Key to running a successful dairy farm

Raymond Sirma, manager at Makongi Farm, Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County with dairy cows. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

In dairy farming, there is no short cut, it is either you get it right or you go home and it all depends on proper dairy herd management. Dairy farms aiming at long-term high production must successfully manage several key factors: calf management, cow nutrition, reproduction, comfort and milking.

Alongside these essentials, all dairy farms must deal with the logistics of weather, transportation, and expenses. It can be a lot to balance, but proper planning and thoughtful utilization of the latest dairy farm training and technology make it possible.

Calf management

In the first 12 hours after birth, each calf should be fed 4 liters of colostrum, either through a tube or a bottle, to boost their immune health. In their first couple of months, calves do not have fully developed rumen and therefore cannot digest solid food.

They need to consume about 15 per cent of their body weight in milk each day. Starting the first week, you can introduce concentrates and high quality hay so that calves begin to develop their rumen and get used to forage. This will help to prepare them for weaning. 

The biggest factor that affects calf health in the first few weeks is whether they are kept in a clean environment. When calves are first born, they should be placed within a clean, dry pen. Afterwards, they can be kept either in individual pens or in small groups.

Hygiene is paramount. Ensure that all equipment for calf feeding is kept clean, and all staff should wash their hands between handling adult cows and calves.

Heat detection and management

Effective reproduction management requires effective planning. No matter how large or small, each dairy farm should have a detailed routine for monitoring cows. Regular farm records will also help you to predict when cows will be in heat.

This ensures that you always know which cows are in heat or are pregnant. You should also have plans in place for cows to undergo the transition period and to address any health issues that occur during pregnancy.

Determining when cows are in heat is the cornerstone of maximizing reproduction. Some farms simply train staff to monitor cows visually. Standing to be mounted is an obvious sign of being in heat. Cows in heat may also have a slight drop in milk produced, have mucus discharge on the vulva and become restless.

This restlessness enables heat to be detected by activity monitors. Much like human pedometers, activity monitors track how much a cow walk. Peaks in activity can indicate a cow in heat.

Using pedometers on cows eligible for heat can lead to a higher rate of heat detection and more efficient breeding. They can be especially useful on large or spread-out farms, where it may be difficult for staff to visually monitor each cow.

A missed heat translates to 21 days of lost milk.

Nutrition management

The first step of planning nutrition is to know how much to feed your cows. Cows need a good plane of nutrition for maintenance, growth, production and reproduction.

When planning feed consumption, the industry standard measures food based on its dry matter content or how much it weighs when all the water is extracted.

Follow their guidelines, where available for how much each category of cow needs. For non-pregnant adult cows feed 1.2 per cent of body weight. For pregnant and non-lactating cows feed 2 per cent of body weight.

For milking cows feed 1.2 per cent of body weight plus 5 kg per 10 liters of milk produced. Properly managing feed means carefully monitoring milk production and body weight.

If you want your cows to reach peak lactation, you’ll need to ensure they’re getting sufficient high-quality feed.

What does proper nutrition entail?

The first principle of cow nutrition is to ensure that cows get sufficient energy, which they’ll get through starch and fats. Depending on what kind of feed is available in your region, starch may come in the form of wheat, maize, or other grains.

The fermentation of grain is what produces lactose within the milk. Cows also need fat – up to 6 per cent of their ration. Sources of fat include cottonseed, brewers grain, and oils. In general, solid fats are better for cows’ digestion than liquids.

Cows also need a regular intake of vitamins. Most fresh forage naturally contains the vitamins and minerals that cows need at sufficient levels. Still, you may need to add supplemental vitamins during off-seasons when you are using the dried feed.

A general rule is to feed 1 kilogram of concentrate for every 2 kilograms of milk a cow produces. This ensures that they are receiving enough nutrients.

Selecting Forage

Feed management consists of two main parts: maintaining forage and storing silage. For most farms, grass is the cheapest & one of the highest-quality forages available. The goal is to keep pastures in a young vegetative state when it contains the most nutrients.

This requires regular upkeep of fertilization, irrigation, & grazing rotation. Most farms will need to supplement natural grass during some seasons. Farms with sufficient grass can dry their excess forage into hay.

Otherwise, maize, barley, and legumes can all be good staple forages. The best choice will depend on local availability – the most affordable and best quality crops may vary between different regions.

Depending on the forage you choose, you will likely need to add concentrate & protein supplements, such as soybean or canola meal, rice bran, or citrus pulp. These supplements fill the gaps in the nutrients dried forage can provide.

Water Management

It is essential that cows have constant access to high-quality feed and clean water. Milking cows each need 60 - 70 liters of water a day, plus an additional 4 - 5 liters per liter of milk produced. To accomplish this, they need consistent access to water troughs.

Cows drink a large percentage of their daily water right after milking, so it is essential to have plenty of trough space as cows leave the milking parlor. Likewise, fresh forage should be consistently available.

There should always be more than enough space for each cow to access the forage, so that dominant cows don’t bully younger ones and prevent them from eating. In general, you should feed with forage first, then supplement with nutritional concentrates.

During milking

Milking is never as simple as connecting cows to the equipment. One must try to make milking as efficient and low-stress as possible. Cows are susceptible to stress farm staff should try to maintain a calm, quiet environment. When moving into the milking parlor, keep cows moving slowly to avoid slipping.

Teats should be clean and dry before being connected to milking equipment. They should be treated with an antiseptic after milking to prevent disease. Milking equipment should be checked daily by looking for vent blocks and watching milk flow. Milking equipment should be cleaned with water and sanitizer.

Immediately after milking, the milk needs to be chilled. For large farms, this might be in your own refrigeration units. Otherwise, the milk needs to be transported right after milking to a cooling collection center.

Cow comfort

Cows need to be comfortable in order to have high production. A comfortable environment must provide the following: clean and dry bedding, room to lie down, shade in the heat and non-slip flooring indoors.

We must adopt modern method of production or remain stagnated.

(The writer is a Veterinary Surgeon and the Resident Vet at FarmKenya) 

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