ANALYSIS – Tropical dairy production is expanding rapidly but key improvements in farm management are required for small holders to become more profitable.
Forage is at the heart of this, says Dr John Moran, a dairy nutritionist and consultant across South East Asia for the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Other factors are heat stress and fertility, but the fundamental issue is feeding and getting farmers to appreciate the link between feed management and milk production.
Dairy farming is relatively new in many tropical regions, he explains. “Its only really been around some of these countries for just twenty to thirty years – here the milk that people traditionally drink is coconut milk while farmers have traditionally grown rice and other crops.”
Highly fibrous tropical grasses grow fast in countries like Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia but offer substandard feeding values compared to forages grown in temperate areas.
Harvested from roadsides and paddy field margins, the often zero-grazing systems see feed brought to cows in tie-stalls. Land is expensive, labour is cheap and space is at a premium.
“Having lots of fibre reduces the appetite of the cow,” explains Dr Moran, who is striving to get Friesian type herds of two to five milking cows to reach their potential of 15 to 20 litres of milk per day.
“In Myanmar cows achieve something like four to six litres of milk per day - genetically the animals can do much more.
“A lot of farmers have little concept of how to product a dairy cow – for milk you need feed.”
Heat Stress, Appetite and Fertility
Another issue is heat stress and the provision of water. Dr Moran says some farmers don’t realise cows need to be given a lot of water.
Friesians are the breed of choice in this region, which Dr Moran questions because Jersey crosses rate better for fertility and heat tolerance.
“There’s often very little running water available so farms need to make trips to wells or dams,” he adds. “In itself, water availability isn’t an issue, there is high rainfall but there are dry seasons too.
“An average Indonesian cow does 10 litres per day, genetically these animals can do more but they aren’t fed and watered properly and suffer heat stress.”
Forages are brought to the cows and concentrates are supplemented. Depending on location, concentrates are byproducts from the food industry like soybean meal, coconut meal and cassava residues.
Eight Golden Rules
Travelling the tropical region, Dr Moran imparts advice to farmers. His book “Cow Talk” is specifically written for the Asian small holder dairy farmer and details cow behaviour and comfort.
He uses key performance indicators to make sense of herd performance, no matter how small the farm.
Two particularly useful metrics are percentage of cows getting pregnant within 100 days of calving and an average for number of days in milk for the average herd.
These help flag the many farms in the region with difficulties around fertility, says Dr Moran.
“Looking at the number of cows pregnant within 100 days of calving is a good measure,” he explains. “It provides a picture of how the farmer is feeding the fresh cow to produce milk and to start cycling again.”
Another metric is the days in milk across the average herd, which should ideally be around 150 days in any year round production system.
Due to poor feed management, many cows have short lactations, say 200 to 250 days not the normal 300 days. Dr Moran prescribes a 150 average for days in milk as a goal for his farmers to work towards.
“If you have a 230 days in milk average this tells you fertility is poor and cows aren’t getting pregnant.”
Demand for dairy products has gone up very quickly in the area and is outstripping domestic supplies in many of the areas Dr Moran works. He says school milk programmes are encouraging children to drink more milk, giving farms a reason to expand.
And while large, high yielding farms can be successfully established in tropical areas, small holder farmers have a big part to play.
He sees a consultant’s role in tropical systems as one of tailoring research specifically to the needs of local, developing areas.
Photographs courtesy of Dr John Moran, Profitable Dairy Systems