Doing Dairy: Success factors.

By Taruvinga Magwiroto

Somebody requested me to write something about dairy production. I will talk about start-up, breeds and production targets and management tips to achieve your targets.

Which breeds?

Without exception, everyone intending to get into dairy farming will start with a decision about which breed to buy. Here are some considerations.

  1. Bigger is not always better: – somebody told me they are new in the business but would like to start with the Holstein-Friesland breed. I said fine, but had you considered this the following: feed costs?

Feed accounts for 70-80% of your recurring costs in livestock production. And bigger breeds have higher maintenance costs than smaller breeds. Maintenance ration is the feed that you give an animal for it to survive without factoring in production. If we take the case that an animal will eat 3% of its body weight to maintain itself, then the rough maths will come out like this:

If you compare a 1000 kg Holstein cow to a 300 kg Jersey cow, the Holstein will require roughly 30kg feed while the Jersey requires 9kg.

True that the Friesland-Holstein is a milk-making machine, but that high productivity comes with it certain weaknesses: susceptibility to metabolic/production diseases. I will explain this.

Milk is a very rich food, balanced for most nutrients. However, the nutrients that go into making milk come from the animal’s digestive system. If the digestive system is not providing enough nutrients, the cow’s body diverts some of the nutrients from its reserve stocks (from fat, bones etc) to get into the milk. This is the reason that you find that suckling cows in poor nutrition get very thin: milk drains nutrients from the cow’s very body!

Now with dairy animals, this can be a big problem, especially at birth time. The animal is producing huge quantities of milk at a time when its appetite is suppressed (hormonal influences). No wonder you get higher incidences of milk fever/hypoglycaemia/downer cow syndromes. These metabolic diseases have something to do with imbalances/deficits of calcium, phosphate and energy.

My advice: Go for the more adapted, hardier, smaller breeds. Absolute quantities (90 litres v 25 l) can be misleading. Productivity is measured in the efficiency with which the animal converts feed into milk. Higher production (90 L) has to be traded off with feed requirements, space, veterinary costs, etc. In the final analysis, for the smaller farmers or beginners, my advice is go for the smaller, lower-yielding but better adapted and hardier breeds.

As you build management expertise, you can venture into other breeds, also taking into consideration the market signals.

2. Production depends on genes acting on the environment:- Breeds (genes) have certain potentials for production. However, the realisation or actualisation of that potential comes when the environment is ideal. Environment in this case means: feed, management, disease control, etc.

Breeds only have a potential for certain level of production. Whether that actually comes to pass depends on you, the farmer/manager. Next instalment we go into further detail about feed, records, and managing pregnant cows and calves. Till next time.

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