Livestock rearing in the Indian context

Kamal Kishore

India has a rich heritage of rearing livestock and is home to number of indigenous breeds. The diversity of breeds itself is a risk mitigation characteristic. There is a temptation to move towards intensive production system based on exotic breeds which would increase the dependence on costly external inputs, thereby the costs as well as risks of maintenance.

The livestock-agriculture-commons complex is the bulwark of rural livelihoods; this complex provides poor and marginalized households – a modicum of stability, security and degree of control. Traditionally, family  farming of cattle in India has depended on commons and  crop residues to feed them, while leaving the arable land for agriculture. This demarcation makes even more sense today with increasing human population andincreased demand for cereals, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, very little land can be spared by family farms for growing fodder for cattle with national average stagnating at 4 to 5% for the last 60 years.

Livestock rearing is a very important component of this trio, as it partially mitigates the stress emanating from the ongoing crisis in agriculture. The mainstream agriculture models, driven by external inputs, intensive production and markets are susceptible to the pulls and pressures of external environment. In the case of livestock rearing, it is still integrated with the natural environment to a greater extent, less dependent on purchased inputs and external factors. As a result, livestock rearing, even in the face of a crisisridden agriculture, contributes nearly 40% of the rural GDP across India. Another key factor is, in arid and semi-arid regions of India, agriculture is possible only for three to six months in the monsoon period and high cost irrigation investments are beyond the reach of most of the farmers. Thus, for a large percentage of the rural populace, cattle rearing, which provides steady income, is essential for their survival.

Livestock is maintained to handle, broadly, the following functions:

  • Output Functions: source of edible / non-edible products.
  • Input Functions: like providing draught power, dung, urine crop production
  • Economic Functions: as a source of steady income
  • Risk Coverage Functions: as easily encashable asset (crucial for resource poor) during crop failures
  • Socio-cultural Functions: closely interwoven into sociocultural aspects

India has a rich heritage of rearing livestock. It is home to number of breeds of cattle, small ruminants, fowl, pigs and equine species among others. The diversity of breeds itself is a certain risk mitigation characteristic; as animals are bred to fulfill a wide array of characteristics. Some of the selection criteria considered in the traditional breeding systems include the ability of the animals a) to withstand heat and humidity) to resist diseases c) to cope with feed stress d) to walk and graze forages e) to utilize a range of forages and f) survive for longer periods.

Across India, these breeds are icons of the inter-generational wisdom of the pastoral and livestock rearing communities.This special knowledge of pastoral and livestock rearing communities across the country on characteristics of different breeds has been phenomenal. For centuries, these communities have been involved in studying and identifying breeds capable of withstanding harsh environment and suitable to their local agro-ecological conditions which enhanced the resilience of their food systems. Thus, they have been responsible for developing and conserving domestic animal diversity with important genetic traits.Ironically, in the last 70 years, almost nothing has been spent by the government on conserving desi cattle.

Indigenous breeds are icons of intergenerational wisdom of the pastoral and livestock rearing communities.

However, the impact of milk marketing network has to be recognized. It has played a significant role in the rural economy. While the contribution by the organized sector is about 30%, it has allowed and indirectly regulated the unorganized sector in creating individual/group marketing systems. Sale of milk does help family farms to get regular income, though not high profits. The average milk yield increase from Desi cattle has been 1.3 litres in 1990-1991 to 2.2 litres in 2011-2012 per day. This has been possible without incentivizing them. Even in drought, some of these animals survive – thus, can be managed with the limited feed and forage available. Invariably, the sale of animals provides distress income.

Traditionally, cattle rearing in India is not just confined to milk production alone. Cattle have always played a significant role in sustaining the agriculture production system by providing vital inputs like manure and draught power. The cattle depended on agriculture for feed through agricultural residues and fodder. The symbiotic relationship between these two production systems is the foundation of rural livelihoods. Also, that is the reason we have well defined draught breeds in the country.

Another key aspect of the traditional livestock rearing system is the institutional mechanisms that they sustain. Livestock keepers and pastoralists have nurtured a number of key institutions in rural societies for centuries. Institutions like gual (cowherd), gochar (the village grazing ground) and godda (the village bull), and the mechanisms for access, extraction, monitoring , sanctioning and the governance of these resource systems, are critical not just for the livestock production system but also for the entire rural livelihoods.

Cattle have always played a significant role in sustaining agriculture production system by providing vital inputs like manure and draught power.

