Dairy farming has gained currency across the country, with many keeping the animals under the zero-grazing system.
However, what does it take to keep a dairy farm profitable? Here are 10 things to keep in mind.
Good cows and herd grouping
Planning for changes in a dairy herd is one of the toughest things a farmer has to face. This may involve starting with new dairy animals, keeping your current herd, replacing culled or culling without replacing unproductive ones.
This decision is important but acting without a proper plan can add huge costs to your business. To begin with, select animals with high-quality genetic merits to keep in your herd guided by records or a livestock expert.
The candidates should be evaluated based on dairy strength and udder traits. With the right herd, clearly categorise the animals into groups based on age, health or physiological status to facilitate tailored management to increase performance.
Not every dairy farmer has a cow barn but it is a good idea to invest in one. The barn should allow for future expansion, be affordable, simple but structurally sound to provide dairy animals with maximum comfort, health outcomes and safety.
The structure should also be worker-friendly. The structure should further have proper ventilation for fresh air flow, allowing enough light and adequate space for rest and access to feed and water.
Other structures to consider include a crush, a hay store and silage pits/bunkers.
Feeding and nutrition
Having the cattle grouped makes it easy to understand their nutritional requirements. Decide on the feeding regime, that is, the time of feeding and types of feeds – silage, hay or Total Mixed Ration.
Improper nutrition can lead to lower quantities and quality of milk. Thus, if possible, work closely with an animal nutrition expert to help you in planning for accurate feed projection; work with available feed resources and pasture as well as fodder establishment.
Growing own fodder helps in controlling quality and lowers cost of production. Planning will help you estimate how much land you need and what roughages to have such as maize for silage, Boma Rhodes for hay, desmodium, calliandra, lucerne, Kikuyu grass, and brachiaria grass.
During purchase or storage, remember that mouldy or contaminated feeds can transfer dangerous toxins to milk.
Quality feeds also help to prevent wastage, encourage optimal feed utilisation and conversion into growth and milk.
Minerals and water are an important part of a dairy cow’s diet. To be able to produce saliva and milk, cows need a lot of fresh and clean water. Water is the cheapest feed, so plan well for it.
A healthy herd is a happy herd, and it makes a happy farmer. Good animal health helps the cows explore their performance to full potential.
It is prudent that you develop a disease and parasites control programme with your veterinarian, which involves routine vaccination, deworming, dipping and spraying activities. Also invest in general farm biosecurity and personal protective equipment when carrying out disease-prevention activities. It is usually less expensive to prevent than treat a disease.
Reproduction and breeding
Cull cows that have consistent records of abortions and still births and possibly replace with progeny-tested ones.
Moreover, take your time on heat detection and master the rules of thumb on optimal times to serve. For breeding, insist on selecting bulls that will add value to your herd.
Decide early on the reproductive/service technique you are going to adopt – use of bulls, artificial insemination or embryo transfer.
Young stock management
Calves and heifers are the future of any dairy enterprise, yet alongside dry cows, they are normally not given the deserved attention except on farms with breeding goals.
Weigh calves at birth and develop a culture of routine weighing to monitor weight gain in response to your management schedule.
Sound calf housing, feeding schedule and disease management enhance weight gain and encourage early weaning.
Dairy cows typically need milking two or three times a day except during drying period.
Milking should be done in a parlour that is comfortable to the animal and the milker. Noteworthy is the hygiene of milking utensils, parlour and worker, who should also be dressed in the right attire.
Have food grade/milk handling containers. In a nutshell, plan your milking regime with your sights on reducing milk buyer rejection and producing safe clean milk.
Think of a system where manure can easily be moved from the barn, properly stored and utilised. Proper storage means manure is being turned into a meaningful resource that can be sold, used in biogas or enhancing soil fertility.
Numbers never lie. Keep accurate records that will provide information necessary to measure farm performance, troubleshoot problems, make management decisions and plan.
To effectively keep records that give a true picture of your dairy farm, first adopt an animal identification system, decide on the method of record-keeping — paper or software recording, type of records and always analyse the data collected on a consistent basis.
Animals with records attract premium prices especially when registered with the Kenya Livestock Breeders Organisation.
Also establish market for your farm products, which could be selling heifers, fresh milk or milk-value added products.
For fresh milk, think of joining a dairy co-operative or processor mobilised groups, which have extra benefits like accessing inputs and services in a check-off system and less risk of payment defaulting and bad debts.
Create a good staff organisation plan, which means helping them clearly understand their roles, encourage a learning attitude and motivate your workers.
Skills and knowledge add value, so where possible, nominate all or some of them for dairy trainings/free-to-attend field days and workshops.
Work closely with professional consultants to maintain standard operational procedures or good dairy practices towards dairy business maximisation.
The writer is based at Department of Animal Sciences, Egerton University.