In Summary
  • Therefore with a small number of dairy cows in the herd, the farmer finds that the population in a stable state tends to decline rather than increase or remain with the same number of cows.
  • Even if one feels they can take the risk of buying an animal in bad body condition, it is always good to seek the advice of a veterinary doctor.
  • I advise animal buyers to always ensure there is a good record of all illnesses and treatments given to an animal before they buy it.
  • The doctor is trained to detect diseases that may not be obvious by considering different health indicators.

One of the main challenges of a dairy farmer is to establish the herd and maintain the animal numbers at a profitable level.

The often recommended way of maintaining herd numbers is to breed the cows and generate replacement stock on the farm with the aim of building a stable herd of pure or pedigree dairy cattle.

The recommended protocol is good but unfortunately, it only works with large farms. One of the reasons of failure is that in small herds, the dairy animal population tends to attain a stable state where the cows leaving the herd annually through disease, old age or infertility is the same as the number entering the herd as heifers.

In theory, the stable population would give the farmer a constant number of animals in her herd.

However this is frustrated by the fact that in artificial insemination, which is mainly used and recommended in dairy farming, more bull calves are born than heifer calves.

Therefore with a small number of dairy cows in the herd, the farmer finds that the population in a stable state tends to decline rather than increase or remain with the same number of cows.

In Kenya, majority of farmers are small scale dairy producers who never attain a stable state population. They maintain their herd numbers by regularly buying new animals.

Pius in Thika, started as a small dairy farmer. Two years ago, I discussed with him the benefits of combining milk production with breeding to produce replacement stock for his herd and for other farmers.

He has been gradually increasing his herd size by combining his replacement stock with animals bought from other farmers.

Pius’ strategy of getting new animals is to seek out good quality cattle in bad body condition and rehabilitate them on his farm.

That way, he gets fairy good quality Friesian cattle at a fraction of the price he would pay if the animals were in good body condition. He buys the animals at prices between 20,000 and 50,000 shillings.


If such animals were in good body condition, they would cost Pius on average Sh80,000 to Sh120,000.

I advise farmers to use this strategy if they are willing to take the risk on the animals and they are also ready to wait for seven to 10 years to produce high quality animals with good records from the cows they bought originally.

There is a catch though in this strategy, and Pius recently found out. As the old adage goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

Until January this year, Pius had done very well with his herd build up strategy raising his animals from five to 80 but his phone call told me it was pay back time for his risk taking.

He quickly narrated to me that he had bought a very good looking cow which had immediately increased milk production on arriving at his farm.

However, even after feeding the cow for two weeks on his high quality diet, the cow had not showed commensurate improvement.

The cow would sometimes look active and other times sluggish but had continued eating fairly well. He had not found any reason to call me because the cow did not really appear sick.

He said the cow was looking bad that morning and had dropped milk production to one litre from eight the previous day. It was grunting and had refused to eat.

When I enquired if the cow had any disease and treatment records at the farm where he bought it, he quickly responded “Not anything clear but I was told it had been treated for an illness the owner had not been told three days before I bought it.” He further said the cow had a swelling at the site of injection but he thought it was only due to the injection.

The report got me thinking about causes of such a scenario. May be the cow had developed a pus filled pocket called an abscess at the site of injection and was getting blood poisoning from the toxins produced as it tried to clear the infection.

Bacteria could also be spreading into the body from the abscess. Before I could even follow up further on the case report, Pius exclaimed, “Oh no! Doctor, the cow has now collapsed and appears to be dying.”

I arrived at the farm within 45 minutes and found the cow had already died. We agreed I carry out a post mortem examination to determine what happened.


“Pius, this cow had issues with the lungs but that may not be the original problem,” I commented as I observed purple colour, cyanosis, in the inner linings of the eyes and the skin of the teats and udder. This was an indication that when alive the cow had very low oxygen in the blood.

The carcass was in a moderate body condition, confirming Pius’ claim of feeding the cow well. When I opened the abdominal cavity, it was evident the cow had had a long illness that was causing havoc in the whole body.

The cavity contained large quantities of pus and a yellow cheesy material called fibrin. The body produces this fibrin in the abdomen when irritated or injured to try and isolate the irritant by encasing it and also covering the injury.

Due to the fibrin reaction, ruminants have a high capacity to withstand abdominal irritation or injury. “The most common cause of this type of reaction is a foreign body puncturing through the second stomach called the reticulum,” I told Pius as I manipulated the large stomach, rumen, to access the reticulum.

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