Dairy production: Improve milking with small tweaks

Small-scale farmers own most of Zambia’s cattle but produce only 50% of the country’s milk. Given the value of milk as a food, this seems a pity when it is quite possible to improve milk production, without major capital injections, through small tweaks to management with significant outcomes.

The Zambian National Commercial Bank (Zanaco) in partnership with Rabobank, the Norwegian Investment Fund for developing countries (Norfund) and the Dutch Investment Fund (FMO) has started the loan-a-cow scheme to finance dairy cow purchases. There are funding mechanisms for individual farmers and for groups. The animals act as loan security so farmers do not need title to the land.

Farmers with existing dairy projects are preferred and applicants are performance evaluated by the dairy co-operative. The bank takes monthly repayments, including animal insurance, from the milk cheque over a 36 month repayment period.


Monthly milk incomes, for the developing Zambian dairy farmer, are relatively low at about a 7l/day average. The major cause of this low production is almost certainly a shortage of available feed. While the cows have enough grazing to maintain body condition, their protein and energy intakes increase for milk production.

This is especially true after calving as milk moves towards peak production and cows need to be on a rising plane of nutrition. A freshly calved cow is drawing from her reserves and will be in a state of negative energy balance; she needs more protein and energy from her feed intake.

While it is impractical to take on high feed costs in small systems, budgeting for supplementary feed will pay back handsomely in improved milk volumes.


Make the cow fit the system not the other way round. It is a mistake to underestimate the value of cross-breeding dairy cattle with local breeds. Holstein and Jersey cows originate in Europe where the conditions are entirely different, and where dairy farmers operate high-input systems.

The local cattle, Tonga, Ngoni and Barotse crossed with, for example, New Zealand Jersey or a medium-framed Holstein, could prove a successful low input dairy animal. A crossbred Holstein/Nguni dairy cow has much of the toughness and efficient energy conversion of the Nguni, and even tends to gain too much weight on managed pasture.

A farmer can improve cow quality or fitness for the environment by keeping an eye on individual animal disease resistance, calving ease, temperament, condition maintenance. Cows that succeed despite environmental difficulties are the cows to breed. Large herds of 1 000 cows-in-milk and more need sophisticated computerised herd management systems to log information, but in a small group the stockman’s eye is his most valuable management tool.

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