It is always a dream come true for any farmer to have a cow breed that gives high returns.
Such a cow must be of a particular quality breed, suited to an area’s ecological conditions and it exhibits various superior qualities over other breeds when raised under optimum management.
This article gives a summarised guide on various exotic cow breeds, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses and opportunities they offer you in relation to the location of the farm.
These dairy cows are large and they usually exhibit the typical pied coat pattern (black and white). They are outstanding milk producers and if kept under good management, they can be milked up to three times a day. Their milk, however, has the lowest butterfat content of 2.5 to 3.6 per cent and about 3.1 per cent protein.
Since the Kenyan market is milk-volume oriented, this breed makes the best option for all commercial operations especially in the Kenyan highlands like Nairobi, Central areas and cooler parts of the Rift Valley like Nakuru, Naivasha, Kitale and Laikipia, among others.
However, the Friesian breeds are heavy feeders and are, susceptible to various diseases, which makes them need highly intensive management to keep them productive. This means they are best kept in large-scale producer farms with better resources but they are not the best producers when kept by small-scale farmers with limited feed resources.
Friesians calve more frequently in their lifetime. In fact, their bull calves excel when fattened for different uses or as steers when raised either intensively or extensively.
Ayrshires are medium-sized cattle with reddish-brown mahogany colour varying from very light to dark and white. These colour markings may also vary from nearly all red to all white.
Ayrshires native land of origin has a rugged terrain and unforgiving climate.
This tough environment has enabled the animal to be hardy enough to adapt well and forage for themselves under adverse feeding and climate.
This makes the breed suitable for commercial dairy farming, particularly in Africa, and their calves have high vigour, therefore, they are strong and easy to raise.
Ayrshires lack the yellow tallow characteristic that reduces carcass value, so its bull calves can be profitably raised as steers.
The animals are efficient converters of forage material into milk and possess other desired traits like easy calving, longevity and are free of genetic diseases.
Despite being second best milk volume producers, the Ayrshire milk has moderate butterfat content of 3.9 per cent and 3.3 per cent proteins making their milk referred to as “the ideal milk for drinking” because it is easier to digest.
This even distribution of slightly smaller fat particles in their milk makes it for conversion into yogurt, creamy cheese and ice cream.
Because of their wide adaptability, they can be kept in the same areas as Friesian as well as parts of western Kenya because of the favourable weather.
The Guernsey has an appealing conformation with its colour that ranges from yellow to reddish-brown or fawn to golden red with white patches.
It has an intermediate size (small breed) compared to the others such as the Friesian Holstein. The cow weight ranges from 450 to 500kg, with the bulls weighing 600 to 700kg. The Guernsey boasts of a distinctive rich milk colour, therefore, it is often affectionately referred to as the ‘Golden Guernsey’ with high protein and butterfat contents of 3.5 per cent and 4.5 per cent.
This golden colour is attributed to extra beta-carotene and Vitamin A present in the milk. Their average production per cow is about 5,500 litres of milk per lactation, and they can do an excess of 7,000 litres.
They are quite docile hence easy to handle during routine management activities or even when milking.
The Guernsey is an efficient converter of feed to milk. They also require less feeds than the larger Friesian Holsteins and Ayrshires, yet still convert this little amount into more protein and butterfat per unit of body weight. Clearly, the animal is also a better feed converter when compared to other dairy breeds. Further, the breed is an excellent grazer, which comes as good news for any dairy farmer as it translates to lower management cost.
This also gives farmers options for their production system of choice when rearing the Guernsey, as they are ideal for both pasture based production system or intensive grazing.
Interestingly, they reach maturity early enough and calve down easily and stay productive in the herd long enough attracting more income for the farmer.
They have lower mortality risks and do not need unnecessary surgical intervention. Even though the Guernsey may not be the highest milk producer, it beats other breeds hands down in milk quality, flavour and colour even when reared under limiting conditions and low maintenance. This makes the breed more preferable especially for small-scale farmers.
In a nutshell, this breed is generally able to produce remarkably well on quality pastures even in small quantities. Their red and white coat colour enhances heat tolerance and reduces heat stress. The breed suits well to wide climatic conditions in Kenya like the Central region, parts of the Rift Valley, Nyanza and western Kenya.
Guernsey breed is generally a competitive dairy cow, able to effectively and efficiently maintain profits. As such, they can be used for crossing with both local breeds like zebu or other dairy breeds.
They are light brown, grey, brown, cream or black. Even though they are the smallest dairy breeds with cows weighing 400 to 500kg and bulls 540 to 820kg, they possess some of the biggest personalities.
They have hard black hooves that make them less vulnerable to lameness. This breed is popular for the highest butterfat content of its milk of over 4.9 per cent and over 3.9 per cent protein giving better-tasting products like cheese and butter.
Their milk also contains more calcium and phosphorus along with high amounts of Vitamin B12. They have the best disposition of all dairy cows, which include easy calving, early maturity and they have high fertility and superior grazing ability. Due to their low body weight, a farmer can carry a larger number of effective milking cows per unit area meaning lower maintenance requirements.
They are the most docile but with inquisitive character and their bulls are notoriously aggressive.
Unfortunately, they have greater susceptibility to milk fever and calve to weaker calves that require more attentive management in cold weather than other dairy breeds. However, they are less susceptible to mastitis and udder disorders.
The Jersey produces more milk on less feed than other breeds. This makes them most ideal for farmers in smaller dairy operations where feed resources are limiting. They are renowned for their ease of calving with heifers reaching reproductive age earlier than other breeds and come into milk production earlier. They are more heat tolerable, therefore, widely adapted in areas with hot weathers.
This makes them suitable for rearing in wider parts of Kenya though not in too hot areas like the Eastern and North Eastern arid and semi-arid areas. Jerseys stay productive in the herd longer than any other dairy breed and they have no calving problems.
Eastern, North Eastern and some parts of Coastal Kenya ecological zones have low potential to support the exotic dairy cattle in commercial dairy farming. These areas also can hardly support the growth of sustainable feed materials for the animals.
As a solution, farmers in these areas are best placed with options for pastoralism or setting up beef ranches using mainly Boran and Sahiwal breeds. Dairying through use of indigenous dual-purpose breeds and crosses of European exotic breeds and zebus make best use of these environment.
It is evident that farmers need to choose animals that are well-suited to their production systems and environments to make the most out of their enterprise.
Farmers are advised to source for their foundation stock from reputable dairy cattle breeders who maintain pedigree records like Egerton University, Ngongongeri Egerton, ADC Lanet Farm in Nakuru and ADC Kitale, among others.
Mr Opinya works in the Department of Animal Sciences, Egerton University while Ms Muchunguh is a livestock expert based in Nairobi.