News and knowhow for farmers

Fact Sheet: physical traits of a good dairy cow

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By George Munene

Few Kenyan farmers have access to the milking records and genetic providence of cows theya re looking to purchase, meaning they must rely, largely, on physical features, which can be a fraught affair. But from head to hoof size, there are peculiar considerations across Kenya for picking out the best dairy cows based on observable physical features.

Mr.Nelson Wanjuki is an agribusiness manager and farmer with 18 years of experience managing cattle in Kenya, Botswana and now New Zealand, where he is overseeing a milking herd of 500, and is well acquainted with cow morphology. Here’s his own guide to what are scientifically referred to as Traits Other than Production,(TOP), which are fact-based phenotypic considerations when choosing a dairy cow.

Body Frame

An obvious tell for a poor dairy cow is if it’s boxy and not wedge shaped.

A good dairy cow ought to have wide hindquarters narrowing toward its head. A cow with a blocky frame is a tell that it is more effective at converting feed into fat and muscle than milk.

You shouldn’t take pride in a cow that’s too fat; she’ll have issues when breeding and calving, as well as metabolic complications. She will also feed a lot and not have a commensurate return in production.

Conversely if she’s too skinny, she will eat less, but in turn her production will be lower.The Body Condition Scoring index ranges from 1-7, a good cow ought to be on the 4.5-5 range. 

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Just as there’s no car service that neglects taking a studied look at the undercarriage, the same holds for cows.

Milking cows with pendulous udders ought to be avoided. The udder should be well attached and not sway as a bull’s testicle would. The tits along the udder shouldn’t be too widely or closely placed either as this makes it difficult to attach the title cups used in machine milking.

The median ligament looks like a cross on the udder and compartmentalises it’s four quarters. If it loosens up the udder becomes detached and looks as though it’s hanging off a bowl. The tits on such an udder are hard to attach milking cups on.

This condition is a consequence of genetics; a cow even in its ninth year can suddenly exhibit this malformity.

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They should be moderately sized. If tits are too small or big they make hand milking taxing. This may lead to incomplete milking, which beyond limiting the cow’s earning potential causes mastitis.

For machine milking, the title cups inserted to suction milk may not fit or fall off mid-milking. Also, inspect the cow for any supernumerary tits–any extra tits beyond the usual four. They’re  either on the udder or attached to another tit. This, again, hinders efficient milking.


A cow should have good strong feet and legs that can support its udder.

The hock joint angle shouldn’t be too sharp, neither should it be straight/ bent. It helps the udder be well situated, more importantly it avoids lameness after calving.

In dairy cattle a high and wide udder is prized. Sufficiently raised hook and pin bones allow the cow the required width to effectively hold up the udder. A cow’s rump should be well sloped and wide.

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Rumps of high pin boned cows are too high; this makes them prone to reproductive tract diseases and prolongs the calving process.

At the back of the cow, check that it’s hip bones are well proportioned. If the hips are too narrow the cow will again experience difficulty whilst calving.

Overall, a cow’s body condition is a predictor of both production potential, and longevity. It is also a direct result of how it is managed – health and feeding practices have a bearing on production, genetic makeup notwithstanding.

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