in Zimbabwe needs to be quantified.

Study questions

  • The Mashona Group Breeding Scheme selects breeding animals under high management regimes (both feeding and veterinary care) while their offspring are expected to perform under low management regimes and tough environments. What possible problems could result from such selection and what improvements can be made (to the selection method)?
  • The selection criteria for the Mashona Group Breeding Scheme places emphasis on growth, food conversion efficiency and fertility. Do you think indigenous animals should be selected only on these three traits? What other traits could be included and how will their inclusion likely to affect progress in the improvement of growth, food conversion efficiency and fertility?
  • The largest population of indigenous cattle is in smallholder farms. The utilisation of this genetic pool in commercial agriculture has been frustrated by the lack of a performance recording scheme. Why has it been difficult to establish a performance recording scheme for cattle in the smallholder farming sector? If performance recording of smallholder cattle was made possible, how would such animals be utilised by breed improvement programmes such as the Mashona Group Breeding Scheme?
  • The existence of pure-bred indigenous cattle in smallholder farming areas is threatened by increases in uncontrolled crossbreeding with the faster growing and `popular' exotic genotypes. Why is crossbreeding a popular practice among smallholder and commercial farmers? Why is it important to maintain pure-breeding herds of indigenous breeds in smallholder farming areas? What could be done to control or avoid uncontrolled crossbreeding?


Frisch, J.E., D. Drinkwater, B. Harrison, and S. Johnson. (1997). Classification of the southern African sanga and East African shorthorned zebu. Animal Genetics. 28:77-83.

Holness D.H. 1992. Mashona cattle of Zimbabwe. Mashona Cattle Society. Harare, Zimbabwe. 61pp.

Indibreed (Pvt.) Ltd. 1996. Description of the Mashona Group Breeding Scheme. A paper presented by Dr. R.D. Smith at a seminar titled 'Practical Applications of Group Breeding Concepts to Indigenous Cattle' held on 30th November 1996 at Matopos Research Station, Matapos, Zimbabwe. Mashona Cattle Society, Harare, Zimbabwe. pp. 5.

Khombe C.T. and Tawonezvi H.P.R. 1995. Beef performance recording in Zimbabwe: the way forward. In: Dzama K., Ngwerume F.N. and Bhebhe E. (eds), Proceedings of the International Symposium on Livestock Production through Animal Breeding and Genetics held at the University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe, 10-11 May 1995. University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe. pp. 135-138.

Khombe C.T., Hayes J.F., Tawonezvi H.P.R and Khombe M. 1994. Estimation of genetic differences between Mashona bulls from different production systems using an animal model. Journal of Agricultural Science (Cambridge) 122:459-463.

Machaya A.C. and Tawonezvi H.P.R. 1992. Beef performance testing in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe Journal of Agricultural Research 30:13-20.

Mason F.L. and Maule J.P. 1960. The indigenous livestock of eastern and southern Africa. Technical Communication 14. Commonwealth Bureau of Animal Breeding and Genetics, Edinburgh, UK. 5pp.

Meyer, E.H.H. (1984). Chromosomal and biochemical markers of cattle breeds in southern Africa. In: Barton R. A. and Smith W C. (eds), Proceedings of the 2nd World Congress on Sheep and Beef Cattle Breeding, 2:328-339.

Moyo S. 1990. Evaluation of the productivity of indigenous cattle and some exotic beef breeds and their crosses in Zimbabwe. ILCA Research Fellowship Report . ILCA (International Livestock Centre for Africa), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 139p.

Moyo, S. , J.E.O. Rege, F.J.C. Swanepoel (1994) Evaluation of indigenous, exotic and crossbred cattle for beef production in a semi arid environment. In: Smith C., Gibson, J.S., Benkel, B., Chesnais, J., Fairfull, W., Gibson, J.P., Kennedy, B.W. and Burnside E.B. (eds), Proceedings of the 5th World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production, Guelph, Vol. 20: 344-347.

Tawonezvi H.P.R. 1984. Crossbreeding range beef cattle for weaner production in Zimbabwe. PhD thesis, University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe. 116pp.

Tawonezvi H.P.R. 1993. Adaptability of beef cattle. Journal of the Zimbabwe Society of Animal Production 5:15-18.

Tawonezvi H.P.R. and Khombe C.T. 1995. The potential of indigenous breeds to meet market needs. Paper presented at the Meat Science Symposium, Zimbabwe Society of Animal Production Harare, Zimbabwe, 5 October 1995. pp. 97-100.

Related Literature

Buvanendran V. 1990. Adjustment factors for weaning weights of Mashona cattle in Zimbabwe. Journal of Agricultural Science (Cambridge) 114:35-40.

Chavunduka D.M. 1976. The role of cattle in the traditional African society. In: Smith A.J. (ed), Beef cattle production in developing countries.Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK. pp.398-400.

Hanotte, O., C.L. Tawah, D.C. Bradley, M. Okomo, Y. Verjee, J. Ochieng and J.E.O. Rege. (2000). Geographic distribution and frequency of a taurine Bos Taurus and an indicine Bos indicus Y specific allele amongst sub-Saharan African cattle breeds. Molecular Ecology, 9: 387-396.

Harvey K. 1987. The history and development of the three indigenous cattle breeds of Zimbabwe. In: Grant J. (ed), The indigenous cattle breeds of Zimbabwe. Proceedings of a workshop held at Matopos Research Station, Zimbabwe, 26-27 February 1987. Research and Specialist Services, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Jackson J.C. 1989. Exploring livestock incomes in Zimbabwe's communal lands. In: Cousins B. (ed), People, lands and livestock. Proceedings of a workshop on the socio-economic dimensions of livestock production in communal lands of Zimbabwe held at .

Khombe C.T. 1995. The conservation and selection of indigenous beef breeds in Zimbabwe. In: Dzama K., Ngwerume F.N. and Bhebhe E. (eds), Proceedings of the International Symposium on Livestock Production through Animal Breeding and Genetics held at Harare, Zimbabwe, 10-11 May 1995. University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe.pp. 45-49.

Khombe C.T., Hayes J.F., Cue R.I. and Wade K.M. 1995. Estimation of direct additive and maternal additive genetic effects for weaning weight in Mashona cattle of Zimbabwe using an individual animal model. Animal Science 60:41-48.

Moyo S. 1996. The Productivity of Indigenous and Exotic Beef Breeds and their Crosses at Matopos, Zimbabwe. PhD Thesis, University of Pretoria, South Africa. 161 pp.

Tawonezvi H.P.R., Ward H.K., Trail J.C.M. and Light D. 1988. Evaluation of beef breeds for rangeland weaner production in Zimbabwe. Animal Production 47:361-367.

The BPTS utilises a contemporary comparison type method to determine the breeding values of cattle within a herd, after adjusting for the fixed effects of sex and age of cow (Machaya and Tawonezvi 1992). The 205-day index is used as a measure of calf growth up to weaning and is used for dam selection, while 550-day weight is the selection criterion for replacement stock.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 18 February 2010 06:44