Livestock Research for Rural Development 21 (11) 2009 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD News

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Milk production and composition of dairy cows raised under landless small scale dairy system in Tunisia

M Ben Salem and R Bouraoui*

INRA Tunisia, Laboratory of Forage and Animal Productions, rue Hédi Karray, 2049 Ariana, Tunisia
* ESA Mateur, 7030 Mateur, Tunisia


To meet the population demand for dairy products, Tunisia has always given high priority to the development of local dairy production. This resulted in the emergence of a new landless small scale dairy cattle system in many parts of the country not traditionally known for dairying. Such system showed a strong development over the last two decades despite the fact that almost all the feed comes from outside the farm. However, with recent continuous increases in concentrate feed prices the profitability and the sustainability of this system became the topic of current debates raising the need for its close investigation particularly in the absence of research studies.


The objective of this work is to analyze the production potential of the landless dairy production system and to review its prospects in terms of its durability and contribution to the sustainable rural development in connection with current issues resulting from increases in livestock feed prices on the international market. Comprehensive surveys covering as many areas of a dairy operation which would be of utmost use in describing and analyzing the production systems were conducted. A total of 220 producers in 3 different zones were studied.


Results showed production performances well below the animal’s genetic potential and a low product quality due to inadequate feeding management. In the future, the durability of the production system as well as its capacity to contribute to the sustainable rural development depends on the ability of the farmers to improve their production efficiency and on the local policy of milk pricing.

Key words: dairy system, production, milk composition, small scale


Like in most developing countries, dairy farming in Tunisia is generally carried out at the smallholder level. More than eighty per cent (81%) of dairy producers have less than 5 cows and half of them have a farm size less than 5 hectares (Ministry of Agriculture 2008). Such sector has always been given a high priority to increase the domestic production of milk, raise small holders’ income and improve their livelihood while meeting the rising demand of the population for fluid milk and dairy products. This has resulted in the emergence of a recent landless dairy cattle production system in different parts of the country not traditionally known for dairying. Such system showed a strong development over the last two decades despite the fact that it is mainly based on concentrate feeds. However, with recent continuous increases in concentrate feed prices the profitability and the sustainability of this system became the topic of current debates raising the need for its close investigation in view of lack of research studies dealing with this type of production system. The objective of this work is to characterize the small scale landless dairy production system in Tunisia, examine its productivity and discuss its prospects in terms of its durability and contribution to the total domestic production of milk given the current increases in the price of livestock feeds.


Materials and methods 

Dairy survey


A comprehensive dairy survey was developed and conducted to collect herd data on small scale dairy farms based on a structured questionnaire. It was organized into three major parts. Part one involves questions related to the farm (location, size, land tenure, major activity, soil occupation, cropping, etc.) and the farmers itself (age, level of education, farming experience, outside job, etc.). Questions in part two deal with dairying (herd size, lactating, cow, herd management, feeding practices, cow diets, production level, forage quality, milk composition, etc.). The last part of the survey addresses questions related to major constraints encountered by the farmers and to the prospects of the dairying activity as seen by the farmers. A total of 220 farmers located in the regions of Nabeul (N= 70), Sousse (N= 60) and Sfax (N= 90) were covered by the survey. These regions contribute significantly to domestic milk production and constitute representative samples of the small scale dairy production system in the country. Selected herds were near milk collection centers to facilitate milk samples collection and analysis. They have herd sizes ranging between 1 and 20 dairy cows and farm size varying between 0 and 25 ha. Morover, farmers can be classified as exclusive dairy farmers as crop production within these farms is uncommon and most of the grains used in animal feeding is purchased.


In addition to farm description, the survey addressed the following major aspects of the dairy operation:

- Feeding practices in terms of grain and forage types used in cow feeding as well as the methods of their allocation.

- Management practices commonly in use, such as cow grouping, health programs, etc.

- Milk production and composition

- Major limiting constraints and problems

It was felt that a comprehensive survey covering, as many areas of a dairy operation would be so important for characterizing the production system, discussing its performances and identifying its major constraints. An effort was thus made to list in the survey questionnaire as many of the answer options as possible that would be considered by the producers.


Milk sample collection and analysis


In parallel to farm surveys, and in addition to milk production and composition data collected the day of the survey, test-day milk records and milk samples were collected regularly by the research team every two weeks. A total of 6 test-day records and 6 milk samples were collected from each herd. Milk samples were analyzed for crude protein (Kjeldahl method), fat contents (Gerber method) and for total solids by drying in oven at 110°C for 24 h.


Data processing and statistical analysis


All survey and milk composition data were first edited so that only herds with complete information were included in the analysis. The major studied parameters were milk production per cow, milk fat and protein contents, milk total solids, forage proportion in the diet, daily concentrate per cow, total farm size. Calculated and measured parameters were used as is whereas specific codes were adopted for qualitative ones. Data were then subject to statistical analysis using SAS (1996). First, a simple analysis (mean, standard error, frequency) was carried out. Then an analysis of variance was performed to identify the major sources of variation for milk production and composition. Means were compared using the test of Duncan, with α =0.05.


