11 simple steps Pius took to increase milk yields of his dairy cows
Feeding dairy cows to increase milk yield has been for a long time an elusive dream for Pius Wandera, a dairy farmer owning three cows in Kakamega. Despite putting a lot of effort in feeding, none of his cows had ever produced more than 8 litres a day.
Training and a tour to Nakuru organized for local dairy farmers opened his eyes on where he was getting it all wrong. He discovered that the magic lied in simple routine husbandry practices that he often overlooked. After instituting these simple measures the cows were now producing an average of 17 litres a day. Here are ten of the common practices he took for granted which had profound implications on milk yield.
Providing enough clean drinking water
“I learnt during the tour that when it comes to nutrition of a dairy cow, water was the most important nutrient in a cow’s daily nutrient intake,” he says. “I provided drinking water just once a day in a trough, and when I could not, I used to drive the cows to a nearby stream where all the neighbours also took theirs. I learnt that the water I provided was not enough for the cows and the water down the stream was too dirty. I have now installed a water tank and constructed a suitable drinking trough which I make sure has clean drinking water all the time”
Water intake per kilogram basis is far greater than that of carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and fats that the cow consumes in a diet, accounting for about 75%. This implies that as we put emphasis on dry matter while formulating diets for dairy cow, we just focus on 25% of the cow’s total nutrient intake.
A cow consumes 1 litre of water for every 12 kg body weight during cold weather and about 1 litre per 6 kg body weight in very hot weather. Water requirements for lactating dairy cows increases, requiring twice as much compared to dry cows. Age, body size, stage of production and the environment also determine daily water intake.
The quality of water provided to the cow is also very important. Water from some bore holes have excessive amounts of minerals that disturb nutrient digestion and mineral balance of the cow. If in doubt, it is important to test the water for minerals and seek advice on suitability for drinking by cows.
The following table shows requirements of water in litres per day for various categories of dairy cows.
Consumption per day (Litres)
15 - 30
Weaners (250 – 300 Kg)
45 - 60
60 - 80
Lactating first calf heifers (350 – 400 Kg)
70 - 90
Lactating cows (500 Kg)
100 - 180
Providing adequate high quality feed
“My daily feeding routine was bringing to the cows any feed materials I thought was edible. These included Napier grass, crop residues, grass collected from roadsides, dry maize stovers during feed scarcity or any feeding materials I came across. My concern was that the cows have enough for the day,” he continues. “Sometimes I supplemented with purchased concentrates such as maize bran and dairy meal. But I didn’t care to look at the quality of these feed materials or even process them in a form that was pleasant to the cows. Most of the time the herbage was contaminated with soils and other substances. The cows chose what to eat and left most of it on the feeding trough which I rarely cleaned.”
Productive dairy cattle need to eat a lot of feed to supply all nutrients they need each day. Given the opportunity, dairy cows eat forage throughout the day and night. But they can only eat so much before they feel full and stop eating for a while. It is therefore important that by the time they feel full they have eaten enough of all the nutrients they need to remain healthy and productive.
Formulating the cow’s ration
“I used to feed a mix of forage and concentrates and other times I fed only fodder in form of hay, silage or green fodder without bearing in mind the daily nutrient requirements of the cow. This brought mixed results because sometimes milk yield increased but not to the level I expected. In the end I got so frustrated that I thought of selling the cows” he said. “When I started formulating feeds for the cows, I noticed that I did not have to use as much of some feed ingredients which greatly reduced the feeding cost. I also realized that the feeds I was earlier providing to the cows lacked some essential nutrients.”
Feed costs are high therefore seek the service of an animal nutritionist to formulate diets that meet nutritional needs at least cost combinations. Correct specific nutrient deficiencies during feed formulation.
Formulate the ration to provide sufficient energy, protein, minerals and vitamins for improved fertility and good consistent milk yield. At least 70 to 80 per cent of the dry matter content of the ration should come from forage. Sourcing ingredients for concentrate supplements should be based on their relative costs of energy and protein. Successes and tricks lies in ensuring that quality of raw materials purchased is good and reliable.
Ensuring daily mineral intake
“What I knew was that salt was salt” he says with a chuckle. “I never put much thought or importance on the type of salt the cows consumed. I could buy any salt available in the local agrovets. The red salts packed in polythene bags were the ones I preferred because they were cheap. I offered to the cows once in a while because most of the times I either forgot or neglected. Now I know that there different type of salts for different categories of animals. The cows started improving when I ensured daily intake of the appropriate salts”
All dairy cows require minerals for high milk production. Calcium and phosphorus supplements are particularly important for milking cows. Trace elements are required in very small quantities. Feed alone cannot provide enough minerals that fully benefit dairy cows. Deficiency symptoms occur when these requirements are not met. Always supplement feed with good quality minerals and ensure daily intake.
Letting the cows rest
“My cows were housed inside a zero grazing unit which I constructed following recommendations by an expert. Sadly, the floor was always muddy so the cows did not have a clean and comfortable area to lie down,” he lamented. “When I saw the mud was too much, I removed them from the housing and tethered or grazed them for several days as I waited for the floor to dry up. Drinking water had always been a problem forcing me to regularly drive the cows to a nearby stream.”
