Vet on Call: Invest in patience and you will get best cow for less

Friday June 30 2017

A Friesian heifer grazes

A Friesian heifer grazes. For a farmer to establish a high producing pedigree dairy herd, there are several options available for acquiring the cattle and the choice of option depends on the farmer’s budget and the period over which one wants to establish the dairy herd. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By DR JOSEPH MUGACHIA
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One of the most common questions I get from dairy farmers is, “How can I have high quality dairy cattle without paying the high prices for pedigree cows?”

This question arises from the desire of farmers to have high milk producing cattle but they are frustrated by the high purchase prices for such cattle.

The question has been very frequent in the last one month. I hope by making a full article response to the question, even those who have not yet asked the question will benefit.

I will use the Friesian cow breed as my reference in this article because it is the most common dairy cow breed in Kenya.

The Friesian, also called Holstein, is the highest milk producing dairy cattle breed. Often people confuse Friesian and Holstein as two different breeds. They are one and the same.

The term Friesian is mainly used in the United Kingdom while Holstein is used in the United States of America. The cattle originated from North Holland and Friesland Provinces of The Netherlands and spread widely globally due to their superior milk production.

The Friesian is typically black and white but there are also white and brown Friesians which are not common and should not be confused with the Ayrshire.

In countries like Kenya where the butterfat content of milk is not considered when determining the price of milk, Friesian is an ideal breed because it provides milk volume which is the only determinant of dairy profitability.

Among the dairy breeds, Friesian has the lowest butterfat content while the Jersey breed has the highest. Among dairy breeds, Jersey produces the lowest volume of milk, followed by the Guernsey while the Ayrshire is second to the Friesian.

To specifically answer the farmers’ question, let us look at the various groupings of dairy cattle in Kenya based on my experience in livestock health and production. At the top are the pedigree cattle.

COMMAND THE HIGHEST PRICE

These are cows that are a pure breed and have verifiable records of their breeding history and milk production. Such cows are registered with the Kenya Studbook, through the Kenya Livestock Breeders Organization (KLBO).

The records show how the animals have been bred down to their great grandparents and the characteristics or traits they have been bred for as well as their milk production.

This class of pure bred cattle command the highest price on the market and can fetch up to Sh300,000 for a pregnant Friesian heifer.

Daniel and Sellah Nyangweso of Lurambi in Kakamega with their Friesian cow and her calf.

Daniel and Sellah Nyangweso of Lurambi, Kakamega with their Friesian cow and her calf. To obtain pedigrees, one can also use medium to high quality animals that are not pedigree and diligently breed them with very high quality semen over a period of five to seven years while filing all the breeding and milk production records with the Kenya Studbook. PHOTO | JACOB OWITI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Second are the pure bred cattle without breeding records. These are high producers but do not have systematically kept records.

The records may or may not have been kept with the Kenya Stud Book but the cattle owner could have the records on the farm.

The cows fetch a fairly high price up to Sh200,000 for a pregnant Friesian heifer.

The third category is cows that have a high degree of breed purity from their appearance and milk production. These cows have moderate production of 20 to 30 litres per day and they are very common.

However, such animals do not attain their milk production potential mainly due to poor feeding. The cows, when in good shape, may fetch up to Sh120,000 for a pregnant Friesian heifer.

Most animals are sold at between Sh60,000 and Sh80,000 when pregnant. These cattle are normally not registered with the Kenya Stud Book.

Finally there are those cattle with some dairy breed purity but the traits for either beef breed or duo purpose breed are observable.

INSEMINATE WITH PEDIGREE

These cows are also not registered with the Kenya Studbook. When in good state of health, these animals fetch between Sh25,000 and Sh60,000 for a pregnant heifer.

Their milk production is between 10 and 20 litres per day.

For a farmer to establish a high producing dairy herd, there are several options available for acquiring the cattle. The choice of option depends on the farmer’s budget and the period over which one wants to establish the dairy herd

The quickest way is to simply buy pedigree dairy cattle and in one instant, the herd is established. The drawback is the high cost of buying the cattle.

The second option is to acquire very poor quality cattle like zebus and simply inseminate them with pedigree cattle embryos selected to produce only female calves.

These are called the sexed embryos. Again, this option is very costly both in money and time spent. It also requires expensive breeding expertise.

The third option is to obtain medium to high quality animals that are not pedigree and diligently breed them with very high quality semen over a period of five to seven years while filing all the breeding and milk production records with the Kenya Studbook.

Holstein Friesian calves in a farm in Gatundu.

Holstein Friesian calves in a farm in Gatundu. If a cow was already a half breed at 50 per cent Friesian and is inseminated with pure breed Friesian semen, then the calf born will already be 75 per cent pure Friesian. PHOTO | JOSEPH MUGACHIA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

One would be assured that within that period, they would have established a pedigree dairy herd. Insemination must be done artificially to ensure that the semen quality is verifiable.

The only drawback of this option is the amount of time a farmer would spend, meticulously breeding the animals and keenly documenting with the Kenya Studbook.

WAITING LONGER BUT PAYING LESS

It is important to know that when a bull and cow are mated by artificial or natural insemination, the calf born caries 50 per cent of the genes from the mother (cow), called the dam, and 50 per cent from the bull, called the sire.

If a cow was already a half breed at 50 per cent Friesian and is inseminated with pure breed Friesian semen, then the calf born will already be 75 per cent pure Friesian.

If the calf from this second insemination is a heifer and is bred with a pure breed sire, the calf produced will be 87.5 per cent pure Friesian.

For all practical purposes, such an animal is a pure Friesian. However, breeding with high quality pure breed semen must be sustained to further improve the breed towards 100 per cent Friesian.

One of my clients, who requested I do not mention his name, has taken the option of breeding his own pedigree Friesians from medium quality animals.

To further lower the cost, he normally obtains animals that are in poor state of nutrition but with high Friesian component in their appearance.

He feeds the animals to restore their body condition and then begins the breeding programme. Any animal that produces less than 20 litres of milk per day at peak lactation is removed from the herd.

Many of the animals he buys produce 30 to 36 litres of milk per day once they are properly fed.

The farmer has produced very good Friesian calves from his chosen option of establishing a dairy herd without having to pay directly for pedigree animals.

When I visited his farm about three weeks ago he told me, “You see doc, I am paying less but waiting longer for my pedigree herd.”