Take note, animal farming is more of a science than an art

Dairy cows

Dairy cows at Meved dairy farm at Rukanga in Kirinyaga County on December 28, 2021.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • During the wet season, beef cattle in most range areas have nicely rounded bodies and fetch good prices for their keepers. 
  • During the dry season, the same animals lose weight and die or just get sold for a small fraction of what they would have fetched in the wet season.

The subject of livestock farming never ceases to confound farmers. The three main contentious issues are feeding, nutrition and reproduction. Incidentally, the productivity of livestock heavily revolves around these issues.

Dairy cattle are the main livestock that farmers struggle most with in Kenya because most are zero-grazed. 

The animals, therefore, have no free choice to fodder. They have to rely on the farmer in the quality and quantity of feeds. The animals are very heavy feeders due to their size, digestion process and level of milk production.

Most beef cattle are raised on pasture and rarely get supplementation, except for mineral salts. The contrast between the feeding of dairy cattle under confinement and beef cattle on open pastures is clearly visible.

During the wet season, beef cattle in most range areas have nicely rounded bodies and fetch good prices for their keepers. 

During the dry season when pastures are depleted, the same animals lose weight and die or just get sold for a small fraction of what they would have fetched in the wet season.

Dairy cattle under confinement are mostly in a state of malnutrition regardless of the seasons due to hand-feeding and knowledge challenges, of many owners, on their feeding.

Since dairy cattle are the main livestock whose feeding, nutrition and reproduction is a headache to most farmers, let me only deal with this type of livestock in today. 

A majority of dairy farmers believe they are doing the best for their animals when it comes to feeding.

In most cases, the question of nutrition does not arise and people only concentrate on the amount of feed they present to the animals.

The most frequent complaints I get from farmers is that the animals are being fed a lot but their body condition only appears to deteriorate. 

Others say the animals are well fed but keep asking for more by mooing incessantly.

There are farmers who say they feed their animals well but they do not come on heat or fail to conceive when inseminated. 

Many farmers also say that the animals produce little milk or dry too early after calving despite getting lots of feed. 
Farmers should know that cows never pretend and they also never eat if they do not need the food.

Let them understand that livestock farming is more of a science than an art. 

The body is a very objective machine as it just never lies. Like a computer, the body will give you garbage if you put garbage into it.

The “garbage-in” here refers to giving the animal feed that is not nutritionally balanced and in inadequate quantity. 

The “garbage out” is the poor body condition, incessant demand for food, low or no milk production and poor reproduction such as failure to come on heat or get pregnant.

Nutrition refers to providing the required quantities of chemical compounds in food that the animal uses to build and maintain its body, come on heat, produce milk and get pregnant to term. The chemicals are called nutrients.

Just like for human beings, they comprise carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water. The body cannot function properly in all aspects without these chemicals.

Feeding, on the other hand, refers to providing nutrients in the correct quantities required daily by the animals. 

Take note that dairy cattle cannot take all their feed requirements in one feeding session. 

It is, therefore, recommended to give the feed in a schedule that allows eating, resting, socialising and exercise.

A farmer should know which feed materials contain the various nutrients and how the feed materials should be mixed to give a balanced diet. 

They should also know how much of a balanced diet a cow should have.

One area farmers miss a lot in feeding dairy cattle is the nature of the feed. This is divided scientifically into the “as fed” form and the “dry matter or DM” basis. 

The “as fed” form is the feed in its solid form and the water it contains. 

For instance, most fresh green feed has less than 25 per cent DM. That means for every 1,000g of feed, only 250g is solid matter to the animal. The remaining 750g is water.

DM is the feed component that is most important to the cow. It is used in determining the adequacy of the feed quantity given to the animal. 

A cow needs three to four per cent DM of feed daily. It means that a 500-kilogramme animal needs at least 15kg DM of feed every day. 

This translates to 60kg of fresh Napier grass per cow daily, considering that the grass is a main feed material for many a Kenyan farmer. 

Very few zero grazing dairy cattle farmers satisfy this requirement. 

In any case, a cow would not eat that quantity of Napier grass in one day.

In short, farmers should develop the habit of wilting fodder materials before feeding and combining various inputs known nutritional value to attain the required DM intake and nutritional balance.

This week, I visited a farmer in Murang’a County who had complained about his animals appearing weak yet they were eating a lot. 

I confirmed the body score of his animals was about 2.0 on a scale of One to Five. 

Well-managed dairy cattle should have a score of Three to Four, depending on their stage of production. 

My investigation on his feeding and nutrition revealed very low protein and carbohydrates in the feed and a DM intake of about 40 per cent of the daily requirement.

This meant the animals were malnourished in quantity and quality of feed.