Dairy practice

What to look for when picking a dairy cow

Many people have ventured into dairy farming with high hopes of becoming rich, but very few live to realise this dream.

While it is true you can mint millions selling milk produced by your dairy cows; farmers fail to attain this for lack of good planning at the foundation level. At the very core of any good dairy farming, breed selection and subsequent animal husbandry are of paramount importance.

Milk production is a factor of the genetic make-up and the environment, where environment includes housing, feed and health management.

Dairy cows are kept for milk production. Any farmer engaged in dairy production must have lots of milk from his current herd, whose sales must offset the amount spent on its production — where this isn’t the case then, we can’t talk of commercial dairy production.

Photo/courtesy

Indigenous breeds have never been good at milk production since they are multi-purpose — kept for drought resistance, milk and meat production. Some counties like Garissa and Marsabit satisfy their markets with the milk from indigenous animals due to their large stocks.

However, the problem of in-breeding perpetuated by free-range grazing is taking its toll on the productivity of Zebu cows.

There are a number of exotic dairy animals — most farmers have herds of Holstein-Friesian, Jersey, Ayrshire and Guernsey. These are called pure-breeds. Each of these have distinct traits, like milk production, milk butter-fat content, disease resistance, temperament, and heat tolerance, among others.

Exotic dairy animals were brought into Africa by Europeans and are either raised as pure-breeds or crossed with the indigenous breeds. Similarly, Zebu cattle have been introduced into America and crossed with the European breeds to yield crosses that now litter North America and tropical South America.

These animals have over time been breed either amongst themselves or with indigenous cattle in Africa; either intentionally by breeders keen to develop a certain trait over time, or it just happens within farms. The result has been cross-breeds which have a combination of traits picked from their ancestral lineage.

The aim of crossing is to attain a novel breed with a combination of traits that suit a given climatic region, the level of maintenance/management or the whims of the farmer or breeder. When buying such crossed animals, it is crucial that the farmer reads through the breeding records versus the milk production.

Cross-breed animals have the advantage of adaptability to local weather conditions and resistance to endemic diseases. For example, a cross between Sahiwal and Freshian produces a breed that can withstand heat stress, disease and at the same time produce relatively high amounts of milk in dry areas.

COMMERCIAL OR SUBSISTENCE?

Whether to buy a cross or a pure breed is subject to a number of factors; but whose outcome set apart commercial from subsistence dairy production. A farmer may prefer to keep Friesians due to their high milk production while forgetting that this comes at a cost both in feeds and health management, without which the inherent genetic trait will not be exhibited.

Others will rush into buying the Jersey for its high milk butter-fat content only to discover much later that our Kenyan markets pay for quantity and not the butter-fat.

Generally, the following will pass for a good dairy animal — it should have alert eyes, a lean neck and progressively widen towards the hindquarters with bony prominence giving a wedge shape when viewed from the sides or top.

This is important because it shows how much food the animal can consume, which is a major determinant of how much milk it can produce. The bony prominence is a visible sign of a milk producing animal’s genetic trait. The opposite will be for a beef animal as it will be blocky, without any bony prominence.

OF UDDER IMPORTANCE

The udder is the most crucial part that a lot of attention must be paid too. A good dairy animal will have an udder that is firmly anchored onto the abdomen with well demarcated four quarters that have sizeable teats and a visible network of blood vessels.

A pendulous udder will predispose the animal to mastitis, which should be kept at bay during the lactation period of any dairy animal for maximal production.

A broad strong muzzle is a good anatomical feature as it implies good food apprehension and chewing ability which is crucial to milk production as lots of grass must be eaten by the cow to produce milk.

Closely tied to this is the need for well sprung ribs with inter-rib distance able to accommodate two or three finger; this implies enough room for the rumen, which is a fermentation fault for microbial digestion of fibrous grass.

A visit to your local veterinary doctor will inform you on breed characteristics and milk producing abilities relative to your resource abilities and geographic locality.

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