Many new farmers buy heifers or cows from other farmers to start their dairy projects. Starting with a poor animal will set you back years in lost returns on your capital, on employed labour and on your time.
You should not start with just any heifer or cow that an unknown farmer or neighbour, relative, friendly farmer or broker is selling. Many of these sellers will say various reasons, when asked, why they are selling the animals. Examples include paying school fees, hospital expenses, legal fees and so on. While this may be true, it may also true that the reason the specific cow is chosen for sale is because it has a hidden problem.
In other words, the farmer is not selling his best. This is the natural thing to do for the seller. The farmer will only sell her best if she cannot get a buyer for the poorer cows or if the farmer urgently wants to obtain an amount of money that only the best cows can fetch. You may also land best cows if the farmer is selling all his stock.
The hidden problems the poorer animals may have are many. They range from the cow having a tendency of not showing heat signs for too long or not at all (referred to as silent heat or anoestrus) or the animal has not conceived even after repeated trials; all of this despite the farmers best efforts. A related scenario is that although the animal has conceived, the farmer does not like it because it took too long or took too many repeated trials before conceiving. These kinds of animals are called difficult breeders.
Other hidden problems are blocked teats, lost udder quarters, an udder that hangs, difficult calving, retained after birth, aggressive feeders without compensatory milk yields, tendency of frequent diseases like mastitis, lameness, milk fever, ketosis or the animal is a bully.
Another hidden problem may be that although the animal is pregnant, it has been exposed to diseases that leave it infected with bacteria like brucellosis, tuberculosis, venereal diseases (campylobacteriosis, trichomoniasis). With these diseases, the cow may not be showing any current clinical signs associated with these diseases only for the pregnant animal to abort soon after or several months later and develop other complications.
If it’s brucellosis, it will contaminate your clean environment and you may have abortion issues for a long time while also transmitting the same in milk and body secretions. If it is tuberculosis the animal may progressively become sick while transmitting the bacteria to other animals and humans through milk and other body secretions like coughs.
If it is venereal, it means the owner had tried natural service to get the cow pregnant but it got infected. Another hidden problem is that the cow may have inbreeding and it will be a poor milk producer and will not produce the expected milk even if the best ration is given. So a farmer may be selling her poorest milk producer while implying that it is just as good as her best producers.
What then does a buyer do to avoid buying such animals?
A buyer should have knowledge of the breeding cow market (who breeds what, are they recognised breeders or not? If they are recognised, how good are the animals against the national or international standards? How much are they charging? If they are not recognised breeders, how does the cow or heifer comparing to these standards?
Ideally, the seller should provide authentic records of the pedigree of the animal, its age, milk records showing its previous production or that of its parents, and a health certificate. If it is pregnant, this should be included in the health certificate certifying the age of the pregnancy. Obtaining a health certificate including a pregnancy certification involves a vet examining the animal, taking samples for laboratory testing to rule out the diseases and conditions mentioned above before issuing a health certificate. This then makes the vet accountable for the fitness of the cow. The seller should provide an authentic record of the details of the natural or artificial insemination service of the pregnancy. Sellers who advertise on the internet and other media should also indicate whether such records and health certificates are available.
Generally, buyers are advised to purchase pregnant heifers or cows which are in their first or second lactation. This recommendation is given because in general, cows will keep increasing their milk production until the fourth- fifth lactation after which they will start decreasing their milk production after the seventh –eighth lactations. So you do not want to buy a cow that is almost reaching or has reached its top most milk production or is in its declining lactations.
Another reason is that the amount of milk a cow produces in its first lactation will affect how much it will produce in its second lactation and so on. Heifers should have the recommended weight at birth to be able to give its maximum milk yield in its first lactation. So if you start with a pregnant heifer of the right weight or a young pregnant cow you will be in control of its future performance and be able to get the most milk out of your initial investment.
The recognised breeders are expected to meet these ideal standards with all the required records. You can contact them for information as to who may be selling heifers through the Friesian, Aryshire, Jersey, Guernsey, and Boran breeding societies.
Due to shortage of such breeding heifers, you may be put on a waiting list. But note that due to their heifers meeting the high standards you will have to pay more, even more than double what the ordinary seller is asking for.
So if the breeders’ heifers are unobtainable, what to do?
The ordinary seller will not have proof of these standards but it is true some of the animals they have are quite good or can be very good or just as good if given proper feeding and health care. Some of their hidden problems can be corrected in their daughters by match mating.
A proper investigation by an expert may be able to unearth what kind of an animal it is and you could end up with a very good animal at a much lower cost. Such an investigation will also save you from buying an animal that has an unmanageable or dangerous problem (due to the above diseases).
So the expert will advise you on those that you can buy and how to manage the problems. However, those with brucellosis and tuberculosis should be slaughtered to avoid spreading the disease to other animals and humans. These experts are to be found at your nearest vet/livestock or private service provider offices. Advice is also available on the internet. The local provider or officer at a fair cost will guide the buyer as to what is available locally and where it is available.