Feeding dairy cows well for high milk yields

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Feeding your animals well increases your income. Dairy cows require a balanced diet for milk production, body maintenance and good health. The animals should have adequate water at all times so the animal can take as much as it needs.

No dairy cow, no matter how good the breed, can remain productive without proper management, especially feeding. The amount and quality of milk produced by the animal is largely affected by what it is fed on and how feeding is done. If the cow is grazed in a farm with little pasture and water and housed in dirty sheds littered with cow dung and urine, the result is poor milk yield and incidences of diseases. In addition to selecting good breeds, proper feeding, housing and handling of dairy cows are sure ways of getting good yields and income. A good breed that receives good feed and clean water, proper housing and friendly and gentle care gives more milk and money. A poorly managed one gives less milk and the farmer incurs huge veterinary expenses that reduce profits.

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Experienced farmers ensure that their animals have a balanced diet - the right feed and in the right amounts. They know that for example, feeding dairy cows only on fodder (like Napier grass) and banana leaves and stems is not sufficient. Although Napier grass is good for dairy cows, about 70 to 80 per cent of this fodder is composed of water, which means that the animals gets only 20 to 30 per cent dry matter.

Nutrient and feed requirements of a dairy cow

The feed requirements for lactating cows are different from that of calves and heifers. The amount of feed provided to the cows depends on the amount of milk it produces, its weight, temperature and levels of activity. Whatever the case, the cow needs balanced feeds that provide energy (carbohydrates and fats), protein, fibre, minerals, vitamins and water in sufficient amounts. The feed given must be digestible so that the nutrients can be absorbed in the body and should not contain toxic substances.

Provide fodder with enough dry matter

Fodder crops like Napier grass are considered the most important feed in feeding dairy cattle as they provide energy for body maintenance, milk production, growth, weight gain and reproduction. Fodder crops also contain roughage (fibre) which helps in digestion and improves the levels of milk fat. An animal can be given extra energy sources from mollases, maize and wheat germ. A mature cross breed cow weighs an average of 400kg. Such a cow requires 10-15kg of fodder in a day (if you are feeding Napier grass, ensure it is at least 3ft in height, any grass less than 3ft contains less dry matter and more water in it, which means that the cow may not get adequate nutrition when fed on such fodder).

Meeting the cow’s basic energy needs

A dairy cow needs a basal diet – one that provides sufficient amounts of nutrients to meet the animal‘s daily basic energy needs but may not provide all minerals and vitamins required. This diet is commonly obtained from pasture grasses, fodder or silage. In simple terms, the cow needs a basal diet to fill its big stomach this diet provides the animal with energy. For dairy cows, goats or sheep, such diets provide roughage or fibre and form the bulk of the animal's daily ration.

The expected daily consumption of energy feeds depends on the quality of the feeds, the size of the animal, level of milk production, quantity of supplements given and dry matter content of the feed material. Supplementary feeds such as concentrates cannot replace the basal diet.

In the dry seasons, cows often do not get enough fodder. Many small-scale farmers try to take care of this shortage by feeding the animal with more dairy meal; they however, get disappointed when the milk production does not increase and may blame the animal feed companies for producing poor quality feed or the breed of dairy cow.

Farmers should know that without sufficient fodder to fill the animal‘s stomach, even the correct portion of the best quality dairy meal will not increase milk production. If given less fodder, the cow uses the feed to maintain its body and cannot increase milk production. Very often, the farmers feed their animals with rotten maize, which is dangerous as it may contain aflatoxin. Aflatoxin contaminates cow‘s milk and is dangerous even for humans who consume it.

Provide enough protein in Feeds

Protein is the second most important component of the diet. It builds the cow’s body and helps in milk production. Adequate protein in the diet also helps microorganisms in the rumen (stomach) convert the roughage into nutrients. It is important for farmers to ensure that they supplement the forage diet with proteins. Lack of protein in the animal diet results in poor growth, reduced milk production, loss of weight and late maturity.

Good protein sources include legumes like lucerne, white clover, and bean straw. Fodder trees such as calliandra, sesbania and leucaena also provide protein for animals. Farmers should dry calliandra before feeding the animals as it causes the milk to smell when given fresh to the animals. Research has shown that 3kg of tree fodder and other legumes such as sweet potato vines give the same milk yield as 1kg of dairy meal. Therefore, the farmer can give the cow 12kg of legumes instead of 4kg of dairy meal.

Minerals and vitamins are important

A cow should also be provided with mineral licks-the minerals provide calcium, phosphorus and other important minerals that support milk production and other body functions. Pregnant cows especially require adequate amounts minerals to help in bone and tissue development of the calf. Never give cows ordinary table salt as it does not have the required minerals. Vitamins like A, D and E are not produced in the cow’s body and must be supplied in the diet. These help maintain the animal’s health and can be supplied through supplements.

Provide enough water

A farmer must also have a reliable water source because water comprises more than half the weight of an adult dairy cow. It transports the food the animal eats to body tissues and organs and cools the animal when it is hot. Water should be available at all times so the animal can take as much as it needs. On average, dairy cows need more than 60 litres of water in a day. This helps the animal increase milk production and to maintain its body condition.

Planning is important for profitable dairy business

Keeping dairy cows depends on a farmer‘s knowledge and planning. Dairy farming is a viable business, which needs enough resources and capital. These include; adequate land for keeping the desired number of animals and for growing the required fodder, legumes, or grasses to feed the animals.

Farmers must also plan for animal feed requirements during the dry season. Farmers should prepare silage from the excess fodder and preserve it during the rainy season so that it can be fed to the animals during the dry season. The farmer should also budget well to ensure there is enough money to buy concentrates, mineral licks, vitamins and drugs to maintain the animals‘ health.

Before starting a dairy farming venture, farmers should have adequate skills on dairy cow management which they can get by visiting successful dairy farmers or working with livestock extension personnel. This helps them avoid costly mistakes that can lead to failure and even losses. If well managed, dairy farming is one of the most profitable ventures in farming.

In most towns a litre of milk sells at between KSh 40 and KSh 50 in the informal market while processors pay Ksh 33 to KSh 35 per litre. For example, a farmer keeping 6 dairy cows each giving 25kg of milk per day can get 150 litres of milk per day, which fetch KSh 6000 per day at Ksh 40 a litre. In 30 days, the farmer can have a gross income of KSh 180,000. If you substract the expenses – the cost of feeds, drugs and labour which take up about 30 per cent of the earnings, the net income is about KSh. 126,000 per month. This is a good income that can enable one to pay fees, pay for other expenses in the farm and even invest.

A farmer with such an income can easily qualify for a loan to buy more dairy cows or develop the farm. Many local banks have various loan products for dairy farmers with a regular income. Most small-scale farmers know (or have at least heard of) methods of feed conservation such as silage, hay or use of polythene tubes. KARI has a lot of helpful useful brochures about silage or hay-production.

In organic farming, feeding should be mainly based on the fodder produced on the farm itself. Furthermore, organic dairy farming management demands that the animals have sufficient freedom to move around and exercise their natural behaviour. That is why landless animal husbandry where animals do not have enough space for movement and rest is not permitted. It affects the animal's health and creates stress.

>>Tell us how useful this information is to your farming enterprise. Share your experience by email to admin@theorganicfarmer.org, leave a comment below this article or send an SMS to 0715 916 136.

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