Send a Cow (SAC) was set up by UK dairy farmers over 25 years ago, amid the milk quota crisis of the 1980s. The farmers responded to an appeal from war-torn Uganda, sending their surplus cows to African farmers rather than slaughtering them. Founding farmer and senior programme co-ordinator David Bragg explains how the charity has moved from transporting livestock to breeding in-country, and the process of finding the best breed for African smallholder farmers.

The early days

We realised early on that transporting cattle from the UK to Africa might not be the best option. Although the cows coped fine with air travel, the cost of transportation was considerable. Then the BSE crisis hit, and we moved to sourcing animals exclusively within Africa. All livestock is now sourced in-country.

The first cows that went over were typical of UK stock in the 1980s – mainly British Friesians, with a few Jerseys and Ayrshires as well. These cows did well, but everything pointed towards finding a cow with feed maintenance demands that better matched the small holder African farmer, and the farm’s capacity to produce milk and keep the cows in good reproductive health. We started looking for a more appropriate and better manageable cow.

Trends in milk production 

Over the last 30 years, across the developed world, selective breeding has focussed on dramatically increasing individual cow’s milk production potential. It is now very common for Holsteins to produce 50 litres and more of milk a day which equates to around 10,000 litres per year.

“There is an increasing amount of debate about the role of intensive farming using concentrates and the sustainability of our food system.” 

 To support that, in the West, we have a highly developed cattle feed industry where quality dairy concentrates (mainly grain and soya based) are readily available and comparatively affordable and used to successfully compliment forage feeding. In Africa the concentrates simply aren’t easily affordable, as readily available or of good or consistent enough quality to support the majority of today’s modern Holsteins.

This is borne out in the UK, where farmers have been moving towards using breeds of dairy cattle bred for maximum milk production, such as Holsteins, but these cows are far more demanding both in management and in the quality and quantity of forage and the concentrates needed to support forage feeding for optimal milk production and health. In Africa we found that Holsteins are so demanding in terms of maintenance that they’re no longer appropriate.

The best cow for smallholder farmers

In Africa wherever Artificial Insemination is available, there tends to be the perception that the Holstein is the answer, but SAC is convinced from practical experience that something less genetically high-powered is far more appropriate. Recent research carried out by the Nairobi, Kenya based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is strongly backing this up and SAC is now working with ILRI to turn their research into practical advice and training for small holder farmers.

In East Africa most of the farming families SAC are working with are capable of supporting a dairy cow, but only have between two and five acres of land from which they need to produce family food as well as forage for their cow.

We are seeking a cow that matches the farmer’s farm’s capacity to feed their cows a predominantly home grown forage-based diet.  This requires a cow capable of producing in the region of 20 - 25 litres of milk a day at best, which equates to around 4000 litres per year. Holsteins under this type of management struggle to keep up milk production, maintain good condition, reproduce effectively and are likely to become more disease prone.

Red breeds for health and productivity

Breeding cross-bred cows focusing on the ‘red breeds’ such as the Jersey, Ayrshire and where available, the Guernsey and with some local breed input gives much better results. These cows can produce 20-25 litres of milk a day, and are well suited to the local environment. Heat stress is not an issue where SAC is working but it is generally accepted that Jerseys, Ayrshires and Guernseys thrive better in heat than Holsteins.

“We are seeking a cow that matches the farmer’s farm’s capacity to feed their cows a predominantly home grown forage-based diet.” 

In general cow confirmation characteristics, what African farmers look for is what all farmers want from their cows: good legs and feet, good udders and teats etc. But the farmers on our programmes may have a different requirement for teats for instance, as hand milking is easier with larger teats. While Western farmers have been moving towards teats better shaped for machine milking.

Learning from Africa?

There is an increasing amount of debate about the role of intensive farming using concentrates and the sustainability of our food system. Many farmers in the ‘West’ are moving to the idea of breeding cows more appropriate for milk production from forage – maybe they could learn a thing or two with African farmers!