Livestock economics: No more cows to come home for these farmers

Punjab’s unique cattle breeding-cum-milk sale dairying model is under threat from gau rakshak activism and the Centre’s new animal trading rules. Randhawa and Gill are amongst Punjab’s many dairy farmers who have made the state into a major supplier of not just milk, but also milch animals.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Gurdaspur (punjab) | Published: June 29, 2017 3:07:42 am
cow slaughter, cow, cattle sale, Punjab dairy, Punjab cow slaugter, Punjab cattle trade, farmers, punjab farmers, Inderjit Singh Randhawa at his dairy farm in Basrai village of Punjab’s Gurdaspur district. (Source: Express photo by Anju Agnihotri Chaba)

“When there’s no land in our name, how would we now buy or sell cattle? Are they saying we can no longer go to the pashu mandi (animal market),” asks Inderjit Singh Randhawa, the hurt in his voice obvious.

Dairy farmers like him are likely to be impacted by the Union Environment Ministry’s May 23 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules that, among other things, require purchasers of cattle and buffaloes to be “agriculturists”. The ostensible objective here is to allow only animals intended for farming purposes, as opposed to slaughter, to be traded in pushu mandis.

That the purchaser is an “agriculturist” would, in turn, be verified “by seeing the relevant revenue document”, proving ownership of land. The rules also prohibit any purchase or sale of “young animals” from livestock markets.

“I don’t own any land, but my entire income comes from dairying, which involves purchase of animals, old and young, both for milking and rearing for further sale. These new rules will snatch my rozi roti (livelihood) and drive me and many others to commit suicide,” says Randhawa, who runs a 30-animal (all Holstein Friesians) dairy farm at Basrai village in Qadian tehsil of Punjab’s Gurdaspur district.

Randhawa started with just one cow over a decade back. He makes money both by selling milk and rearing animals for sale to other farmers. “Who are they (government) to tell me that I cannot buy animals or that my buyers can only be landowning farmers? Do only people in cities and big companies have the right to live and do business?”, thunders Randhawa.

More than 70 per cent of Punjab’s farmers who are full-time into dairying are landless. Even the remaining 30 per cent own hardly one hectare, states Daljeet Singh Gill, president of the Progressive Dairy Farmers’ Association, whose own farm at Sadarpura in Ludhiana’s Jagraon tehsil began with about 20 cows in 1997 and has now grown to 400-plus herd size.

Randhawa and Gill are amongst Punjab’s many dairy farmers who have made the state into a major supplier of not just milk, but also milch animals. Till recently, an estimated three lakh cows — mostly HF crossbreds — worth Rs 2,300-2,400 crore were being transported from Punjab to Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh every year.

The above trade — in animals reared as calves till maturity in Punjab and sold to farmers wanting ready-to-be-milked cows — has suffered setbacks over the last couple of years, first from gau rakshak (cattle vigilante) activism and then demonetisation. These disruptions have brought down inter-state animal movement from Punjab to a third now. The environment ministry’s new rules could turn out to be the proverbial last straw.

According to Inderjit Singh, director of the Punjab Dairy Development Board, the landholding requirement for purchase of cattle from markets isn’t the only problem. The new rules also mandate that “no animal market is organised in a place which is situated within 25 km from any state border or … within 50 km from any international border”.

This practically means that most livestock mandis in districts bordering not only Pakistan (Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Ferozepur), but also Rajasthan (Fazilka and Muktsar), Haryana (Mansa, Sangrur and Patiala) and Himachal Pradesh (Mohali, Ropar and Hoshiarpur will have to shut down. “You may as well shut down dairying activity in the entire state,” remarks Singh.

“Our buyers are mostly traders, who take the animals to other states. And since these are high milk-yielding cows, they cannot obviously be going for slaughter. If the rules now stipulate that the buyers have to be farmers, my whole business will collapse,” notes Gurvinder Singh, who has a 55-cow dairy farm in Kahnuwan village of Gurdaspur tehsil and district. He, too, sells both milk and 8-10 cows every year.

According to Amarjit Singh, a milch cattle trader from Jagraon, farmers come to him only because they have no direct means to sell their animals. “It is we who help them find buyers both within and outside Punjab, while also arranging from the transport of the animals,” he claims. The new rules will effectively shut out traders like Singh from pashu mandis. The real losers in the bargain would be farmers who net Rs 30,000 or more from every animal reared for sale.

“A full-time dairy farmer like me having no land for regular crop agriculture cannot survive on sale of milk alone,” points out Randhawa. At any given time, only 20 out of his 30 cows produce milk; the remaining 10 comprising either young calves or pregnant animals. Assuming an average annual yield of 5,000 litres, the 20 in-milk animals would give 1 lakh litres. That, at Rs 27 per litre, is worth Rs 27 lakh.

But each animal also entails a daily expenditure of Rs 150-250 (the higher figure is for the ones giving milk) on feed, fodder, labour, medicine/vaccination, water, etc. Taking an average of Rs 200 for all the 30 animals, the total annual expense comes to almost Rs 22 lakh, leaving a profit of Rs 5 lakh. This is where the supplementary income from rearing of calves for further sale of other farmers is quite useful.

Farmers like Randhawa mostly rear Holstein Friesian and crossbred calves. These are ready to lactate in 2-2.5 years, compared to 3-3.5 years for indigenous cattle breeds such as Sahiwal and up to four years for buffaloes. “The rate for a two-year animal before its first lactation is between Rs 80,000 and Rs 90,000. I can get a higher price of Rs 1-1.25 lakh if it is sold after the first calving when milk yields start rising and touching 7,500-8,000 litres over a 10-month lactation cycle. My net profit from such sales is 30 per cent, which, on 5-6 animals a year, comes to Rs 1.5-2 lakh,” explains Randhawa.

This model — which has made Punjab the country’s No. 1 cow breeding state — is today under threat from both gau rakshaks and the new livestock market regulations. While their stated aim is to prevent cruelty to animals, they have the potential to endanger the viability of dairy farming itself. And that could eventually pave the way for milk shortages as well.

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