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Vet on Call: Buy cattle with clear disease, treatment history to limit risk

Saturday February 17 2018

Leonard Lang'at feeds his dairy cattle at Tegat Farm in Elburgon.

Leonard Lang'at feeds his dairy cattle at Tegat Farm in Elburgon. When buying livestock, always ensure there is a good record of all illnesses and treatments given to an animal before you buy it to minimise risks of acquiring diseased livestock. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG 

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One of the main challenges of a dairy farmer is to establish the herd and maintain the animal numbers at a profitable level.

The often recommended way of maintaining herd numbers is to breed the cows and generate replacement stock on the farm with the aim of building a stable herd of pure or pedigree dairy cattle.

The recommended protocol is good but unfortunately, it only works with large farms. One of the reasons of failure is that in small herds, the dairy animal population tends to attain a stable state where the cows leaving the herd annually through disease, old age or infertility is the same as the number entering the herd as heifers.

In theory, the stable population would give the farmer a constant number of animals in her herd.

However this is frustrated by the fact that in artificial insemination, which is mainly used and recommended in dairy farming, more bull calves are born than heifer calves.

Therefore with a small number of dairy cows in the herd, the farmer finds that the population in a stable state tends to decline rather than increase or remain with the same number of cows.


In Kenya, majority of farmers are small scale dairy producers who never attain a stable state population. They maintain their herd numbers by regularly buying new animals.

Pius in Thika, started as a small dairy farmer. Two years ago, I discussed with him the benefits of combining milk production with breeding to produce replacement stock for his herd and for other farmers.

He has been gradually increasing his herd size by combining his replacement stock with animals bought from other farmers.

Pius’ strategy of getting new animals is to seek out good quality cattle in bad body condition and rehabilitate them on his farm.

That way, he gets fairy good quality Friesian cattle at a fraction of the price he would pay if the animals were in good body condition. He buys the animals at prices between 20,000 and 50,000 shillings.


If such animals were in good body condition, they would cost Pius on average Sh80,000 to Sh120,000.

I advise farmers to use this strategy if they are willing to take the risk on the animals and they are also ready to wait for seven to 10 years to produce high quality animals with good records from the cows they bought originally.

There is a catch though in this strategy, and Pius recently found out. As the old adage goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

Until January this year, Pius had done very well with his herd build up strategy raising his animals from five to 80 but his phone call told me it was pay back time for his risk taking.

He quickly narrated to me that he had bought a very good looking cow which had immediately increased milk production on arriving at his farm.

However, even after feeding the cow for two weeks on his high quality diet, the cow had not showed commensurate improvement.

The cow would sometimes look active and other times sluggish but had continued eating fairly well. He had not found any reason to call me because the cow did not really appear sick.

He said the cow was looking bad that morning and had dropped milk production to one litre from eight the previous day. It was grunting and had refused to eat.

When I enquired if the cow had any disease and treatment records at the farm where he bought it, he quickly responded “Not anything clear but I was told it had been treated for an illness the owner had not been told three days before I bought it.” He further said the cow had a swelling at the site of injection but he thought it was only due to the injection.

The report got me thinking about causes of such a scenario. May be the cow had developed a pus filled pocket called an abscess at the site of injection and was getting blood poisoning from the toxins produced as it tried to clear the infection.

Bacteria could also be spreading into the body from the abscess. Before I could even follow up further on the case report, Pius exclaimed, “Oh no! Doctor, the cow has now collapsed and appears to be dying.”

I arrived at the farm within 45 minutes and found the cow had already died. We agreed I carry out a post mortem examination to determine what happened.


“Pius, this cow had issues with the lungs but that may not be the original problem,” I commented as I observed purple colour, cyanosis, in the inner linings of the eyes and the skin of the teats and udder. This was an indication that when alive the cow had very low oxygen in the blood.

The carcass was in a moderate body condition, confirming Pius’ claim of feeding the cow well. When I opened the abdominal cavity, it was evident the cow had had a long illness that was causing havoc in the whole body.

The cavity contained large quantities of pus and a yellow cheesy material called fibrin. The body produces this fibrin in the abdomen when irritated or injured to try and isolate the irritant by encasing it and also covering the injury.

Due to the fibrin reaction, ruminants have a high capacity to withstand abdominal irritation or injury. “The most common cause of this type of reaction is a foreign body puncturing through the second stomach called the reticulum,” I told Pius as I manipulated the large stomach, rumen, to access the reticulum.

When the reticulum was exposed, I was relieved to see the tip of a wire jutting into the abdominal cavity and encased by a mass of fibrin. “Here’s the thief, who robbed you of Sh50,000,” I informed Pius in reference to the price he had paid for the cow.

I pulled out the murderous object. It was a piece of aluminium wired approximately 8cm long and about 3ml in diameter. I checked the lungs and found the infection caused by the reticulum puncture had spread to the lungs and caused very severe pneumonia in all the lobes of the lungs.

Finally, I incised the swelling on the injection site and found greenish-yellow pus. This cow was a good infection fighter but there was no way she was going to survive the massive assault.

I advise animal buyers to always ensure there is a good record of all illnesses and treatments given to an animal before they buy it.

Even if one feels they can take the risk of buying an animal in bad body condition, it is always good to seek the advice of a veterinary doctor.

The doctor is trained to detect diseases that may not be obvious by considering different health indicators.


Feedback and answers to your questions

Dear Dr Mugachia, 

Thank you so much for your educative articles published in the ‘Seeds of Gold’ magazine.
I especially found the one about cancer in white cows and getting right price when selling a cow very valuable 
My challenge is how to use the weighing tape attached. I have struggled with it and equally got contradictory advice on how to get the readings. 

One side of the tape is in centimetres while the other begins with a conversion table then provides readings in kilos for cows and pigs. Should I measure from the end, the metallic part of the tape? 

Kindly guide me and other farmers on how to use this type of tape or the more user friendly tape to buy. Thank you 

- Kirema Mburugu 

The tape you have, from the photos you sent, is for weighing pigs hence the German word “schwaine” or swine in English written on the tape.

You read the weight directly on the tape on the side with the conversion table. You may weigh cattle with the same tape by using the side with centimetres and convert the reading into kg using the conversion table I sent you on e-mail.

However, I advise you to buy a cattle weighing tape that is graduated in both cm and kg.


Hello, I recently cleared my university education and I have been saving up to start a Boer goat business. I would like to start the project in Nyahururu.

Kindly inform me or refer me to a place I can purchase the goats especially in Laikipia and all the preliminary things I need to know.

- Dennis Mburu

Boer Goats can do well in Nyahururu. Please contact me on 0721386871 for more information. For sourcing, you may contact Malewa Gorge Farm in Kinangop on 0716917800, Daniel Gichimu.


I read today in Seeds of Gold that in your vet’s kit you might have cure for red water in cows? I would really like to get my hands on such cure.

Please advise and thanks for putting up the info.

-Wilson Sitonik

Red water treatment medicine should only be administered to your animals by a veterinary doctor or a veterinary paraprofessional (formerly called animal health assistants).

The medicine is readily available with these animal health service providers.

Please consult your animal health service provider or the government veterinary doctor closest to you for assistance.

Finally, ensure that you do not confuse red water disease (babesiosis) with bracken fern poisoning.

Bracken fern poisoning has no cure. Your veterinary doctor will be able to determine if your case is red water or blacken fern poisoning.