Caption for the landscape image:

Why knowing your cows’ needs is vital

Scroll down to read the article

A herdsman (not in picture) takes animals to graze in Bugweri District on May 17, 2024. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

Many a time, farmers call wondering why they have problems with their livestock. The question usually comes from people who are new to farming or those who have been in the business for long without seeking professional advice.

Like any other business, livestock farming should be preceded by an understanding of the venture. Even if one is keeping animals for their sentimental value or personal gratification, understanding their needs and best practices saves the owner lots of headaches.

While attending the Seeds of Gold Farm Clinic, a livestock farmer said every time he visited his dairy farm with his wife, the sight of well-fed cattle and calves generated happiness in the couple. “I believe even my blood pressure goes down,” he said.

Telephone farmer 

Last week, I got a call from Simon, a city telephone farmer. Simon said he had a farm in the village but was having problems with his dairy cattle. He said he fed them heavily but their body condition and production remained poor.

Simon said he had plenty of water and fodder on the farm. Some of his cows died of east coast fever while another was wasting away after delivery. I needed to visit the farm, do an assessment and give him the diagnosis and solutions.

On arriving at the farm, I was impressed by the amount of water available, It was from a nearby permanent stream.

Simon, his wife, their manager Caleb and I toured the farm. They enumerated their challenges as I took notes.

Poor feeding 

I noticed the animals were getting feed quantities below their daily requirements. Second, calves and heifers were being fed the same rations as adults.

This had resulted in stunted growth in some heifers. There were two heifers that at two years old appeared like nine-month-old animals. These would never become productive dairy cattle.

Transmitted by ticks

The best thing would be to fatten and slaughter them for meat. I noticed the nicely built cowsheds but were crawling with small creatures with long legs and flat bodies. Caleb said the creatures always appeared to be heading into the pens, especially at the feeding troughs.

I explained those were ticks in a stage called nymphs. Some cattle had mature ticks around the ears. That explained why they were dying of east coast fever. Some of the animals must have died of other diseases transmitted by ticks such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis called gall sickness and red water respectively.

One cow showed signs of red water. It had a throbbing jugular that pushed the blood all the way up into the edge of the lower jaw.

Normally, it should go up to approximately one third of the neck’s length along the jugular groove. I’d examine it later.

As we passed one pen, I was shown the animal that was wasting away after calving. It was a nice Friesian but I was told it had already dried up milk.


The cow had skin wounds. There was some white material in her urine.

“It has severe uterus infection but I’ll do a full examination later,” I said. Another pen had a heifer that was voiding pelleted faeces instead of the normal dung.

From the cows, we proceeded to the area Simon grew fodder. There was lots of napier grass, desmodium and caliandra. There was also a bit of Lucerne and scanty boma Rhodes grass. The farm was well irrigated and had enough space to grow pasture to sustain a herd of 25 adult cattle.

Desmodium and caliandra fodder was doing well. I told Simon’s team that the fodder was sufficient to keep the animals in top body form but most of it was getting wasted. When caliandra and desmodium overgrow, they form hard woody stems not useful to livestock.

Throbbing jugular

The fodder should be cut when it is leafy and soft. We carried some caliandra leaves and the cows relished eating them. I explained to the farmer how to feed cattle of different ages, ensuring every animal consumed about three per cent of its body weight in dry matter.

For a 500kg cow to get its dry matter requirement from wet napier grass, it should consume about 60kg of fodder a day. That cannot fit in the stomach and would be tedious to the farmer.

It would require large tracts of land to feed one cow. I cleaned the uterus of the wasting cow and gave it antibiotics. I instructed the local paravet to continue treatment for three days. The cow with a throbbing jugular had a pounding heart.

I took a blood smear sample for lab examination. The cow with hard dry pellets turned out interesting.

It was just suffering from water deprivation. The vital parameters were normal but after interviewing the workers, I realised the cow had not drank water for four days. Someone had removed the plastic waterer and forgotten to return it.

The animal drank a lot of water once offered. Back in my office, I diagnosed red water and gall sickness in the cow with the throbbing jugular. I instructed the paravet to treat the cow for the two diseases and it has since recovered.

As I gave the final report of the farm visit to Simon and his wife, they were optimistic that they had started the journey to successfully managing their dairy farm for business and emotional satisfaction