Commercialization of smallholder agriculture in South Africa is underpinned by reforms to improve livestock off-take in communal areas and engage smallholder farmers with formal markets. To achieve this, Custom Feeding Programmes (CFPs) were established to improve the condition of communal cattle prior to their sale into formal markets and to ‘systematise’ the informal marketing of cattle in communal areas by enabling participants to achieve higher informal market prices. We evaluate the sustainability of eight CFPs located in Eastern Cape Province in terms of their ability to add value to smallholder cattle production and encourage market participation. Communities with CFPs achieved a 16.6% mean cattle off-take rate, substantially higher than in most communal systems. Furthermore, cattle sold through CFPs attained a 17% higher mean selling price than those sold through other marketing channels. However, these benefits were mainly realized by better-off farmers with larger cattle herds and greater ability to transport animals to and from CFPs. More marginalized farmers, particularly women, had low participation. CFPs also face challenges to their sustainability, including inconsistent feed and water supplies, poor infrastructure and high staff turnover. Key to enhancing participation in CFPs, will be improving the way they are supported and embedded within communities.