Qualities of a good dairy cow

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What are the qualities of a dairy cow? This is a question often asked by dairy producers who are searching for the best dairy cow for their farm stock. The answer may appear simple until you make a mistake with the cow you purchase. Many a times have dairymen grieved for walking into a farm, pointing at a cow and making a purchase simply because the cow looked fantastic.

Before delving into the finer points of picking out the best dairy cow there is one serious fallacy which needs to be dismissed, the price point. Dairymen have made purchases exclusively based on a certain minimum above which they believed the animal to be high quality. And sellers have habitually taken advantage of this psyche and inflated the prices of the animals to catch the attention of such dairymen.

Frisian dairy cows A good dairy cow is not universal and pretty much depends on what you want and where you are. Milk producers for home consumption have different requirements from commercial producers. Residents in arid and semi arid lands will choose a different animal from those in high potential areas. In Kenya milk butterfat content does not determine milk prices. Therefore if the aim is commercial milk production then naturally you should go for a breed that is known for high milk production regardless of the quality. On the other hand if the aim is butter, ghee or cheese for the home then the choice should be a cow that has more butterfat in the milk.

The next step is to decide which breed of cow best meets your individual needs. You may prefer the black and white colors of the Holstein Friesian or the red and white of the Guernsey but all are high milk producers. Your choice will be based on the important dairy breeds of cattle in Kenya and their availability in your locality. The four dairy cattle breeds rise easily to the top based on available information about productivity, fertility and longevity.

But as you make these decisions an often overlooked important consideration is to what extent you have prepared for the introduction of the new dairy cow.  Different breeds have different demands and your level of preparedness is crucial. You got to make sure that their nutritional needs will be met because it is not just about the initial cost but the subsequent upkeep of the cow. Many dairymen fail here because they go for a cow without making the necessary arrangements. Providing that their nutritional and other needs are met, a dairy cow will produce to its full genetic potential. If you can afford an elite milk cow know that a high milk producer will require high levels of management. On the other hand it would be meaningful to go for a cheaper cow that go well with your level of management.

Now that you have decided on the type of cow that best fits your acreage, you are ready to go shopping. Be aware that dairy producers put on sale cows that are being culled from the herd for not producing enough, cows which have deformities, cows which do not become pregnant, cows with temperamental problems, and cows which are chronic carriers of disease. Irrespective of the breed you have settled for, there are a few basic rules to follow when purchasing your cow.

So what are you supposed to look for?

Body Capacity

Viewed from the side, a cow with a deep, long body with wide, well-sprung ribs is said to have a large body capacity. Large body capacity is associated with superior milk production. A dairy cow with little body capacity is not a great milk producer. A broad muzzle implies the ability to get the food into her mouth and to chew her cud effectively. Cows with a narrow chest as determined by the width between the fore legs are not normally good producers. Also if at least two fingers can be placed between the ribs of a dairy cow, she is said to have great capacity.

Functional conformation

The udder should be your main priority. It must be pliable, silky in texture and sack-like in nature. When viewed from the side it should not hang below the cow's hock but should be close to the body, giving an appearance of support rather than swinging loosely and freely. It should be full and firm with no hard spots, redness, or swelling. The central suspensory ligament must be strong and well attached. Remember that a large udder is not always a sign that the cow is a good producer.

Teat placement is next in importance. The teats should be even, medium sized and centrally placed on each quarter of the udder. Over and undersized teats should be avoided. Note that teats of older cow appear fuller than those of younger ones. A teat that is not working will look much smaller than the other teats.

Mastitis is a common problem in most farms. Find out whether the farm has had a problem of mastitis and what actions they have taken to control it. Avoid introducing a chronic carrier into your farm.

Good feet and strong legs are important because cows may have to walk long distances to and from their feed. From the side view the hind leg should be slightly sickle-shaped with a steep pastern. Any cow which is unable to stand up and/or walk with ease is useless, even if she has the most perfect udder in the world. The legs of the cow should be clean and blemish-free, and she should walk without signs of lameness.

For more information on this read how to judge a good dairy cow

Easy care – management, temperament, health

Avoid cows with temperament problems. The cow should have a calm and easy disposition. Observe the behavior of the people working around her. This should tell you a lot.

Many cows with a chronic disease will show symptoms, but others will show nothing. If the cow is very thin and rough-coated, she could merely need a good deworming and feeding. Or she could be chronically ill with any of a number of non-fatal diseases, in which case she will probably never look any better and may even infect your other livestock. Ask for assistance from your nearest veterinary officer to perform a health examination.

Productivity Records

Dairymen cull out cows who give less milk. Ask to see records if you have any doubt. Confirm that the milk produced per day is a reasonable amount. Also note the amount of milk produced during peak lactation periods and the number of days the cow is in production. The recommended lactation period of a milking cow is usually 305 days.

If the cow is not already pregnant it would be in the best interest of your dairy business to get the cow pregnant as soon as possible and get it in milk. A pregnancy diagnosis with the assistance of a veterinarian should confirm pregnancy. The breeding history should indicate an average of 380 days period between calving. If the cow didn’t breed when she should have, find out what the reason was. She may have serious problems.


This is a subjective evaluation made on dairy cows arising from the observations of practical dairymen rather than scientific facts. The refinement you want to see in dairy cows is related to sharpness across the shoulders instead of being broad and beefy. The back should be straight, with prominent hipbones, and her neck and head should move freely with no stiffness. The eyes should be clear and dark, and free from blue or white spots. And the tail should be thin and fine instead of a thick, robust and coarse.

Now you can go ahead and purchase the best dairy cow.

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