Going by numerous inquiries from farmers on where to source quality dairy cattle, it is quite evident that there is a huge and ever-growing demand for high-potential animals.
Most farmers are forced to painstakingly traverse the country searching for ‘good cows’ that can enable them to reap the maximum benefits from their investments.
However, before you embark on such a trip, you need to ask yourself several questions, among them; what is the best dairy cow? Is the best dairy cow the one with show-winning conformation or the one with a humongous udder? Is the best dairy cow the one that gives the most milk or the one with the best feet, hooves and udder support?
The answers to these queries depend on the function of the animal, the structure of the population and the environment where the animal will be kept. For the average Kenyan farmer, the best cow is one that produces the highest quantity of milk. In reality, the best animal is a relative term defined by the environment and prevailing situations.
An animal’s performance is as a result of the sum of the effects of its genetic makeup, the environment it is reared in and an interaction of the two. The model for the best animal can be simplified by P = G + E; where P represents an individual’s phenotype, G represents its genotype, E represents the environmental effects which are external non-genetic factors that affect an animal’s performance, for instance, management.
Knowledge of the function of the animal and the interactions between the genotype and other components of the system is, therefore, necessary if we are to choose the ideal cow.
Knowing, for example, that the Kenyan milk market usually pays producers on the basis of milk quantity rather than butterfat, protein and other non-fat solids is crucial in focusing on the right traits when making choices.
Likewise, appreciating the fact that parasite resistance is critically important in tropical climates will enable you to consider traits such as tick count – a measure of tick resistance.
In temperate regions, less emphasis is placed on parasite resistance and more on other traits. The best dairy cow in the Netherlands, therefore, would most likely not be the best in the plains of Kenya’s Rift Valley.
What you need to consider when choosing a dairy cow. Before seeking the right dairy cow, look at the following;
Suitability to the environment. Important environmental parameters such as rainfall and temperature ought to be considered.
Availability of feed resources throughout the year and possibility of storage.
Land size: This determines the number of animals you can keep.
Intensity of production, which is whether you intend to rear your animals under zero-grazing or free-grazing.
Outlay of capital resources required.
Availability of the animal of choice and transportation costs involved.
Milk market requirements and preferences.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
a) Production traits
They mainly refer to milk volume and the contents, that is, percentage of butterfat level, protein and other non-fat solids. Milk volume should be considered relative to amount of feeds consumed since more produce from relatively lesser fodder is proof of a high feed conversion efficiency.
More solids in milk generally increase the quality. It is of no use at all to breed a fantastic looking cow, which produces no milk. Therefore, one must select animals that are positive for milk production.
b) Conformation traits
These traits give a good indication of the performance of the dairy animal and include the udder structure, nature of feet or legs, stature and general dairy character.
• The udder should be pliable, silky in texture, sack-like in nature and non-pendulous but firmly attached with strong suspensory ligaments high up near the vulva region. A huge udder is not necessarily a sign of a high milk yield, in fact, it is recommended that one should choose a cow with a medium-sized (but wide base) udder that should not hang below its hock joint. The teats should be average-sized and evenly placed and oriented (pointing straight down) on the udder.
• Good feet and strong legs lead to longevity of a dairy cow and facilitates it to be able to feed comfortably especially when in-calf (on average, a dairy cow is in-calf for about 80 per cent of its lactation duration). For a bull, strong feet and legs enable it to mount successfully though in dairy animals, more emphasis is on the cows and heifers due to the preference and comparative advantages of artificial insemination over natural mating. Observed from behind, a cow’s hind legs should stand straight and wide apart while the side view should show a slightly set back hock (sickled) ending with slightly angled feet. The front legs should also be straight with a steep strongly attached pastern.
• The ideal cow’s stature should portray a deep, long body with wide, sprung ribs to provide ample space for the rumen and other digestive system organs. A good dairy cow should have a wedge shape, long neck, good width between fore legs, wide pin bones, broad muzzle and strong straight backline.
• The classic dairy character is indicated by sharpness across shoulders and slight general leanness all over the body ending with a thin fine tail. A good dairy cow is not stocky or beefy as this shows poor feed conversion efficiency. Generally, pedigree dairy cows portray flatness of bone usually evident on the inner thigh.
c) Fertility traits
The number of inseminations per conception will always determine the success of a breeding programme. The fewer the inseminations per conception, the better the fertility of a particular animal.