A cow’s daily behavioral time budget include feeding, drinking water, milking, standing and lying down; and she needs time for each of these activities. Lying down is important because the cow rests and ruminates, blood flow to the udder increases, all these increasing milk yield. Reduction in lying down reduces milk production.
At any one time, 60% of milking cows at rest should be ruminating. Cows typically rest 10 to 14 hours per day in five or more resting bouts where she takes about 7 to 10 hours ruminating. Ensure therefore that cows are able to rest for as long as they need to, on comfortable and dry bedding, to improve their health, well-being and performance.
Feeding concentrates carefully
“Dairy meal was the preferred concentrate but I occasionally replaced with maize bran. I provided 2 kg per day per cow irrespective of the status of the animal. Later I discovered that these concentrates could be substituted with other feed ingredients that were cheaper and performed better.”
High yielding dairy cows simply cannot eat enough bulk forage to obtain all the nutrients they need. Their guts fill up before they are able to absorb sufficient nutrients and they have to be given other, more nutrient-rich feeds. These feeds come in form of concentrates which are expensive and need to be fed carefully to get the best return on investment. Feed depending on the level of milk production and the quality of forage. The most economical level of feeding concentrates is at the point where the extra milk produced just pays for the last amount of additional unit of concentrate added. This point may be inﬂuenced by changes in milk and feed prices. If the milk price drops, it may no longer be economical to feed as much concentrates.
Selecting the best forages
“Napier grass had always been the fodder of my choice because of its high biomass. There are other forages but things changed for the better when I started using Brachiaria grass. The change in production was simply dramatic.”
Cows need to feel full and bulk forages, with their high fibre content, supply the bulk needed in the ration to fill the gut and prevent cows from feeling hungry. Some forages, like fresh green grass, provide relatively few nutrients in a large volume of feed. Others provide more concentrated nutrients. Dry grass such as hay, for example, has more nutrients than the same weight of fresh grass. Nevertheless some dry forages, such as straw, contain relatively small amounts of nutrients.
You can judge the quality of a forage from its appearance, smell and texture. For fresh forages, those with more leaf than stem, that are dark green and that feel soft are likely to be better quality than those that are mostly stems, have yellowish leaves and stems or that feel hard or woody. Avoid feeding musty smelling or mouldy forages.
Changing feed abruptly
“Other than Napier grass which was available most of the time, the quantity was not enough to feed the cow all year round,” he went on. “Other fodder varieties were seasonal. To meet the cows demand, I limited the amount of Napier grass and augmented with any other forage plants I came across. Crop residue during weeding came in handy. Kitchen waste like banana peelings and throwaway sweet potato roots were also useful because the amount of Napier grass inadequate for the cows. I planted 2 acres of Brachiaria grass to ensure that my cows had enough forages throughout the year.”
Sudden changes in the cows’ diet disturb the microbial equilibrium in the rumen and this affects digestion. It takes time for the rumen bacteria to adapt to the changes thereby affecting milk yield. Once you have decided on a given diet ensure that it will be available in the future. If for one reason or another you need to change the diet, do it gradually preferably over a period of two weeks. This will give time enough for the rumen bacteria to adjust to the new environment.
Knowing my cows
“I fed all the cows an equal amount of forage and concentrates which I usually put in one trough. But one of them always refused to feed with the rest,” he continues. “There was another that didn’t eat any other concentrates except dairy mail from Unga Ltd. When I separated them and fed each individually I noticed a marked increase in feed intake and a corresponding increase in milk yield.”
A large cow will eat more than a small one. Also a cow producing a lot of milk will eat more than
one producing little milk. Immediately after calving, cows eat less feed than usual. Individual cows have peculiar feeding habits.
Setting realistic targets for milk production
“When I started keeping dairy cows, I did not have a set target that I aimed to achieve. All I did was to feed the cows hoping that they would produce a lot of milk,” Pius recalls. “I learnt that setting a target motivated me to look at the whole system with a view to identifying the weak points. That way I was able to improve on those areas that were stopping me from hitting the targets. And it was gratifying whenever these targets were achieved which further motivated me to set new targets. The cycle continued and now I have new targets.”
Set targets for milk yield and work hard towards achieving them. While it is true that you can feed fewer milking cows more efficiently, this may not be the full potential that the farm can achieve. Realistic target for milk yields depend on genetic quality of the cows, resources for feed supplies, management skills and motivation to have high yielding cows. Acquired skills will enable you to set realistic targets for milk yields in the farm.
Acquiring knowledge and skills
“All these improvements are due to the knowledge and skills I acquired from training and more significantly from the tour that took us around Njoro area in Nakuru County”, he concludes. “Dairy farmers there are very serious. I took the challenge and the efforts are bearing fruits.”
Although it is possible to be a dairy farmer without knowledge on dairy farming, knowledge on dairy farming is important to be able to comfortably work with dairy cows. You can gain dairy farming knowledge and skills through training, experiences working with dairy cattle, from experienced dairy farmers or through reading. To achieve this you need to have an interest in acquiring these skills. Other skills include mechanical aptitude, ability to work with computers, analysis and problem solving and team management. These skills will help you to plan, organize and execute an efficient dairy enterprise.