The journey of a 400 kg buffalo

The Indian Express travels down the meat value chain in Uttar Pradesh to find a seamless system that’s now under strain.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Updated: May 7, 2017 9:21 am
From the farmer in UP’s Hathras who sells his spent animals, to the small-time vyapari through whom it reaches the supplier of a state-of the-art processing-cum-exporting unit in Aligarh, the buffalo’s journey.

FOR Puran Chand Sharma, dealing with Mohammad Sabir Qureshi is a twice or maybe thrice-a-year affair. But this transactional relationship is essential to sustaining his dairy farm operation involving 10 female buffaloes — three now in-milk, two pregnant animals, two young yet-to-calve heifers, and three one-year-old calves.

“The ones that are pregnant will start giving milk when those currently producing go dry. In the meantime, the jhoti (heifers) will also be ready to conceive. So, at any time, I’ll have three buffaloes together yielding 25-30 litres daily for me to sell at Rs 30-35 per litre,” explains the 60-something Sharma. So, where does Qureshi come in? Prompt comes the reply: “He takes care of the animals that have become a bojh (burden) on me”.

Sharma classifies the buffaloes that are a bojh into four categories. The first includes those that after about five lactations — by then, they’re 9-10 years old — have stopped producing enough milk to justify their continued maintenance. The second are infertile animals (“we won’t sell if they do not get pregnant the first time, but will if they don’t the second time too”). The third are the ones with damaged udders (“jiske thun bekaar ho gaye”). The last are male calves, sold even before they are a year old.

“These animals are of no use to me. If they are useful to him (Qureshi) and he is willing to pay me Rs 25,000 or more, why should I have a problem selling? That money I can use to buy a four-year-old, first-time lactating buffalo, capable of giving 2,000 litres annually, for Rs 60,000. This cycle of replacing old animals with new is what keeps my business going,” Sharma says in a matter-of-fact tone.

buffalo, buffalo meat, cow slaughter ban, meat ban, illegal abattoir, illegal/unlicenced slaughterhouses, uttar pradesh, yogi adityanath, modi, bjp, cow slaughter, beef ban, india news, indian express Farmer: Puran Chand Sharma. At Rs 6/kg for bhusa, Rs 20/kg each for khali and daliya, and Rs 40/kg for gur, it costs him Rs 100 a day to feed an unproductive animal and Rs 200-plus for a buffalo with a yield of 10 litres. So he sells his unproductive cattle for Rs 25,000 or more (Express Photo by Oinam Anand)

Agrees Chaudhary Maharaj Singh, a 2.5-acre, five-animal farmer from Madhaka, the village in Sadabad tehsil of Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district to which Sharma belongs. “A buffalo has to be fed 10 kg bhusa (wheat straw), 1 kg khali (mustard oilcake) and 1 kg daliya (ground wheat) every day, whether or not it produces milk. For 10 litres yield, I have to increase the khali to 4 kg and daliya to 2 kg, and also give 1 kg of gur (jiggery). At today’s rates (Rs 6/kg for bhusa, Rs 20/kg each for khali and daliya, and Rs 40/kg for gur), it costs Rs 100 daily to feed an unproductive animal and Rs 200-plus for 10 litres,” he says.

Singh’s relationship with Qureshi is, again, purely transactional. “It doesn’t concern me what he does with our buffaloes. All I know is we farmers cannot afford to feed them,” he says.

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Mohammad Sabir Qureshi, 25, is one among the many livestock vyaparis who procure and aggregate buffaloes that farmers such as Sharma and Singh see as having served their utility, even if they can continue to live for 15 years and beyond. The vyapari is the vital cog in the buffalo meat value chain, connecting the small dairy farmer in UP’s rural hinterlands to the processor-exporter supplying to consumers in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt or Algeria.

When business was good, Qureshi — his farmer clientele extends to 40-50 villages in Sadabad tehsil — could assemble up to eight animals within one-two days for transporting on a 14-foot Canter truck. But there was a one-month period — from around March 11 to April 10, after the Bharatiya Janata Party stormed into power in the UP Assembly elections — that saw no transactions at all. The new Yogi Adityanath administration’s crackdown on illegal/unlicenced slaughterhouses and meat shops, coupled with heightened cow vigilante violence and police harassment on the ground, led to a virtual collapse of the livestock trade.