It is important to choose animals with (or from a family renown for) a good conception rate since difficult or repeat breeders are expensive to maintain and cause immense losses.
This will enable a farmer to target a calving interval of one calf annually per cow. For farmers using natural mating, one should choose bulls that do not shy away from mounting receptive cows or those that exhibit excessive libido. A bigger scrotal circumference and fully descended testes are normally indicators of good fertility.
d) Longevity traits
This determines the amount of total lifetime milk production of a cow but it is usually influenced greatly by other traits such as health and fertility. Choose heifers or bull semen from families with a history of cows that can maintain high production ability across many lactations as well as have as many normal calvings as possible in their lifetimes.
e) Health traits
As much as disease-prevention and control measures are important in ensuring sustained productivity, some emphasis should be laid on choosing disease-resistant and hardy animals to remain in production for long.
In harsh climate areas with a higher prevalence of tropical diseases (East Coast Fever and Foot and Mouth Disease), it may be wiser to undertake crossbreeding between exotic dairy breeds and indigenous lines since in such conditions, hybrid animals normally perform better than purebreds
f) Calving ease traits
Physical traits that facilitate easy calving include a wide pelvic diameter (observed from behind) and a gentle slope from pin to hip bone (observed from the side). A cow’s body frame should portray a strong straight back or loin, which is essential during gestation in enabling the animal to comfortably feed as well as carry its foetus to term.
Milking speed is of essence in maximising yield since milk let-down is controlled by oxytocin hormone whose concentration levels in blood diminish with time. It is, therefore, important to choose animals with the right teat size, shape and opening (position and orifice size). Bad temperament interferes with oxytocin flow during milking, thus, one should likewise consider docility when choosing a dairy animal.
How to breed heifers of higher quality than parental stock
Many ambitious dairy farmers already have one or two cattle in their backyards and for them, it may not always be feasible to buy superior animals but they would rather want to upgrade from what they have.
Genetic improvement of dairy cattle starts from the establishment of selection or breeding goals, which are dictated by farmers through market requirements. When coming up with breeding goals, we ask ourselves what type of animal do we want and which traits are involved? Realisation of the goals is achieved by;
• Recording of genealogic and performance data, including characteristics of economic importance of each individual. Given the fact that most traits of economic interest are expressed only in females and have moderate to low heritability, a reasonably large number of progeny records is necessary to estimate the genetic merit of a bull with an acceptable accuracy.
• Use the data to perform genetic evaluation of the animals to determine the best performing in line with the breeding goals. Records needed to evaluate dams include those on milk production history, type traits assessments and fertility. For sires, production records of its female relatives and including the overall performance records of its daughters’ are mainly used.
With artificial insemination (AI) though, one can ask for a sire catalogue (a booklet containing evaluated performance and expected transmitting ability of important traits in a bull) from AI service providers to identify the best semen to upgrade the cow. Note that the right semen to upgrade the future offspring of one cow may not be right for another cow.
• Actual selection of the best performing animals to be parents of the next generation.
• Dissemination of selected animals’ germ-plasm (genetic material) using reproductive technologies that include artificial insemination and embryo transfer.
Sourcing quality cows for breeding
One must understand the structure of the national dairy cattle population to be able to source the best animals. Most populations can be thought of as having a pyramidal structure: a relatively small number of breeders at the top selling breeding stock to a larger number of multipliers who in turn sell animals to a great number of end users.
The pyramid suggests a flow of germ-plasm – genetic material in the form of live animals, semen or embryos – from the top down, the elite breeders producing the most advanced animals, breeders at the multiplier level replicating these animals and end users benefiting from the genetic improvement occurring at the higher levels.
Ideally, breeders at each level try to produce animals that will be in the greatest demand by their customers at lower level, with the ultimate result being that the best animal is the most useful or profitable to the end user. End users can, thus, be defined as the individual whose particular needs should form the basis for determining breeding objectives.
One should, therefore, identify where they fall within the three tiers and ensure that at least they try to limit their sources from the tier above them. At the same time, the farm from which they source their animals should be reputable and have registered their stock with recording stations such as the Kenya Livestock Breeders Organisation.
Kimitei works in the Department of Animal Science, Egerton University