Vet on Call: Make your cows happy or prepare to be miserable

Friday December 08 2017
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Mary Gachoka feeds her cows at Turi Farm in Elburgon. Proper feeding and management programmes correct livestock's unhappy situation on a farm. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG


Njoroge’s farm is in Gatundu, about an hour’s drive from my office in Nairobi. As I arrived on the farm a week ago, I noticed how well planned it was, from pasture production areas, the farmer’s house, the workers’ houses and the cattle zero grazing unit.

I quickly credited the farm planner for the placement and design of the dairy unit. The structure was built in the middle of the land assigned to cattle housing but close to the lower boundary of the area.

This meant the unit could be expanded horizontally and vertically without demolishing any of the existing structures.

Njoroge had called me to the farm for the first time to examine his cattle and help him understand why many of them looked unhappy.

“You see doctor, these are good Friesians and they are also making me unhappy because they are not performing as I expect from their good production potential,” he said.

The farmer introduced me to Grace, the farm manager, and we agreed to do a round on the farm starting from the dairy office.


I always like discussing on the go around a farm to get the overall picture of the dairy operation.

It also enables me to do a visual observation and appraisal of all the animals on the farm and form an opinion on the quality of animals and operational management.

In my practice life, I have noticed that farmers will call me to diagnose problems on their farms but often give information with a bias to a diagnosis they already have made.

This may be deliberate in some cases but mostly, it is associated with the unconscious fear of being associated with failure.

As we entered the cow unit, Njoroge asked Grace to give me a running commentary on the animals. He would only interject with additional information.


The first two unhappy cows were Njeru and Muhiki. They were emaciated with ribs and hip bones very prominent.

The cows were depressed and isolated in the sick pen. I could tell their appetite was way down because their feed troughs were still almost full.

The cows’ ruminal pits, scientifically known as the para lumbar fossa, were well-depressed. The pits are the triangular structures seen in cattle between the last abdominal rib and the protruding hip bone on both sides of the body.

Deep depression of the left para lumbar fossa indicated the animals had eaten very little.

Grace said the cows had delivered for the first time about a month before but they had continuously lost weight and drastically reduced milk to five litres per day.

In my assessment, they should have been giving about 20 litres daily but that was impossible in their condition. I made a note to thoroughly examine the cows later.

The next lots of unhappy cows were in pens on both sides of the feeding corridor. The cows were good Friesians but their coat colour was mainly copper brown. Two of them had long curly hair in addition to the redness.

“Doctor, I do not understand why black cows turn red and then drop milk production, have erratic heat and keep failing to conceive,” Njoroge interjected.

He said some of the cows had not shown heat for up to six months while others had been inseminated six times without conceiving.

I quickly explained to the farmer and his manager the cows were having nutritional deficiencies especially of minerals and vitamins.

That deficiency needed to be corrected. Copper deficiency for instance was responsible for the brown coat colour. I covered this problem exhaustively on November 4.

The third lot of cattle were yearling calves and bulling heifers in two separate pens. These were the most affected. They all generally looked dull and obviously unhappy.

The heads appeared oddly shaped as though the cheeks were swollen.

All the cattle in the two groups were moderately to severely emaciated and had the copper coloured hair. The animals were also smaller than their expected size at their respective ages.


The troughs were empty and the animals had their left para lumber fossa raised; meaning they had eaten well. They were also chewing cud.

“All the cattle in this group are free of disease but their problem is lack of balanced nutrition,” I said as we left for the calf pens.

On the right of the corridor were weaner calves while the calves still on milk were on the left. Calves on milk all had very good body condition, looked alert and active. They were each given four to five litres of milk daily.

The weaner calves were on calf pellets, Rhodes grass and Lucerne hay. They were in good body condition. Grace informed me two of the calves were not eating well and had diarrhoea for the last two days.

I examined the calves, diagnosed calf scours or diarrhoea and treated them with antibiotics. I also explained that calf houses should be kept clean and disinfected.

Sick calves should always be attended to last to avoid spreading the infection to the healthy calves.

Having completed the dairy unit overview tour, I examined Njeru and Muhiki. The temperature, heart and breathing rates were normal. I diagnosed infection of the uterus for both cows through rectal palpation.

Fortunately the infection was close to self-resolution. Vaginal examination showed the cows had difficulties in calving and attained deep injuries. This explained the uterus infection.

I treated the two cows with antibiotics and appetite stimulants. I have since been informed the cows are recovering well.

However, I explained to him his main problem was inadequate and nutritionally unbalanced feeding of the animals.

I further told him he needed dedicated services of an animal health service provider for his 50 dairy cattle considering that he even planned expanding to about 100 cows.

We agreed he would recruit a paravet employee to manage dairy production while the overall manager would deal with the expansion plan.

In the meantime, we agreed on the feeding and management programme that would correct the unhappy situation on his farm.