Livestock trader: Mohammad Sabir Qureshi. He procures and aggregate buffaloes from farmers such as Sharma. When business was good, he could assemble up to eight animals within 1-2 days for transporting on a 14-foot Canter truck. But between March 11 to April 10, traders such as Qureshi bought no buffaloes. Now he just about manages a truckload once in 3-4 days as against 1-2 days earlier

“No vyapari in our area purchased a single buffalo during that time. I used to get calls from many farmers to take their animals, but we were all too afraid to buy. Had we sat in our homes for a month or two more, the farmers themselves would’ve been on the streets,” says Qureshi. Though the situation has improved a tad in recent weeks, “I can just about manage to do a truckload once in three-four days now, as against one-two days earlier”.

Qureshi takes his animal truckloads mainly to Mohammad Kafil, who is a “registered supplier” for integrated abattoirs-cum-meat processing plants — such as the one at Talaspur Khurd, near Aligarh, owned by the Mumbai-based Allanasons Limited. Kafil is somebody on Allanasons’ records, technically authorised to supply to its plant on a commission basis and to whom payment is made through RTGS bank fund transfer. He, in turn, pays Qureshi independently in cash. “Before this government came, I was supplying 100-150 buffaloes daily, which fell to zero through much of March and the first week of April. It has since recovered slightly to 60-70, but we still face lot of trouble from the police, Bajrang Dal and other gau rakshak (cattle protection) groups,” says Kafil, who has 10-15 primary aggregators such as Qureshi working for him.

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The meat exporters announce their purchase price for buffaloes, delivered at the plant, every 10-15 days. The rates are based not on the animal’s live weight, but carcass yield, usually about 45 per cent of the former. Thus, a buffalo whose live body weight is 400 kg would be assessed at a carcass yield of 180 kg. The carcass is basically the meat and bones left after the animal has been “dressed” (slaughtered) and stripped of its hide, head, horns, ears, feet, udders, fat, tissues and internal organs (heart, liver, kidney, spleen, lungs, stomach and intestines).

The price the plants quote to their registered suppliers — who further communicate it to the vyaparis — is on a Rs per kg basis. If this is, say, Rs 150/kg, the delivered rate for a 400-kg buffalo with a carcass weight of 180 kg works out to Rs 27,000. The price that the farmer receives is determined after deducting commission fees to the registered supplier (normally Rs 0.50/kg of carcass; Rs 90 in this case) and the vyapari (Rs 500), besides expenses incurred towards transport, local levies and “kharcha paani (incidental payments, including to the police)”.

Broker: ‘Registered suppliers’ such as Mohammad Kafil bring the animals to the plant where they are taken to a lairage (in picture) and rested for 24 hours before being moved to the “dressing line”. Kafil gets a commission from the plant and pays the trader in cash. (Express photo/Oinam Anand)

According to Qureshi, the haulage cost for eight buffaloes, inclusive of loading and unloading charges, over a 60-km distance from Sadabad to Aligarh is roughly Rs 4,500. In addition, one has to shell out Rs 400-500 per truck at every police station/outpost — there are four of them (Kachhpura, Chandpa, Sasni and Hanuman Chowki) between Sadabad and Aligarh. Adding other costs (toll tax, levies, local transport of animal from farm, maintenance at aggregation point, etc) takes the total deductions to Rs 1,700-1,800 per buffalo. The farmer, at the end of it, gets Rs 25,200-25,300 for his spent buffalo.

“Sourcing from farmers is the easiest part. For us, the real problem is in taking the buffaloes to the processing plant. There’s always the risk of police impounding our trucks or the animals being freed by gau rakshaks. All this ultimately increases our costs,” points out Kafil.

The most convenient tool to extract “kharcha paani” is via invoking provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act or asking the vyapari to produce a “fitness to travel” certificate issued by a government veterinary doctor for the animals. Procuring such certificates isn’t easy when there aren’t too many veterinarians around, and even more difficult for the small-time vyapari aggregating buffaloes from farmers in remote villages.

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Allanasons’ Aligarh plant has a registered capacity for dressing and processing meat from 2,000 buffaloes a day. Like most others abattoirs in UP, it had to close down for a week after the Yogi government was sworn in on March 19, as buffalo arrivals ground to a halt. The plant is currently getting 1,000-odd buffaloes — below its past daily average of 1,500 — even as the threat of disruptions to livestock movement remains. All five units in Unnao, for instance, have shut this week, following a district administration order under which no animal would be allowed entry into a plant without a valid fitness-to-travel certificate.

