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How to trim your herd size to raise earnings

By Dr. Othieno Joseph

In strategic herd reduction, if you have heifers and bulls, bulls will be the first to go. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Dear Dr Othieno, I enjoy reading your informative articles. I am a dairy farmer with four milking cows, three heifers and two young bulls. All of them crosses. I read your article on New Year resolutions where you introduced the topic of profitable dairy farming. I think I am doing well since I get enough money to educate and feed my family. However, I haven’t been keeping good records. After reading the article, I thought I can do better and my starting point is that I need to reduce the size of my herd. Kindly advice. Peter Wamalwa, Kitale

Dear Peter,

From the mail, I see you have a relatively large herd; I am not sure how big your farm is because that would help in viewing that size relative to the farm size. But let’s assume your objective this year is profitable dairy farming which means you plan to reduce costs and increase profits. That is a good goal and I will help you with it. 

Any agricultural activity we engage in must be profitable; it doesn’t make economical sense to keep livestock which at the end of the month drains your cash. Like any other business, you can make a loss ocassionally but you must find out why and seal that loophole. This then requires good farm record keeping.Peter, the concept you are talking about (reducing the herd) is called culling. This is a common farm practice that aims downsizing the herd based on a given criteria.

It is not an easy activity to carry out as farmers are quick to develop attachments to their animals. Peter has two young bulls, three heifers and four cows he is milking. I am not sure what farming system you are using. If it is intensive (zero grazing), or semi-free range then I can already see a lot of labour and cost going towards feeding.

Forget about bulls

Livestock economists have documented that it is not profitable to keep bulls when you are in dairy production. Some farmers do keep bulls for reproduction but it is more cost effective to use Artificial Insemination. So Peter start by selling the bulls. With the bulls gone, focus should be on the four cows being milked. What are their age, production and reproduction and health status.

Age

Cows are productive for four to nine years depending on management and environmental factors. Towards and past nine years of age; cows teeth wear out, hence they cannot eat enough feeds to match their milk production potential. Old animals should be the next on the line.

Open Cows and difficult calvers

Open cows are those that aren’t pregnant when they should. A cow that isn’t pregnant will not give you the much needed calf in the next breeding season.  This will affect their calving interval (time in days between the birth of a calf and the birth of a subsequent calf. This period is however not the fault of the cow. Three factors will determine:

1. The voluntary waiting period by the farmer (typically 45 to 60 days)

2. The service rate (the proportion of cows serviced within each 21-day heat cycle after the voluntary waiting period,

3. The conception rate of the cow.

Normally, the a range of 365 days to 390 is given. Where the calving interval is greater than 365 days this means that it takes longer than one year for a cow to produce successive calves.

Health Status

If Peter has to choose from the cows which one to cull, the ease of giving birth and successful births should be the other criteria that points to mothering ability of the cow.The next factor to consider among the cows and the heifer which one to cull is the anatomical conformation of the udder, the back and feet. These are critical body structures when it comes to milk production. Cows with pendulous udders are prone to mastitis, poor feet conformation and sagging backs will negatively affect milk production. The health records of the cows should also be used as culling criteria, animals that have fallen sick regularly are costly to keep and should be gotten rid off in profitable farming. Heifers should show a good growth rate; unthrifty heifers will certainly not be good producers and will take longer to attain physical and physiological maturity.

Temperament

Good animals are ‘well mannered’ – easy to handle and not aggressive. Dairy heifers and cows with bad temperaments should be on the list of culling. They will certainly give you problems when restraining so that you can milk. Subsequently they are likely to withhold milk. These are the type of animals that farmers refer to as crazy.

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