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The nine steps to run a successful dairy farm


Workers at Naisambu dairy farm in Trans Nzoia County [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Dairy farming has gained currency in Kenya thanks to the increase in population and demand for quality milk. With a litre of milk from the farm selling for as much as Sh60, the industry is lucrative. Most farmers have adopted semi- or zero-grazing systems of production thus concentrating on production per cow. This means keeping a few highly productive cows. Our grandfathers were famous for keeping many heads of cattle with very little production. Some farmers have gone into raising and selling in-calf heifers at a premium of as high as Sh150,000. For those interested, it is prudent to bear in mind the following before you get into it:

Available dairy cow breeds

The common breeds are Friesian (Friesian -Holstein), Ayrshire, Jersey and Guernsey. The genetic make-up coupled with good management of the cows is a major determinant of milk production. It's always advisable to start with a heifer(s) and raise it on your own. This is because you will be able to feed it well and have it served on time. Buying a cow (already lactating/ in milk) may be tricky because the farmer may not be honest about why they are selling the cow. You can end up buying a sick or old cow that cannot even conceive. The cow(s) or heifer(s) that you intend to buy should be free of pests and diseases, identifiable using an ear tag or otherwise.

When buying dairy cows, always buy from an established farm with good record keeping. Always involve a vet in this process to avoid costly mistakes. The vet will examine the cow's state of health and production, based on the records, and advise you accordingly. A black and white, brown or any other colour does not qualify a cow to be a dairy. The production and reproduction records of her parent and the findings of the vet about the cow come in handy.

Proper housing for dairy cows

Cows require plenty of space for their comfort and subsequent production. The cow boma (unit) should have in place a feeding trough, water trough, gangway, sleeping area and milking parlour. The cow shed should be gently sloping, easy to clean/wash daily and secure from thieves and predators. Use locally available materials but consider durability. This is the first item to construct when starting a dairy farm. Its size depends on the number of cows that you want to keep.

How to feed your dairy cows

Milk production is a factor in genetics and nutrition. When the genetics are right, correct feeding enhances continuous milk production across the lactation period. Proper feeding entails feeding your dairy cows with feeds well constituted with carbohydrates, proteins, mineral salts and vitamins plus clean water. The quantities should be sufficient and be of good quality. This ensures that your cow is healthy, can give optimal milk quantities and remains fertile to get a calf per year.

Good quality silage and hay are good components for your cow feeds. Concentrates are critical for energy and protein. Always source your concentrates from a reliable supplier.

Water should be available ad libitum, as in throughout. This water should be water that you can drink. The feed and water troughs should be kept clean at all times to discourage the growth of microbes that are detrimental to cows health.

Pests and diseases

Ticks and worms are a bother in dairy cows. Deworming at the right time and spraying with acaricides keep pests at bay. Some of the notorious diseases include; subclinical mastitis, milk fever, Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), East Coast Fever (ECF), Rift Valley Fever, Brucellosis, and Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) among others. These diseases can be vaccinated against, are preventable, or treatable. Some signs of a sick cow include; loss of appetite for food and water, a drop in milk production, dry muzzle, rough hair coat, lying down all the time and diarrhoea. Spend time with your cows daily and observe them keenly to know when they are not behaving normally. Always consult your Vet in case you suspect pests or diseases in your cows for prompt action.

What records to keep?

Individual and accurate cow records on birth dates, birth weights, sire and dam, milk records (per cow per milking), treatment records, feeding records and service dates. Proper records help you plan ahead, calculate the worth of your business and profit.

Adopt good milking routines

Animals are creatures of routine. When good routines are established and maintained the animal feels comfortable and relaxed.

When milking ensure this comfort is provided for optimum milk production.

You should therefore make an effort to ensure that your cows are milked at the same time daily and in the same familiar parlour.

Hire, train and motivate the right personnel

The input resources in any commercial enterprise are critical for productivity and these include human resources.

Established companies take a lot of care when hiring because they realise they can only be successful as their employees make them.

Unfortunately, many farmers go for the cheapest and most available help forgetting that 'cheap is expensive.'

Such help may not have the right aptitude to run a dairy operation successfully. You need to take much care to hire the right people, train them regularly and pay them an attractive salary.

Availability of market

You need to know who to sell your milk to, volumes and prices as well as alternatives. You also need to know the potential buyers for your bull calves, in-calf heifers. This will give you an idea of your revenue projections and how to grow them. As you grow in your venture, think of value addition.

The role of the Vet

The vet comes in handy when setting up a dairy farm. Apart from doing your research, talking to a vet is very crucial. As a strategy, always deal with two vets so that when one is not available the other can attend to your cases including emergencies.

[The author Dr Paul RN Kang'ethe (BVM, UoN) is the resident vet at FarmKenya]

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