Most dairies start out by buying a few dairy cows. The place where the cows are purchased and the quality of the animals vary, depending on the amount of money available and the future vision of the prospective dairy farmer.

Lees dit in Afrikaans.

Cows are purchased at annual production or stud animal auctions and herd sales. Cows are also often bought from a neighbouring milk producer. Buyers who buy cows directly from the seller, must consider their purchase very carefully because cull cows are often sold this way.

For most new milk producers, it is not always financially feasible to buy cows at stud animal auctions. Although prices may be lower, auctions for slaughter animals are not a good place to buy cows. Cull cows do, however, have different grades, namely those that are still useful as dairy cows, and those that are destined for the abattoir.

Risks involved in cow-buying

Buying dairy cows is a risk for both parties due to different management styles on farms. Cows may produce less than catalogue figures state because diets differ. The seller also has little control over what happens after the cows have been sold. For example, cows may contract mastitis on the new farm or pregnant cows may abort due to the stress of moving and the new management conditions.

Recently, an unfortunate story was shared on the Facebook page Melkboere Gesels about someone who bought a cow intending to expand her dairy and to process milk herself. The views of several of the individuals who partook in this conversation are shared here, and suggestions are made on how to avoid such situations.

Dream cow turns into a nightmare

Tanya Malan describes how she bought a registered Jersey cow from a ‘renowned’ milk producer. She was informed that the four- to five-year-old cow’s milk production had previously been 32 litres a day. “I was really excited because I finally had a high-quality stud cow – my dream cow,” says Tanya.

When the cow was picked up, it was mentioned in passing that one of her quarters had been dried off because of a high somatic cell count. The cow was fresh and only four days in milk. The seller assured Tanya that this would not affect her milk production.

“I referred to it as mastitis, but he corrected me immediately and said the cow did not have mastitis,” says Tanya. “Although I was unhappy because he didn’t disclose this to me beforehand, I was satisfied with his explanations. He said she was healthy, didn’t have mastitis and would still be able to give 32 litres a day.”

Back home Tanya immediately tried to milk the cow. “When I stripped the first teat, I saw there was trouble. No milk came out, only white pieces. I took her temperature and it was 39,8°C.”

Tanya spoke to the farmer who said that it sounded like mastitis and that she should treat the cow. He added that she needn’t be too worried, because his other cows also contracted it from time to time. She expressed her unhappiness and asked him to explain the difference between a high somatic cell count and mastitis.

“I couldn’t take her back because her transport had already cost me more than R2 000. I would also have had to rent a driver and a trailer again. I considered slaughtering her, after which he offered to repay me R1 000. He believed I would get my money back if I were to slaughter the cow.

“This gave me no joy and I told him that I wanted the difference between the original purchase price and the slaughter price to be paid back to me. He left my request unanswered but said I should give her another chance. Afterwards, he blocked my calls and hasn’t answered my calls or messages since,” she says. “What am I supposed to do?”

Beware of a three-teat cow

Casper Labuschagne warns that buying a three-teat cow is a sure sign of previous problems. He recommends buying in-calf heifers as far as possible. “My suggestion is that the seller of the cow should be taken on. He should pay the balance between the slaughter price and the price paid for the cow.”

Chris de Wet agrees that Tanya bought a cull cow. “You must insist that he takes back the cow at his expense and repays your purchase price, transport and medicine costs. People such as these give producers a bad name. Don’t let him dampen your enthusiasm for your dairy.”

Koos Coetzee suggests that people get expert advice from a veterinarian before they buy cows.

Mia Swanepoel believes the milk producer in question is definitely not honest. “I wonder what can be done legally to protect the buyer. Approach a lawyer.”

Chris de Wet agrees. “My experience with this kind of behaviour is to immediately give instructions to a lawyer. The man will only keep avoiding you.”

Buy from well-known producers

Marthinus Erasmus suggests that the cow be slaughtered. Tanya should insist that the seller repays the balance. “In future, buy cows from your neighbour, someone you know, or buy through an agent who guarantees your product.”

Morné Kleyn suggests that people who want to buy cows find someone who can advise them and who can examine the cows. He is available for this service, provided his transport costs are paid.

Magiel Fourie also complains about the many lies told about the pregnancy status and milk production of cows. He mentions that he bought cows a while back that were specifically selected to calve in his herd from March. The seller confirmed that the cows had been bred and were in calf but two of the cows recently showed signs of oestrus, which means they are not pregnant.

Marthinus Erasmus agrees that milk producers only get rid of cows in two ways – they sell the ‘passengers’ (less productive cows) or they sell their herd because milking has been suspended. He doesn’t know of any milk producers who sell their best animals directly to buyers.

Tanya Malan says: “That’s what happens if you believe the best of someone.”

Buyers should be wary

This is a timely warning about buying cows and other animals. Circumstances, from marketing to purchasing and using a product, can change very quickly.

The best auctions are those held under the auspices of a breed society, such as production or sale auctions. This means the animals have accurate pedigree records and a veterinarian usually submits a report on the health condition of the cows available at the auction. If the herd participated in the official milk recording scheme, information on their genetic merit will also be available.

Buying cows poses a risk due to the different management and production conditions on dairy farms. Someone who is unable to evaluate cows based on their conformation and production records, should preferably get help. Cows must be carefully selected even when they are purchased at stud animal auctions. For example, the identity of cows must be confirmed beforehand. Registered Holstein cows are identified by their colour patterns, while there should be an official tattoo in a Jersey cow’s ear.

Which cows to buy

Dairy cows are in one of two production phases – in milk (lactating) or dry (not in milk). When buying dry cows, they must be pregnant. The seller must know the expected calving date. Ask for a veterinary report confirming that the cow is in calf. At production auctions there is usually a veterinary report indicating the date on which the cows were examined and whether they were confirmed in calf or not. However, embryos may be resorbed for a multitude of reasons, in which case the pregnancy would be lost.

The cows should be physically examined. This includes looking at the legs, hoofs, udder, teats and body condition. The tips of the teats should be examined for injuries, usually caused by over-milking.

The udder must be examined by hand for killed quarters, swelling or lumps, which is an indication of previous mastitis cases. The skin of the udder should be supple, with a silky feel. The udder should not be too large and must be firmly attached to the body with strong attachment ligaments. Examinations also give a good indication of an animal’s temperament.

Look at milk production

The purchase prices of pregnant heifers may be lower than those of dairy cows. Be cautious, as their milk production potential is not known. This is particularly important if the herd does not participate in the official milk recording scheme.

Buying pregnant heifers has advantages for beginner farmers – they can get used to the daily feeding and managing of animals before the actual milk production phase begins. It also ensures a longer production life.

If more funds are available, first or second lactation cows with high genetic merit can be bought. Cows usually have fewer calving problems than heifers.

Cows or heifers should preferably be purchased from a well-established dairy herd. It is sensible to buy cows from a dairy farmer who participates in the national milk recording scheme. This scheme provides the genetic and production information of all cows, heifers and bulls in a dairy herd. Dairy cows can also be purchased from livestock auctions. Stay away from buying cows where there is no information available and do not buy cows on the Internet.

For more information, send an email to Dr Carel Muller at – Dr Carel Muller, research associate, Stellenbosch University.