However, as in the case of agriculture, livestock production system too is witnessing a rapid movement towards an intensive production model – characterized by a focus on one trait or breed; production of milk through heavy doses of external inputs like feed concentrates and other enhancing chemicals like antibiotics, probiotics etc. Statistical evidence shows that such a model is proving to be unsustainable even in Europe.The rising costs of production, owing to the dependence on external inputs, have pushed a number of livestock keepers out of the vocation; for example between 1984 and 2008, the number of livestock keepers in Denmark came down from about 33,800 to just about 3800. A major fallout of the rising cost of production in livestock keeping is the increasing indebtedness among livestock keepers. Over and above the whole system is protected enormously by subsidies. India is pushing itself into this trap with focus on intensive production system. Ushering in such a production system into India has the potential to pushing out traditional breeds and increasing the dependence on inputs like concentrates, medicines, genetic inputs like imported semen of exotic bulls, thereby increasing the costs of production.Critically, the production of these inputs is concentrated in the hands of a handful of few corporations across the globe. Heavy dependence on these companies would seriously compromise the sovereignty of not only the family farms but also the nation. Moreover, this system is highly unsuited to the agro-climatic and economic conditions of mostly tropical humid and sub-tropical India. In India, livestock rearing is mostly for sustenance and therefore productivity in absolute terms ignoring the context is questionable. Definitely it is not suitable for rain-fed and drought-prone, arid and highly humid areas.

It is necessary to look at the aspect of cross breeding too, a bit more closely. Crossbreeding by itself is neither good nor bad. It is only a mating system. Its utility is context specific considering the availability of resources, educational and social status of farmers and climatic conditions. The excessive focus on exotic breeds ignores evidence from the field which points to progressively stagnating milk production and returns from crossbreeds (10 litres per day in 1990-1991 to 6.8 litres 2010 to 2012). Evidence from various states indicates that the crossbreds progressively lose out on milk productivity and have fertility issue averaging about 2.5 lactations (compared to 6 to 8 lactations in the desi cattle). At the same time, it has been observed that these breeds are unable to cope with the harsh climatic conditions that characterize the arid and semi-arid parts of India where they require expensive cooling/ airconditioning equipment for maintenance. They are less resistant to disease and heat or walk in order to forage. When it comes to productivity, it is true the productivity from crossbreeds in the short run is higher; but in the long run, when one considers the higher input costs, fewer lactations and the comparatively lower fertility of the crossbreds vis-a-vis indigenous varieties, one would conclude that even economically, indigenous breeds make sense in the long run. Introducing even high yielding breeds from other areas of India will be akin to using exotic breeds as they come from different agro-ecological regions and will create problems. We have noticed it in the case of Murrah buffaloes which have been indiscriminately promoted across the country with disastrous results. On an average the exotic/crossbred farms last from 3 to 6 years before they are closed.

Another important aspect is the feed and fodder which makes up for 60 to70% of the total cost of production in cattle rearing. The main feed requirements for cattle are dry fodder, concentrates and green fodder. While dry fodder is mostly derived from common lands, the balance is sourced either from agricultural lands or is purchased from markets. In arid and sub-humid regions, common pools meet about 70% of the fodder requirements, while in the semi-arid regions, crop residues meet more than 60% of the fodder requirements. It has been found that density of cattle has been found to be high in those areas where the net sown area and especially area under food crops is high. This indicates the high dependence on agricultural residues derived from food crops like millets, wheat, pulses, etc. On the contrary, in places where family farming has turned towards commercial crops, which is the case today in many dry land regions, sourcing fodder is becoming difficult. This is reflected in the fact that out of 55 micro-regions in the country, 43 micro-regions experience deficit in one form of feed material or other. Important reasons for the short-fall in fodder include diversion of lands for non-agricultural purposes, shift from food to cash crops and export of oil cakes.

Almost 70% of the milk, 98% of the small ruminant meat and sizable amount of large ruminant meat comes from animals solely dependent on the commons.This shows a clear direction in which developmental policies need to work.

In conclusion, the common lands need to be improved in their fodder production function. This is eminently possible. NGOs like Foundation for Ecological security, WOTR and many others have demonstrated that by improving common lands, the fodder production improves by up to 2 to 3 times. However, this is achieved only through community participation and promoting suitable practices. We cannot increase the cultivable fodder area. We need to recognize that largest number of livestock keepers are either landless or marginal farmers, Purchasing fodder would be beyond their capacity and availability.

Some of the useful measures, which could be promoted include,

  • incorporating seeds which yield a good edible biomass in our agricultural practices;
  • critically improving and increasing the edible biomass yield of our common property resources;
  • making a right choice in introducing cattle/ buffalo breeds in different agro-climatic regions;
  • in western India, high yielding milk breeds can be used in pure form or could be used for upgrading cattle in the local or adjoining areas;
  • promoting milk recording at farmers gate;
  • selection of bulls for higher milk yields needs to be simultaneously carried out;
  • identifying possible breeds which may already exist in different areas;
  • promoting milk yield competitions in different areas for identifying good milk yielding cows.

This will be a slow and time consuming process – but, ultimately will give us a strong indigenous base with all the good genetic characteristics. With regard to other approaches, we need to tread more carefully and with extreme patience.

Kamal Kishore
Anchored by Foundation for ecological security, Anand

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