cows; weaning; cattle; calves

Dairy production: Milking indigenous cattle breeds

Question: I would like to start a dairy and I live in a very hot and humid area. Which cattle breeds will work for me?

A farmer does not need a lot of capital to get a dairy going. A wise move is to look at one of the hardier breeds of cattle, especially if you farm in hot and humid conditions.

Dairy farming in tropical and subtropical regions has its own problems. These include low milk production and a high death rate among better-known breeds, which can be ascribed to the fact that they haven’t adapted well to areas that have tick-transferable diseases and low-sustenance grazing land.

Farmers who intend going into dairy farming also believe they won’t be able to cope without cooling facilities and milking machines. Another notion is that you have to farm breeds that give a lot of milk, such as Jerseys and Holsteins.

Such impressions lead prospective dairymen to the mistaken belief that they simply cannot afford capital investment on such a scale, even if only for a small dairy.


A lot of possibilities present themselves, however, if milking is done by hand. It also makes more sense to farm well-adapted cross-breeds, rather than traditional milking breeds, when you live in the hot, humid conditions.

Trials were conducted at Makhathini research station in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province to select an alternative for the Nguni, which has very low milk production, and for milk breeds which failed to adapt to these parts. The research team set out to develop a type of cow that would be able to feed her own calf and produce an extra four litres of milk on top of that.

To reach their goal they used Ngunis and Jerseys in a cross-breeding programme, in order to combine the superior milk production of the Jersey with the adaptability and hardiness of the Nguni.

At first, milking machines were used to empty the udders of cross-bred animals, but this led to problems such as cows that would not give milk at all, or others, with a potential of 8 litres a day, that only released 100 ml. Ngunis showed an even worse reaction.


Such disappointing results called for corrective measures. The cross-bred animals and Ngunis were then milked by hand once a day. Calves were present during the milking process. The person who did the milking merely had to teach the calf to suck.

This method led to a remarkable improvement in milk production. Cows were separated from their calves during the night and got milked in the morning. Calves were then allowed unrestricted access to their mothers’ milk for the rest of the day. This approach ensured that the cow reached her full milking potential in the morning, instead of in the evening.

The Nguni cows and their calves responded well to this method. When having one milking session per day cows produced an average of 4.4 litres – excluding the milk drunk by calves – over a lactation period of 128 days.

The cross-bred cows showed a potentially higher daily production of 8 litres per cow. Lactation also lasted longer than those of the Ngunis. This eventually led to their being milked twice a day.

Calves were only allowed to suckle for an hour after each milking session, giving them a daily total of two hours’ access to their mothers’ milk. The pattern led to a significant increase in milk production.

In these circumstances it became necessary to monitor the calf’s growth. It is important that the farmer remain aware of the competition between the calf’s needs and milking the cow. It was found that calves from cows that gave less milk needed supplementary feeding to maintain normal growth rate.

It is important to prevent the cow’s being covered by the bull during these times of a single milking per day, as this will lead to a shorter lactation period and much lower milk production. On the other hand, it must also be kept in mind that lactation should last no longer than 300 days. This calls for close management of the breeding cycle.


In a system where the cow is milked by hand once a day with the calf present, but only allowed limited drinking time, has many advantages:

  • The calf quickly adapts to its environment.
  • It saves the farmer extra costs like feeding and milk supplements for the calf.
  • The presence of the calf makes milking easier.
  • A calf’s sucking helps to prevent mastitis.
  • Starting a dairy this way is relatively inexpensive, as no building or machinery are needed.

Farmers should, however, always bear the following in mind:

  • The number of cows will be limited by the availability of grazing.
  • Trees and shrubs also form an important component of the ration for Ngunis and Nguni cross-breeds.
  • And remember you need at least 4 ha to 5 ha of land per animal (450 kg) in semi-arid areas over the period of 12 months.
  • Only a certain number of cows can be hand-milked if the system is to remain economically viable.
  • It’s time-consuming, especially if you milk twice a day and also have to allow for time to handle the calves.
  • It is suggested that a maximum of 10 lactating cows be milked in this way.
  • There is no guarantee that your country’s National Department of Health will approve milking by hand.
  • Such milk will be for own consumption.

Also read: How to run a dairy farm

  • This article was written by Peter Oosthuizen and first appeared in Farming SA.

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