Only amateur farmers reduce the amount of feed they give their animals to make a saving

 Festus Mwaniki

 Festus Mwaniki feeds cattle at Masongaleni in Makueni County.

Photo credit: Pius Maundu | Nation Media Group

The cows on a certain farm in Murang’a County used to look beautiful in their black and white colours, appearing as though they were cleaned daily and oil applied to their fur. The black coat was shiny with only the very few brown hairs seen in some Friesians.

The animals were bred from two high-value cows that used to produce 40 litres of milk daily. The two cows built a herd of 40 beautiful cows and heifers by being inseminated with high quality Friesian semen over time. The owner was impressed that just two cows could build such a nice herd. All the animals on the farm used to produce at least 30 litres of milk daily due to their superior genetics. They were milked three times a day.

In the last few years, the situation has changed, with the animals progressively getting dirty and discoloured. The black hairs progressively turned brown and the white ones became dull.

In addition to the colour change, the body condition of the animals has also deteriorated. With good feeding, dairy cattle should only show the bones of the hip slightly. The ribs should be seen in the background of skin, fat and muscle without prominently sticking out. The back line should not show the individual vertical bones of the spinal column.

Another thing that has happened on the farm is that the adult height of the cows has reduced. The manager of the farm asked me if the semen used to breed the smaller animals was deliberate for small body sizes. He told me he had heard there were some cattle called small Friesians.

My answer to the manager was no. It was a deliberate decision to cut on feeding to make savings that had affected the adult height, weight and size of the animals. My enquiry and observation on the farm revealed the calves became stunted after weaning due to insufficient intake of carbohydrates and proteins. They were predominantly fed on hay and in inadequate quantities. The only thing that was adequate and of good quality was water.

It took the heifers on average two years to breed for the first time. That is a lot of loss in opportunity cost. The total number of calves the animal can give in its life time is reduced, so is the total amount of milk the cow shall produce in its lifetime. The udder develops poorly and bars the animal from attaining its genetic potential to produce milk.

I was called to the farm on this New Year’s day to check and treat a cow that had calved the previous day, expelled the afterbirth uneventfully but had been unable to stand after calving. Njuguna, the farm manager, told me the cow was eating well but he could not understand why it was unable to stand. It was a first-time calver aged 28 months.

Njuguna’s report generated three possibilities. The cow could be having milk fever or calcium deficiency, inadequate energy due to pregnancy malnutrition or injury to nerves or bones of the hind quarters during calving. I examined the cow. It was in a pathetic state, looking like a heap of bones, the muzzle was moist, the eyes bright.

The temperature, heart and lungs were normal. The cow kept making frail attempts to stand but could not manage to lift its body even slightly from the ground. The poor cow had very low energy in its body.

Njuguna suggested I give the cow calcium to help it stand as that is what other doctors had done in the past. My answer was no. The cow had no issue at all with calcium. There was no indication of calcium deficiency in all my observation. It was a straight case of long-standing malnutrition in both the quality and the quantity of feed given.

I asked the farm manager if they had been feeding the cow a special diet during pregnancy, and he said they had done so, including giving dairy meal. But the shocker came when I asked him about the quantities they had fed. He said half a kilo of dairy meal and about six kilos of Boma Rhodes grass hay mixed with about a kilo of napier grass.

I explained that was serious underfeeding, and had led to the severe loss of condition and depletion of energy. I told him the cow should have been eating at least 2kg of dairy meal daily and 25kg of the napier/hay mixture. Further, the cow should have been on 150g of high-yield dairy salt per day. No salt had been given to the cow when it was pregnant.

Looking at all the other 15 cows in the herd, I explained to Njuguna that poor feeding was causing the farm both direct losses and opportunity cost. The cows were producing a maximum of 10 litres per day each but they were all milked three times a day. That was really unnecessary and expensive.

The farm manager told me the farm had been under new management for the last three years. Those running the farm had ordered reduction of feeding, especially dairy meal, to lower the cost of production.

I advised the manager that such saving is very expensive because it grinds production to the ground and results in continuous loss of cows, deterioration of the quality of animals due to stunting and a disproportionately high cost of labour in relation to production. I advised that the cow be fed with molasses mixed with the napier grass and hay. I also gave an energy booster called ketonex to be fed 120 ml twice daily for five days to help the animal regain energy.

Farmers should know that when a pregnant cow is underfed, it gives the nutrient priority to the growing foetus to ensure it develops to term alive. The cow will even break down its own tissues to feed the foetus.