Improving milk production in Nguni cattle

Nguni stud breeder, Dr Paul Meulenbeld, explains how to improve the breed’s milk production.

Improving milk production in Nguni cattle
High blood urea and rumen ammonia levels mean that Nguni cattle can utilise and convert low quality forage into protein. Naturally hardy, Ngunis thrive on veld grazing, although this group is grazing a kikuyu pasture.
Photo: David Olsen

The Nguni cattle breed is well known in Southern Africa and easily distinguished from other breeds by its distinctively pigmented hide and variety of coat colours. Also characteristic of the Nguni are the traits of adaptability, fertility, cow productivity, good temperament, calving ease, tolerance to parasites and disease, meat quality and hide quality.

Its blood urea and rumen ammonia levels, higher than in any other breed, improve the ability of these cattle to utilise and convert low quality forage. The Nguni is a highly suitable dam line for cross-breeding and a contributor to sustainable farming.

Unfortunately, milk production is now seen to be of lesser value in the breed. This neglects the Nguni’s historic value in sustaining the diverse needs – consumptive, spiritual and cultural – of tribal people on communal land.

Today, attention is given to appearance, feeding and coat colour, traits based on subjective human appraisal with limited production value for Nguni cattle or for the survival of the breed.

Wrong practice

Current Nguni stud breeding practices often favour the interests of individuals, rather than focusing on the breed. Cattle are fed up for stud sales to boost prices favouring the seller, but to the detriment of the animal, its inherent traits and the buyer.  When Ngunis are fed over a period of time, they lose some of their phenotypic fitness.

Traits that give the Nguni a competitive advantage over other breeds may be forfeited and it could then become more profitable to farm cattle that are bred for more intensive systems. Relatively few Nguni breeders participate in performance testing so that EBVs are seldom quoted in sales catalogues or, when given, have a low level of accuracy.

Nguni Traits

After years of breeding, milk production is a neglected value in most registered Nguni herds. This is especially from 1990 onwards, the year set as the baseline for genetic comparison. An estimated breeding value (EBV) in Best Linear Unbiased Prediction (BLUP) analysis of 0 is set. An increasing EBV value indicates an improvement or a decline, depending on the characteristics of the trait involved. For example, an increase in birth weight EBV may indicate a decrease in calving ease (or an increase in calving problems) and is thus undesirable.

On the other hand, an increase in the maternal weaning weight EBV is an indication of larger calves being weaned because of increased milk production. The BLUP analysis of the Wilgerant Stud herd, that had participated in performance testing for the previous 15 years, was used to qualify the herd as an Mpumalanga finalist in the ABSA-ARC Best Improvement Herd of the Year in 2011.

In the Wilgerant herd, the milk trait improved from below average in 1997, when the performance test started, to about six times better than the average for the breed in 2012 (See Figure 1). The value of the trait was recognised and restored.


Milk production EBVs (expressed in kg) for the Nguni breed and the Wilgerant herd respectively.

Production records

It is valid to question the importance of milk production in the Nguni cow, which is not a recognised dairy breed. The answer is that the Nguni could be to the indigenous people of Southern Africa what the Braunvieh/Brown Swiss is to Alpine dwellers. Scientific articles written in the past illustrate the worth of the Nguni cow as a milk producer. In the Nguni gene pool, with the absence of performance testing and with misplaced selection and breeding, the trait for milk production came off second best.

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Research by Bonsma and Brown during the 1950s at the Mpisi Research Station in Swaziland and at Bartlow Combine Farm and the surrounding areas near Hluhluwe in Zululand, found that the Nguni could milk between 1,2l and 8l a day off veld with no supplements.

Depending on the season and the quality of available forage, higher yields were recorded. Milk analysis showed a value of 4,4% mean butterfat content (up to 6,6% was recorded in the Loskop herd in Groblersdal) and 9,2% milk solids (excluding butterfat).

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At the time of the research, more than 250 000kg of cream from Nguni milk was collected annually to produce butter for markets in Johannesburg and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo).

The big picture

Selecting for a positive milk trait, while fulfilling the required and indicated Nguni traits, requires a paradigm shift in modern cattle selection and trading methods.

Bull selection is crucial, as the bull defines 50% of the genetic make-up of a herd. A cow’s genetic input, confined to her own offspring, can be less than 5% of the total, in an average herd. The animal is phenotypically defined by both genetics and the environment. Selection must be based on these two factors only.

The genetic composition is inherited; the environment is given, but is also defined by farming practices (intensive or extensive). BLUP data is a selection tool only and the animal must also be visually evaluated. Environmental and genetic selection should be conducted on the owner’s farm to obtain an overall impression of the herd, estimate its average productive traits, conceptualise the management (environmental) practices, obtain pedigree information and evaluate the dams and the herd sires and their offspring.

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This information is seldom available at a stud sale but is vitally important. There is less stress and a lower disease threat, when animals are bought directly from the farm of the breeder. Research has shown that it can take animals more than five years to adapt to a changed environment.

Herd improvement

The average weaning weights of the Wilgerant Nguni Stud herd are higher than the breed average. The intercalving period (ICP) of 360 days is an indicator of the high production performances that can be achieved.

To reach a 600% improvement in milk yield, a strict selection process was followed. Herd sires came from the herds of stud breeders with strong links to the Swazi and Bartlow Combine Nguni herds that had been researched in the 1950s.

Cows were selected on their production record in tribal areas. To obtain milk for household use, calves are kept from suckling at night and only allowed to suck at milking time as this stimulates the release of milk, a well- documented procedure with Nguni cows.


This Swazi bull had an EBV of +2,5(kg) for milk production with an accuracy of 71%.

Learning from history

As President Paul Kruger once said, “Look to the past for all the good and beautiful that can be discovered in it, create therein your ideal and try to realise that ideal in the future.” Using historical research records and acquiring some insight into the tribal life of Southern Africa can help interested breeders breed genetic strength back into this unique indigenous breed.

The genetic milk potential of the Nguni can be restored to high levels by applying BLUP and the pedigree record. Wisely selecting stock in the home environment and maintaining the same kind of environment ensures continued adaptability and fitness.

Phone Paul Meulenbeld at [email protected]

This article was originally published in the 05 April 2013 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.