Raising cattle for milk production requires close attention to breeding them so that they produce the most milk possible. This will require some planning, close observation and recording of matings and regular recording of the daily milk production of all of the cows in the herd. A suitable recording sheet for recording the reproductive activity of cattle is included in this publication.

Heifers of the small, local cattle breed should be able to be mated at about 200 kg. and calve at about 350 kg.. Heavier breeds such as Friesians, should first join at about 270 kg. and calve when they weigh 450 kg.

There are four important considerations in breeding for milk production.

Selecting the best cows

Selecting the best bull

Calf castration and selecting the best replacement bulls and heifers.

Achieving the best breeding efficiency.

6.1 Selecting the Cow

All cows can produce some milk. This is usually too little to be worth collecting for sale, although it may be enough for family consumption. There are some dairy bred cows and cross bred dairy cows (for instance Friesian and Shorthorn breeds) to be found in smallholder beef herds, this are often the descendants of cattle introduced by church missions for their own dairy herds. These can produce more milk than average cattle. They should be selected as the nucleus for starting a dairy herd. If you have this cattle type already, you can either begin to produce milk from them by feeding them better and using them as the beginning of a dairy herd and keeping them until they are replaced by better milk producing heifers or cows. Then these older, starting animals should be sold. There is a classical description of the triangle-shaped dairy cow which can be used for selection if there are enough dairy heifers around for you to choose. The best heifers and cows for you to start with are those which are quiet in temperament and which have some evidence of dairy blood. If there are none of these, start with quiet local animals with a history of successful breeding, and use a dairy bull over them to produce upgraded offspring.


Figure 6. This is a good type of dairy cow. Note the triangular shape and straight topline of the body, the small, refined head, large udder and milk veins and well spaced teats.

Thus the long term plan should be to replace the original cows with heifers better bred for milk production. Such heifers can be produced from these cows by breeding them to a good, dairy type bull.

To start a dairy herd, the first cows should have these characteristics:

be of obvious dairy stock i.e. crossbreeds,

preferably already having calved and therefore demonstrating that they can produce


have a good udder and teats

have a quiet and handleable temperament

be as close as possible in shape and appearance to the cow in the photograph above.

6.2 Selecting the Bull

The bulls which are generally available on most small farms are unlikely to be useful for upgrading your present cows for dairy production. The safest and most efficient way to obtain a breeding bull is to sell (or castrate) all of the existing bulls on your farm, and replace them with a good dairy type bull from a respected private, school, church or government breeding farm, If you can not get a pure-bred, you should use one which has at least half dairy blood. In this way you can be assured that his daughters will be superior in milk production to any animals that you already have, or that can be fathered by any other bulls in your neighbourhood.

You should be able to produce two calves fathered by this bull from any of your mature cows before he is sold, when he should be sold or traded to another farmer after three years to prevent him mating his own daughters. Keeping him longer so that he sires offspring from his daughters may result in those offspring having defects which make them unhealthy or unsuitable for production. if you have a choice of bull breed from the farms, it would be better to alternate the breed each time you buy a new bull, because same-breed bulls from the small herds on the farms in Island countries may be too closely related for you to buy unrelated bulls of the same breed every time.


Besides increasing the milk production characteristics of their daughters, most dairy type bulls will also throw excellent beef type calves. In addition to gaining the advantage of milk production from the daughters, a dairy bull will also increase the carcass value of the cattle you sell for beef.

In selecting and using a dairy breeding bull, you should:

select a good bull from a known source (a government breeding farm),

make sure he is sound, not lame and can serve properly,

castrate all other bulls you have,

prevent outside bulls from coming onto your farm and mating with your cows,

do not allow the bull to mate with his daughters and replace him after about three years,

select a replacement bull of a different breed [if available],

6.3 Organising the Mating

You can num the bull with the cows and heifers all year round. This will simplify' your management, BUT:

your cows will produce calves all year round and some will calve during the season when the feed is of poor quality and so will probably not milk well without being fed concentrates, and,

you will probably not know when each cow was mated, so you will not know when she will calve, nor will you know whether she is pregnant or not until she is almost ready to calve. This means that if there is something wrong with her (or the bull) you might not know until almost a year later,

If you are on the farm all the time or you have good helpers who are observant and interested, it is better to keep the bull confined in a small bull paddock, and detect the cows which are ready to be mated by observing the cows and heifers every day to see if they show signs of oestrus. Cows which are seen to be in oestrus can then be taken to the bull and the mating observed and recorded. The advantages of this breeding system are:

you can take good care of the bull and make sure he doesn't become injured in the field. He is also quieter and much more easy to manage,

you will know if a cow is showing breeding activity and you know the breeding dates if she is joined. From this you can predict her calving date, thus,

you can keep accurate records,

you can anticipate her next mating time and be ready to join her again if she does not conceive the first time,

you can quickly tell if you have a problem in the herd if cows continually return to the bull for several months without becoming pregnant,

you can quickly identify cows or heifers which have reproductive problems

The disadvantage of this system is:

you need a separate pen for the bull

you must observe the cows and heifers every day







6.4 Signs of Oestrus

If your cattle are quiet and easy to handle (and all dairy cows and bulls on small farms should be), you can take the cow to the bull and leave her loose in the bull paddock, or you can tie her up to a tree with a rope or halter, and lead the bull to her and allow him to mount. You will know she is ready to be mated when she shows:

bellowing and perhaps walking up and down a fence line,

streams of clear mucus coming from the vulva,

mounting or mounted by other cows,

if she is running with other cows, her tail may be slightly raised and the hair on the top of the base of the tail may be roughened and standing up,

if she is milking, her milk production may suddenly fall a little.

Heifers may not show these oestrus signs as strongly as cows. So it is preferable to keep heifers and cows separate, and introduce the bull to the heifer paddock every day after the time when you think they are old and big enough to mate. You should then record any matings that occur. Often if the heifers are old and big enough to mate but for some reason are not showing signs of oestrus, the presence or sight of a bull will cause them to come into oestrus a few days later.

So keeping the heifers within sight of the bull can be useful, provided your fences are good.

Keeping heifers and cows separate until the heifers enter the milking herd is an important principle, as mature cows will dominate the younger ones, often leading to a loss of weight and delayed breeding activity. Join heifers to the main herd of mature cows only after they have calved.

Oestrus occurs every 18-21 days and lasts for about 18 hours. A cow or heifer will continue to come into oestrus every 18-21 days until she is successfully mated and becomes pregnant. If you see a cow in oestrus in the morning, it is best to have her mated to the bull at that time, and again in the afternoon of the same day. Once a cow becomes pregnant she will not usually come again into oestrus until after she has calved. A very small percentage of heifers will come into oestrus and accept the bull even though they are already pregnant, but this characteristic is not particularly important, particularly if you keep good records.