Vet on call: To cull or not to cull cow? All the points to consider

Veronicah Njoki Kariuki, a dairy farmer in Elburgon, Nakuru County feeds her dairy cows on her farm. Due to the importance of dairy farming, animal health and production scientists have over time determined key factors that indicate the potential for high milk yield if all management and nutrition parameters are kept constant. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The animal provided him with a lot of comfort as he would go to the cowshed after work and call Emma. The cow would come to the feeding line and stroke her head against the farmer’s hand and also lick his palm.
  • It was such a lovely animal-human friendship. The farmer told me to advise the butcher to pick the animal when he was not at home.
  • Before embarking on the exercise, I briefed the farmer on my 10-point criteria for selecting the cows to remain in the herd and those to exit.
  • The figures actually vary based on the management of the animals. In fact, in Kenya, the average production is way below these figures because most dairy cattle are poorly managed.

I normally understand when farmers say they get sentimentally attached to their dairy cows. It is difficult to remove a healthy cow from the herd, especially when the farmer has been calling the animal by its name with good response.

I recall a farmer who had about 100 dairy cows all with female names. He chose names according to the communities that lived in the area where he bought the animals.

He would jokingly say he had the real Kenya because the various community members on his farm never argued or fought.

They just worked by producing milk, calves and manure, which made him money after providing them with food, shelter and good management.

Since we tend to give animals human names like Mary, Nduku, Njoki and Omega, it then follows that when the animals take the names seriously and respond well when we call them, we are bound to have some human feelings towards them.

For this reason, I have sworn to identify my animals by numbers the time I decide to become a farmer. I really do have plans of engaging in pork and beef production. I count myself lucky that the Covid-19 pandemic came when I was just planning to start the business.

The farmer I mentioned earlier once cried when he had to release one of his favourite cows for slaughter. It had become a problematic breeder.

The animal provided him with a lot of comfort as he would go to the cowshed after work and call Emma. The cow would come to the feeding line and stroke her head against the farmer’s hand and also lick his palm.

It was such a lovely animal-human friendship. The farmer told me to advise the butcher to pick the animal when he was not at home.

Last week, I identified animals to be removed from a dairy herd at a farm. The owner wished to reduce his stock partly because of the difficulties arising from the Covid-19 emergency.

POTENTIAL FOR HIGH MILK YIELD

Before embarking on the exercise, I briefed the farmer on my 10-point criteria for selecting the cows to remain in the herd and those to exit.

Due to the importance of dairy farming, animal health and production scientists have over time determined key factors that indicate the potential for high milk yield if all management and nutrition parameters are kept constant.

The first parameter I considered was the breed of the animal and milk yield. The farm has pure and mixed breeds of Friesians, Ayrshires, Guernseys and Jerseys mainly bred by artificial insemination.

The Friesians have the highest production, followed by Ayrshires, Guernseys and Jerseys. The butterfat composition is also different for the various breeds.

The table below summarises the average production and butterfat content of milk by breed based on a 305-day period of milking, otherwise called a lactation period.

The figures actually vary based on the management of the animals. In fact, in Kenya, the average production is way below these figures because most dairy cattle are poorly managed.

For my assessment, I put a production cut-off of 20 litres daily average for the Friesians, 17 for Ayrshires and 14 for Guernseys and Jerseys.

This was informed by the relatively high level of management on the farm, where some Friesians produced 28 litres of milk per day.

Average production and butterfat content of milk by breed based on a 305-day period of milking, otherwise called a lactation period. TABLE | COURTESY

Second was the age of the animals and number of calving. Milk production increases with age and reaches its peak at the third to fifth lactation.

Therefore, animals calving for the first time should not be removed from the herd even if they do not reach the cut-off set for the breed. They still have time to up their game unless the production is too low despite proper management.

BUSINESS DECISION

Further, animals had to have all udder quarters and teats fully functional to make the cut. Production of defective quarters is never fully compensated for by the normal ones.

The udder had also to be well suspended and the quarters and teats proportionately distributed. Some animals have udders that point downward and make the teat openings to always be in contact with the floor. This makes the animals very vulnerable to mastitis.

I also assessed the animals’ backline from the top of the shoulders to the base of the tail, the legs and feet. The backline and both front and back legs should be straight to withstand the rigours of pregnancy, milk production and weight of the animal.

The feet should be well formed and firmly cover flat ground. The tips of the feet should not curve inward. The back, feet and leg characteristics are critical in maintaining the physical health of a dairy cow.

Cows with defective traits are vulnerable to feet, leg and back problems, which make them exit the herd early in the productive life.
Finally, there was the shape of the dairy cow body. It should be triangular with the head forming the apex of the triangle and the hind quarters the base.

The wider the base of the triangle, the better but it must be proportionate to the rest of the body. Beef cattle have a rectangular, muscular body.

After the briefing, I and the farm manager examined all the milking cows individually. Some 26 cows and two heifers out of the 92 animals missed the cut.

They are to be eliminated from the herd. One of the heifers was a difficult breeder and had failed to conceive after many inseminations.

The other heifer had an abdominal hernia. The manager lamented she would miss some of the animals. “But then, this is a business decision,” she concluded.

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