How gau rakshaks can derail India’s White Revolution

Rising cow vigilantism will impact not just the meat trade. These could even hurt the dairy industry.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Updated: April 10, 2017 8:11 am
Gau raksha, cow protection, beef ban, cow protection agenda, Panchgavya, Cow science, rural development, A2 type milk, coe diseases, Food Safety Authority, indian express news, indian express opinion As farmers shift even more to buffaloes, gau raksha is likely to only hasten the cow’s marginalisation. (Representational image)

How much of India’s milk today comes from cows?

Out of a total production of 132.64 million tonnes (mt) in 2013-14, excluding milk from goats, 70.44 mt — or 53% — was accounted for by buffaloes. The balance 62.19 mt — or 47% — was from cows. Even within the 62.19 mt, the share of crossbreds — cows containing genetic material of ‘western’ breeds like Holstein Friesian, Jersey and Brown Swiss — was 33.89 mt. Indigenous cattle — the real gau mata — contributed 28.31 mt, or just over a fifth of India’s bovine milk output. This is also consistent with the country’s total population of cattle (i.e. the cow and its progeny) falling from 204.58 million in 1992 to 190.90 million in 2012, even as buffalo numbers have risen from 84.21 million to 108.70 million between these two Livestock Census periods.

Can the reduction in cattle population and lower share of milk from cows, especially native breeds, be ascribed to indiscriminate slaughter, as the gau rakshaks seem to suggest?

It could, in fact, be the other way round. Slaughter bans make it difficult for farmers to dispose of unproductive animals that are giving less milk, or happen to be male. Since these curbs apply only on cattle and not buffaloes — whose meat can be sold and exported freely — farmers prefer rearing the latter. The fact that buffalo milk fetches better prices due to its higher fat (about 7%) and solids-not-fat (9%) content — as against 3.5% and 8.5%, respectively for cow milk — further reinforces this preference.

But how important really is ease of disposal of non-milking animals for the dairy farmer?

A typical crossbred cow, from the time of its birth, takes 17-18 months to come to puberty and be ready for insemination. Adding 9-10 months of pregnancy, it will deliver its first calf and start producing milk at 27-28 months. Subsequent calvings happen every 13-14 months, assuming 3-4 months of post-partum rest and 9-10 months pregnancy. Farmers usually don’t keep a cow beyond 5-6 calvings, when milk yields plummet and the returns do not justify the costs of feeding and maintenance. By this time, the animal would be 7-8 years old and still has another 5-6 years to live. The farmer will obviously want to, then, sell. And the only interested buyer here would be the butcher or the trader supplying to slaughterhouses.

Why can’t he take the animal to a gaushala or pinjrapole (cattle shelters)?

A dairy farmer who has, say, 20 cows would seek to replace 5-6 old animals with new stock every year. It enables him to maintain an optimal herd balance, with the right mix of animals already in-milk, those that are pregnant/dry, and calves or young heifers going to produce in future. Regular herd turnover — disposal of cows past their productive age and induction of fresh milch cattle — is what ensures a certain minimum level of milk sales round the year.

Now, assuming a desired annual herd turnover or replacement rate of 25%, this requirement clearly cannot be met by cow shelters. Gujarat, for instance, had a total of 936 gaushalas and pinjrapoles in 2015-16. Of these, 371 were government-aided and maintaining 247,220 animals. Even taking 6 lakh animals in all the shelters, they are a fraction of the state’s 99.84 lakh cattle population, as per the 2012 Livestock Census. While more such homes could plausibly be built, the question arises: Wouldn’t government money be better spent on schools and hospitals than gaushalas?

So, is culling or selective slaughter the only solution?

It is, perhaps, the only sustainable solution. Farmers today keep cows only for milk. By guaranteeing a market for unproductive cattle — these include male calves, in a world where tractors, electric/diesel tubewells and artificial insemination have made work bullocks and breeding bulls redundant — the ‘Muslim’ butcher is actually providing a valuable service to the ‘Hindu’ dairy farmer.

To what extent will laws like the latest one in Gujarat — providing life sentence for cow slaughter and 10-year term for transportation, storage or sale of beef — spoil this seemingly symbiotic relationship?

It’s not just Gujarat. With Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana also being BJP-ruled states — Karnataka may be next in line — we now have a contiguous stretch where the market for unproductive cattle has or will practically cease to exist. Tough anti-slaughter laws — and, equally important, governments and gau rakshaks determined to implement them — will most certainly throw cattle traders, transporters and butchers out of business. But it would also render cattle rearing increasingly unviable in these 7 states that produce over 56% of the country’s milk. As farmers shift even more to buffaloes, gau raksha is likely to only hasten the cow’s marginalisation.

Should that be a concern for milk production?

Buffaloes, no doubt, give milk with more fat and SNF content. However, milk yields from a good Murrah buffalo over a single lactation cycle of 300-305 days are only about 2,000 litres, compared to 4,000-4,500 litres for crossbreds. Their age of first calving and inter-calving period is also longer, at 44-45 months and 15-16 months, respectively. That makes them similar to indigenous cattle breeds such as Sahiwal, Tharparkar, Gir, Red Sindhi and Kankrej, which again normally yield not more than 2,000-2,500 litres per lactation.

In the long run, milk output can increase only through commercial dairying, wherein farmers keep at least 20 animals that are mostly crossbred cows. This has been the trend even in Gujarat, where average herd sizes are going up and dairying is no longer a subsidiary occupation to regular crop agriculture (See http://bit.ly/2noVG1W). Gau rakshak activism of the kind seen now has the potential to undermine the gains from the White Revolution and the move to commercial dairying. That could, in turn, lead to India becoming a structural importer of milk powder and butter oil, just as it already is in edible oils and pulses.

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