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The incredible Banni buffalo breed: In arid Kutch, a village of 30 families that supplies Rs 2.2 crore worth of milk a year

The Banni buffalo, unlike common breeds such as Murrah or Jaffarabadi, can tolerate water scarcity and harsh climatic conditions, while thriving on the natural grasses growing in the area.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Bhuj |
Updated: November 30, 2017 8:21:54 am
Banni buffalo breed Maldhari herdsman Raubhai Halepotra with his Banni breed buffaloes at Erandavali village in Kutch district of Gujarat (Express Photo/Harish Damodaran)

As one approaches this village around 5 km off the main road from Bhuj town to the “White Rann” – the vast picturesque salt desert is hardly 15 km away at the turn – there’s nothing except sand and patches of Prosopis juliflora, a thorny shrub locally known as “ganda bawal”.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. Erandavali, the village in Bhuj Taluka of Gujarat’s Kutch district, is home to just 30 families making up 250-odd people.

Yet, these 30 households — all from the Muslim Maldhari pastoralist community — together supplied 529,341 litres of milk to the Kutch District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union during the year ended March 31, 2017. For this entire milk, they received a total payment of Rs 2.18 crore or Rs 7.26 lakh per family — in an arid and saline region not receiving even 350 mm of average annual rainfall!

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Erandavali is one of the 48 small hamlets in a 3,000 sq km area called the Banni plains between the Kutch mainland and the Great Rann salt marsh. Banni refers to a buffalo breed as well as pasture grass species, both indigenous to this belt.

The Banni buffalo, unlike common breeds such as Murrah or Jaffarabadi, can tolerate water scarcity and harsh climatic conditions, while thriving on the natural grasses growing in the area. The Maldharis, 90 per cent Muslim and the rest mainly Meghwal Dalit Hindus, leave these animals to graze during the night. They are trained to return to their vandh (hamlet) in the morning. The grasses, in turn, are well adapted to withstand dry weather, containing up to 5 per cent crude protein and 40 per cent fibre.

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The annual milk yield and age at first calving of Banni buffaloes, at 3,000-3,500 litres and 3.5-4 years, is as good, if not better, than that of normal “water buffaloes”. Despite that, the Banni was recognised as the country’s 11th buffalo breed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research only in 2010. “Milk yields are higher for grazing, as opposed to stall-fed, animals. Grazing — the Banni buffaloes travel up to 10-15 km — enables the animal to properly digest what it eats and the increased basal metabolic rate leads to more milk production. In New Zealand and Australia, too, the cows are mostly let to graze,” points out R D Trivedi, veterinarian and manager (procurement) at the Kutch district union.

“In a normal monsoon year, the grasses grow to 3-4 feet and are available from July to March. If the rains are poor, we get them only for 3-4 months, which increases our reliance on jowar (sorghum) fodder, paddy straw, kapasiya khod (cottonseed oilcake) and groundnut chilka (hull).

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These are purchased from the Bhuj market,” notes Raubhai Halepotra, president of Erandivali Dhudha Pasupalak Mandli, the village society that pours milk to the Kutch union.

This dairy farmer rears 70 Banni buffaloes that include 21 calves, 27 currently dry and 22 lactating animals yielding about 170 litres per day. In 2016-17, he sold Rs 10.26 lakh worth of milk to the Kutch union. Even bigger is Sadhak Halepotra, who has 150 buffaloes, of which 50 are now giving 300 litres daily. Last year, the value of his milk supplied was Rs 16.21 lakh.

The Kutch union is at present procuring over 36,000 litres of milk daily from some 2,450 producers in the Banni area, which has an estimated 25,000 population and roughly thrice as much livestock.

“Before 2009, when the union came, we were selling to milk traders at Bhuj, which is 70 km away. They would buy and pay well in summers, when milk availability was low, and slash rates while not purchasing our entire quantity during the winter months when production goes up. The union procures our whole milk and pays based on the fat content,” says Raubhai Halepotra, who previously maintained only 20 buffaloes.

One indicator of progress is the price of livestock. “Between 2009 and now, the average rate for an adult Banni buffalo here has soared from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh, while similarly rising from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 for Kankrej breed cows,” claims Valamji R Humbal, chairman of the Kutch union.

One farmer, Hirabhai Devkaran Varotra from Dhori village, fetched as much as Rs 4.5 lakh. This price, paid by a Hyderabad-based businessman, was for a buffalo that gave 18 litres daily in its very first lactation. “Its annual yield would be 5,000 litres, whose value, at Rs 40 per litre, comes to Rs 2 lakh,” observes Humbal.

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