The dairy industry in India is quite different from the dairy industry in the US in many respects, but the basic premise is the same: the cow has to produce milk. And the cow has to get pregnant and give birth to a calf to produce milk. And in order to get pregnant and give birth, she has to be well-fed, healthy, and exposed to minimal external stressors like heat, cold, recurrent disease, parasites, etc. In most high-producing milk businesses, pregnancy is optimized and managed by tightly regulating the cow’s feed intake, reducing environmental stressors and diseases, and taking external control of the cow’s heat cycle and ovulation through hormone injections (kind of like birth control for humans, but the purpose is to get pregnant, not to prevent pregnancy). These measures decrease the amount of time the cow is not producing milk. Here in the tribal area of MP, cows and buffalo are lucky if they get adequate daily feed or fodder, have a shaded area to escape the heat, and are vaccinated for the most basic diseases (Foot and mouth disease, hemolytic septicemia, and Clostridial myositis, a bacteria that gets into muscle and destroys the tissue). This type of stress results in very long dry periods where cows and buffalo are too stressed to ovulate, do not get pregnant, and do not produce a calf or milk for sometimes up to 2 years. In the meantime, the farmer is taking time, effort, and money to feed and care for an animal that is not producing anything in return. In the US, this kind of cow would be “shipped,” or culled for meat.
The other big difference between the US dairy system and small Indian dairy producers is that BUFFALO are the main contributors to the milk supply, not cattle. The local breed of cattle, known as “Desi” cattle (which basically means “mutt”), have been written off by local farmers as hard to feed and manage, poor milk producers, and likely to die, where as buffalo seem to be heartier and produce more milk with higher fat content at each milking, which gets a better price per liter. However, buffalo stop giving milk once they get pregnant with a 2nd calf, and the seasonal environmental stressors cause buffalo to come into heat only for a few months a year. These two factors cause buffalo to go through a dry period of no milk production that lasts up to 2 years for every 10 months that they produce milk. Since most farmers have only 1-2 buffalo and rely on a steady flow of milk for income, not having a product to sell for 2 years, or even 6 months, and a non-productive animal to feed can be quite detrimental.
Cattle breeds like the ones we have in the US (Holsteins, Jersey, and Brown Swiss, to name a few) are able to produce milk while pregnant, and in an optimal breeding cycle would give milk for 10 months and have a 2 month dry period of no milk before giving birth to another calf and starting to lactate again (this means the cow is pregnant for the majority of the time while she is also giving milk). These breeds also produce very high volumes of milk, and although the fat content is not as high as that of buffalo milk, the volume more than makes up for the lack of “components.” The problem with plopping US or European cattle breeds down into the middle of rural India is these breeds are delicate. They are extremely susceptible to heat and dry conditions, are not very hearty and do not do well with poor management, are more susceptible to diseases and parasites, and tend to die before becoming economically productive. Cross-breeds of US/European cattle with Desi cattle have the ideal components like high volume, ability to lactate while pregnant, and increased tolerance to the climactic conditions, but they are harder to adequately manage than buffalo and without the proper feed will not ovulate, and therefore will not get pregnant, and therefore will not produce a calf or milk.
So, the conundrum, and the project. Currently this area is a low-input low-output system focused on buffalo dairying, with inconsistent milk production. Cows are used for transportation, production of dung (yes, dung is a hot commodity here!), and sometimes dairy. Would it be profitable for farmers to put a little more money and effort into management practices and try to milk cross-breed cows, which are able to give more consistent milk flow and would also give a calf every year that could be sold for income? Or is there a way to increase reproduction rates in Buffalo to decrease the amount of time the buffalo does not produce milk? Is it more profitable to milk buffalo for 5-6 months, then re-breed them and stop the lactation, in order to have milk for 5-6 months every year instead of milk for 10 months every 2 years? Is the conception rate reliable enough to make recommendations on changing practices? Which management practices should be the focus for improvement in order to optimize reproduction and therefore milk production? Is Artificial Insemination an option to increase reproduction rates? Buffalo heifers in this area also get pregnant for the first time later than the average buffalo (at 5-6 years of age, compared to 4 years of age), what can be done to get buffalo pregnant earlier?
High and low-producing farmers in 8 nearby villages will be interviewed in order to identify current management practices and reproduction statistics, like how long the dry period is for their animals, how old they were when they first gave birth to a calf, if they are using artificial insemination or natural cover, and if they are putting any special thought into their heifer rearing. If there is time, this area will be compared to a nearby area with a slightly different climate, and therefore drastically different pattern of dairy production and management. The overall purpose is to identify inefficiencies in regards to reproduction and make realistic recommendations that will improve small farmer production and income in the long-term. Wish me luck!