Abattoirs-cum-meat processing plant: Buffalo meat being processed into various cuts at the Allanasons plant in Aligarh. Plants such as this one quote a price to suppliers, who further communicate it to the vyapari. If the price is, say, Rs 150/kg, the rate for a 400-kg buffalo with a carcass weight of 180 kg works out to Rs 27,000. The price that the farmer receives is determined after deducting commission fees to the supplier and the trader. (Express photo/Oinam Anand)

UP has 41 of India’s 73 buffalo abattoirs/meat processing plants approved by the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) under the Union Commerce Ministry. While some of them — Allanasons’ units at Aligarh and Unnao or the Abu Dhabi-based LuLu Group’s at Barabanki and Rampur — have the capacity to handle over 1,000 animals per day, the majority do about 750. Getting enough animals to ensure minimum capacity utilisation, which wasn’t an insurmountable problem during the previous regimes, is the single biggest challenge facing these units today.

The Aligarh plant, which is spread over 40 acres and originally came up in 2010, has entailed an investment upwards of Rs 250 crore. It has all facilities, starting with a reception where the buffaloes brought in trucks are unloaded, tagged and subjected to an ante-mortem inspection by the unit’s veterinary team to check for disease-free, non-milking and non-pregnant status. Once cleared, they are taken to a lairage and rested for 24 hours before being moved to the “dressing line”.

Since slaughtering happens through halal — the Shariah-compliant method of slitting just the carotid artery, jugular vein, food pipe and windpipe in a single swipe — it ensures all the blood is drained out from the animal. This is collected and sent to a separate rendering facility for drying and conversion into a high-protein blood meal used as fish feed. Slaughter is followed by removal of hide, feet, fat, tissues and various organs and offals. Most of these are again sold independently — the hide to leather tanneries; fat (tallow) to soap and lubricant makers; and ear, hooves, liver, heart, lungs, food pipe, intestines, bladder, udders, and abomasum (the fourth stomach compartment) to the pet-food industry. There is a separate edible food market also for the other three bovine stomach chambers: omasum, reticulum and rumen. If this weren’t enough, the “ingesta” or undigested food in the stomach, too, is recovered and dried for use as plant boiler fuel.

The dressed carcass that remains is weighed, washed and then chilled for 24 hours — primarily to arrest microorganism development — prior to deboning. The bones go to the rendering facility for processing into gel chips, sold to manufacturers of gelatine used in drug capsules and various food products. The deboned meat constitutes some 68 per cent of the carcass weight. Ergo, from a 400-kg buffalo with 180-kg carcass yield, 122.4 kg of boneless meat can be produced for export. The boneless buffalo meat is processed into various cuts — tenderloin, shin/shank, rump steak, blade, silverside, etc — and weighed, packed and frozen to minus 18 degrees Celsius, before being despatched by refrigerated trucks for final shipping in containers.

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At an average Rs 200/kg export price, the 122.4 kg of boneless meat would fetch close to Rs 24,500. Another Rs 5,500-6,000 — it could be more — can be realised through sale of hide, gel bones, offals and other by-products. That would make for gross revenues of around Rs 30,000, of which Rs 25,000-plus or 83 per cent goes to farmers. The farmer’s share would, of course, drop as the animals are brought in from longer distances, pushing up both transport costs and various incidental expenses.

“Our estimate is that the farmer’s payout would be at least 60 per cent of the industry’s turnover. We probably give more than what even dairy plants give for milk,” claims Fauzan Alavi, director at Allanasons Limited.

India’s buffalo meat exports rose spectacularly, almost five-folds in quantity terms and over 22 times in value terms from 2002-03 to 2014-15, before tailing off somewhat in the last two years. The boom in exports (Rs 26,303 crore during the last fiscal) came even as the country’s buffalo population increased from 97.92 million in 2003 to 108.70 million in 2012, while also going up from 22.91 million to 30.63 million for UP during this period.

“We have not grown at dairy’s expense. On the contrary, our industry is complementary to the White Revolution. If the government is serious about doubling farmers’ income, they cannot afford to ignore livestock that includes both milk and meat,” says Alavi.

It remains to be seen whether that argument will wash with the Yogi government.

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