Vet on call: Why some cows produce very little milk

Wednesday March 18 2020
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Powel Okeyo with some of his cows in his farm; Pinnacle Farm, in Kisumu. If you offer your cows low quality feeds and let them stay in poorly constructed barns, they are hardly expected to produce much milk. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NMG


Three months ago, Kimani from Ruiru reported his dairy cattle were not productive on all fronts yet, in his opinion, he was feeding them well.

“It is as though the animals have conspired to frustrate my milk production efforts,” he concluded and requested me to assess them and advise him on whether to replace them all.

On arrival on the farm, I could tell right from the gate the cows really had no problem of their own making. It was Kimani who needed the requisite knowledge on managing dairy cattle.

The farmer took me round his dairy unit. The cows were fed on grass hay, rice straw, dairy meal and some randomly determined mineral salt. Water was provided in containers made from plastic barrels cut in the middle.

Most of the waterers were dry or had little water. The floor of the sleeping cubicles had deep holes, which forced the cows to sleep in the walking area.

The eight cows in the shed looked miserable and tired. They had a lazy gait and flies landed on their faces for longer periods and the cows never made much effort to resist them.

There were only two calves aged about six months in the herd. They had long, thin discoloured hair. As we toured the unit, I gathered the cows produced on average two litres of milk per day each and six of them were in their second year of lactation since calving.

Kimani informed me the cows had been given hormones many times but they had failed to get on heat. He had thought of replacing them with in-calf heifers.

The cows were all good Friesians capable of producing 25 litres each day but poor feeding and management had driven the animals to a performance lower than that of a good dairy goat. It was a big waste of genetic production potential and a missed dairy business opportunity.


Before giving my findings to the farmer, I examined the animals for reproductive function by rectal palpation of the uterus and ovaries.

Daisy and Mary produced a long string of crystal-clear mucous at examination. They both had mature eggs in their ovaries and their uteruses were normal.

The other six cows had small smooth ovaries, indicating they had shelved reproductive activity for self-preservation during the long-standing starvation.

I announced to Kimani his animals had not gone on reproductive strike but if they had the capacity, they would definitely be demanding for their right to good nutrition and management.

I told him his quest to produce milk from the animals in their current state was like trying to win the Boston Marathon on a perpetual meal of githeri (maize and beans) - an impossibility.

I was surprised that an animal health professional of any level of qualification had given hormones to Kimani’s cattle but when I questioned the farmer further, I realised the ‘doctor’ was a quack.

He had only been working at an agrovet shop as an attendant but was now roaming the area masquerading as a paravet. The Kenya Veterinary Board had to know about that.

In summary, Kimani’s cows were being fed very poor diet in small quantities, which were not even measured. I estimated the cattle were taking approximately 5kg each of dry matter against the required 3 per cent of their body weight.

The cows should have been consuming about 13.5kg dry matter. To make matters worse, the hay and rice straws were very poor sources of protein and carbohydrate.


It is the dairy meal component of the feed that was keeping the cows alive. I estimated their average body condition on a scale of one to five was about two, which translated to long-term starvation and body wastage.

The recommended score for dairy cattle is 3-4 depending on the stage of reproduction.

Daisy and Mary were showing silent heat and had eggs ready to be released - possibly due to the hormone treatment.

The cows, however, had no energy or motivation to express the heat. Their body control mechanism must have been wondering how it would deal with a pregnancy in such a wasted form thus chose to silently let the egg be discharged without insemination.

I advised Kimani not to inseminate the two cows in their present condition as it would stress the body or the animals could fail to conceive altogether.

Many smallholder farms are in the same predicament as Kimani’s due to the farmers’ paucity of knowledge on cattle management.

The situation is aggravated by the concentration of most animal health service providers on disease prevention and treatment rather than livestock production and marketing.

It is time that all cadres of animal health service providers realised that disease prevention and treatment are consumptive interventions in livestock farming.

They are expenses to the farmer. Livestock production and marketing services, on the other hand, are productive interventions that help the farmer generate revenue and profit from her farm.

Kimani’s cows did not need hormones, but rather well-balanced food in sufficient quantities and water made available at all times.


I advised him to obtain good quality Rhodes grass hay and do away with the rice straw, cheap as it was, because it was not of much use to the cows.

He was also to add molasses and lucerne hay to the animals’ daily food ration. I also advised him to repair the sleeping cubicles so that the animals would have comfortable sleeping areas.

With all the advice, Kimani still wanted to know whether hormones had a role to play in improving the fertility of cattle.

Reproductive hormones are used to treat infertility only after the animals are in good body condition. I assured him with good nutrition, the cattle would automatically revert to normal reproductive function.

Last week, I returned to the farm for a review. Kimani could not hide his joy as he explained that six of the cattle had come on heat, they were served between 30 and 40 days before and they had not repeated the heat. That was a good sign the cows could be pregnant.

I observed the cows had greatly improved their body condition. The calves’ hair had shortened, thickened and was returning to its normal black and white colour.

All the animals looked lively and active. They could now shake their heads or swish their tails when flies perched on them.

I’ll return to check the pregnancies when the last of the six cows has stayed for 60 days from the last insemination without showing heat.