Results and discussions 

Survey data revealed that average herd and farm sizes are respectively 4.3 cows and 1.4 ha, that is about 0.3 ha per cow. This confirms the landless small scale type of the investigated farms and production system. It is commonly classified as the “hors sol” system, a classification which is too close to those proposed by the FAO (1989, 1995). It also agrees with reports made by Guellouz et al (2003) and Lahmar et al (2003).


Average milk yield for all studied dairy farms is 4662 kg/cow/year with a standard deviation of 1068 (table 1). Such production level is greater than the national average of 4100 kg reported for all breeds confounded, but much lower than the average of  5517 kg reported for controlled Holstein cows (10% of the total herd size) under the national dairy herd recording program (Office of Livestock and Pasture 2008). The relatively high standard deviation indicates large differences between herds, which could be largely attributed to differences in feed resources, dairying skills and management and feeding strategies. Indeed, surveys indicated that 43% of the farmers received no education and nearly half of them have an external job. This means that not only most of the farmers are not skillful in terms of Holstein cattle management, but also do not devote enough time for managing their cows.

Table 1.  Number of observations, mean and standard deviation for milk yield, fat, protein and total solids  for all herds







Milk, kg/cow/year






Fat, %






Protein, %






Total solids, %






Solids non fat, %






* Number of cows

Data in table 1 also show that, under the conditions of this production system, contents of milk fat, protein and total solids are low given the Holstein breed standards for milk fat and proteins. Average respective values were 3.1, 2.89 and 11.4%. These values are lower than the national averages of 3.6 and 3.15% reported respectively for milk fat and protein of Holstein cows under the National recording system and raised according to conventional production systems (Office of Livestock and Pasture 2008). The lower fat content is the result of the low forage proportion (40%) in the total diet. The average forage to concentrate ratio was 42%, with a wide variation going from 26 in Sfax to 58% in Sousse. More over, the lower frequency of concentrate meals per day (barely 2) despite the important quantity per cow per day (8kg) could have also aggravated the observed milk fat depression. However, the low protein content can be attributed to the low dietary energetic supply. Indeed, forages in the basal diet have low nutritive value and are not adequately supplemented with concentrate feeds compared to the requirements of the cow. The standard deviation observed for milk composition is also important suggesting again differences between farmers in terms of feeding management.


The analysis of variance showed that production region, herd size and feeding conditions (amount and quality of allocated hay and concentrate) were the major factors affecting milk production per cow and contents of milk fat, protein and total solids. Table 2 indicates that average milk production per cow was 5193, 4538 and 4235 kg per year, respectively for Sousse, Sfax and Nabeul. The use of adequate forage quantities as well as of better feeding practices (hay quality and concentrate feeding frequency), explain in part the higher production level in Sousse, compared to other regions. Indeed, the larger farm size in this region allowed more forage cultivation. Milk composition varied between regions, with the milk produced in the region of Sousse being of higher milk fat and protein contents. The lower values observed for milk fat and protein in the regions of Nabeul and Sfax can be attributed to the important daily proportion of concentrate per cow (6 to 8.5 kg) and the low proportion of hay (3.0 kg) as all the forage comes from outside the farm due to the lack of land.

Tableau 2.  Mean for milk yield and milk fat, protein and total solids contents by region


Milk, kg/cow/year

Fat, %

Protein, %

Total solids, %




















a,b,c Means within the same column with different superscripts are different at P< 0.05.

Surveys also showed that, so far, limiting factors for this production system include the low price paid for milk at the farm gate compared to grain and forage prices, the lack of cultivable land, and the difficulties in acquiring feed ingredients for on farm concentrate formulation. However, the paid price for milk has become nowadays the major limiting factor for farmers’ profitability and the system durability because of the substantial increases observed in the prices of concentrate feeds, mostly imported from outside the country, while milk price has remained relatively steady. Our calculations show that the mean ratio of milk/concentrate prices decreased from 1.53 in 1996 to nearly 1 in 2008. This not only reduced the farmers’ revenue, but also jeopardized the sustainability of the production system. This calls for the need to improve production efficiency. A better use of available feed resources and improved feeding strategies and management practices will result in a better efficiency and an increased productivity.





FAO 1989 Programme de développement des productions fourragères et de l’élevage en Tunisie, volume 5 et 6, pp 73-81


FAO 1995 Etude de l’impact de la politique agricole sur le secteur bovin laitier.pp 8-66


Gellouz M, Brahmia A and Zitouni B 2003 L’intégration a l’intérieur de la filière lait en Tunisie. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Prospects for a sustainable Dairy Sector in the Mediterranean. EAAP Publication N°99. pp: 146-155


Lahmar M, Bouraoui R, Lachaal L and Toumi J 2003 Charcterisation of milk production systems in Tunisia: the case of the ariana region. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Prospects for a sustainable Dairy Sector in the Mediterranean. EAAP Publication N°99. pp: 188-192


Ministry of Agriculture 2008 The dairy sector in Tunisia: current situation and prospects.


Office of Livestock and Pasture 2008 Technical indicators of animal production in Tunisia.


SAS User’s guide: Statistics, Edition 1996. SAS Inst., Inc., Cary, N.

Received 9 September 2009; Accepted 14 September 2009; Published 1 November 2009

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