By Busani Bafana
NKAYI, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ntokozo Ncube brims with joy like a proud father as he shows off a newborn calf that has expanded his herd to eight animals.
The calf is a special cross-breed that is helping Ncube, 42, realize his dream of improving his herd and his income.
Cross-breeding can produce tougher animals that are better able to withstand erratic weather, common in this arid southern part of Zimbabwe.
Cattle are valued in Matabeleland's three provinces as a farmer's "bank on four legs", as Ncube puts it, making them status symbols.
But as temperatures rise and rainfall declines in southern Zimbabwe, cattle rearing has become more of a challenge.
Water scarcity, frequent grazing shortages, disease outbreaks and uncompetitive livestock prices are making life hard for pastoral farmers.
Matabeleland is considered Zimbabwe's "beef basket". Ranching is the main source of income for many small-scale farmers who are now battling to survive.
In response to their changing environment, Ncube and other livestock keepers are learning to cope with a tougher climate.
They are crossing indigenous cattle with exotic breeds like Brahman, improving the quality, productivity and market value of their animals.
Ncube was initially against cross-breeding because he had heard stories about Brahman cattle being difficult to keep in local conditions.
"One day I attended a livestock auction where a cross-breed steer was sold for more money than a big indigenous bull which I expected to fetch more. That won me over," said Ncube, a father of seven from Mzaca village in Nkayi district, 200 km (124 miles) northwest of the city of Bulawayo.
Since then, Ncube has crossed all his cattle. "I now know I will get better prices for my animals because they are presentable. Cross-breeds can help take us out of poverty and hunger," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
After receiving training in livestock management, Agneta Dube from Dakamela village also started cross-breeding.
The new approach has transformed her herd, allowing her to reap "huge" benefits, she said. A year ago, she sold a cross-bred heifer and pocketed $800, triple the profit she made from selling three cows in 2013.
"In the past, we sold our cattle for a song ... and we could not even negotiate with buyers who offered little because we were desperate," said Dube, who also grows sorghum, groundnuts, round nuts and beans.
With the proceeds from selling her livestock, Dube has built a house and pays school fees for her children. She plans to expand her herd of nine and sell mature stock every season while improving the breeds.
Dube and other farmers also grow hardy fodder crops which complement pasture, helping them maintain healthy animals they can sell throughout the year.
Muhle Masuku from the Matabeleland Agriculture Business Chamber said cattle-grading systems favor animals that put on weight faster and have superior meat quality - attributes promoted by cross-breeding.
The Health, Education and Food Security Organisation (HEFO), a local non-governmental group, runs weekend livestock clinics for farmers in Nkayi.
Here they learn best practices in cattle management such as dehorning, branding, selecting stock for breeding, and grading and weighing of animals before sale.
The organization has established four information centers in Nkayi where farmers can also access dipping facilities and check their animals' health.
An initial 50 livestock farmers were trained, and they are now passing on their knowledge to others under the initiative, benefiting some 500 farmers so far.
HEFO stresses the importance of improving breeds, as well as animal health, feed and marketing.
"Having the numbers without the right quality is not the best strategy in cattle management as large numbers of inferior cattle will not give them the best returns," said Anania Ncube, a livestock marketing and production specialist with HEFO.
Cross-breeding allows farmers to keep fewer better-quality animals, reducing their number and impact on the environment, said Julie Ojango, a scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.
Climate change has turned fodder and water availability into major issues for livestock keepers, making it necessary to manage shrinking resources better.
Many indigenous and cross-bred cattle have adapted to thrive on drier feed, unlike exotic breeds, Ojango said.
"A cross-breed can eat feed with high dry matter, and farmers know they can get more out of a cross in terms of milk or meat with the right feeding," she said.
Studies have shown that farmers can more than double the productivity of their livestock through cross-breeding, she added.
But sub-Saharan Africa lacks policies to guide animal breeding, and should develop strategies that promote crossing of indigenous and exotic breeds, she urged.
(Reporting by Busani Bafana; editing by Megan Rowling)