“He says his buffalo is four teats old” reports Siddhant with a completely straight face. Teats. Like the things that milk comes out of. The openings of udders. There are many livestock management practices here in the Ghat-Nechee area that I am unfamiliar with, but aging an animal based on the number of teats she has is completely new. Even though my veterinary education is not complete, I am 100% certain that a female mammal of any species is born with a certain number of teats that does not increase with age.
The interviews of tribal and non-tribal villagers in their homes, right next to their animals is quite the experience. We sit on woven beds, under stick and leaf roofs, on dung floors, and drink chai while the villagers answer our questions about how much milk their cows and buffalo produce, how many rupees they make in a 10-day period, how they know their animals are pregnant or in heat, and their thoughts on dairy as a lucrative business. Some are very sharp and progressive and innovative and have a great handle on the details of their animals. For others it is a struggle to remember how much milk she gave that morning, let alone her age, and have no idea whether or not they make any money on their milk animals. The reported details and theories of animal husbandry range from technical to religious to hilarious to absurd. Some of the most memorable:
“We keep 6 liters of milk per day from our buffalo for household use and most of it is used to make chai.”
“The rocks in this area generate their own heat that keeps cows from getting pregnant. Not buffalo, just cows, and that is why cows are not productive.”
“I knew my buffalo was in heat because one day she got loose and came back with a boyfriend.”
“Foot and mouth disease is not contagious. My husband cured all of our animals last month using black magic.” (FMD is HIGHLY contagious)
“Splashing water on buffalo in the hot summer months is not good for them, it makes them too hot.” (Buffalo have a decreased number of sweat glands in their skin and water or some other form of cooling is very important in this hot dry climate)
“I don’t actually breed my cow or look for heat, she just goes into the jungle during the monsoon and usually comes back pregnant.”
“I just love my animals. They make me happy.”
“Newborn calves do not need colostrum, more than 1 liter will kill them.” (One of the most emphasized points from Dr. Ray Sweeney’s lectured is the “4 liters in 4 hours” rule for calf colostrum intake. This farmer also reported extremely high calf mortality rates)
And my favorite: “My perfectly healthy cow just dropped dead. Someone must have done black magic on her.” (We get this one a lot. See photo of “healthy” cow below)
Often I am asked to compare the US dairy system and our perspective on cows to the system here in India. How do I explain to a Hindu vegetarian man who owns an infertile 12-year old cow he acquired as part of a dowry, and continues to feed and care for her because “every house should have a cow,” (a very common sentiment) that in the USA his cow would have been sent to slaughter years ago? Or to the man with multiple low-producing animals that he would have an animal welfare case on his hands because he chooses not to feed or care for these emaciated, unproductive cows? After one interview a few weeks ago a woman asked me how much it cost for me to get to India, and I realized that my round-trip airfare was more than she had just reported as her annual income.
The interview process has given me insights that I would never otherwise see, sparked ideas about livestock management that would never have crossed my mind, allowed me to meet an incredible number of unique and interesting people and hear their stories about their animals, and given me a great sampling of the local chai. Most people really care about their animals, regardless of their management strategies, and want their animals to be healthy, productive, and happy. And there are some painful exceptions.
But back to the teats. There are many sources of error in this study but the most significant is translation and language differences. Information is often translated from English to Hindi to Nimari (the local dialect), back to Hindi and then finally to English. Each interview is like an hour long game of telephone. I try to take things at face value and acknowledge that the study is inherently flawed, and many of the quotes above may be a result of this flaw, but the idea that this farmer was determining the age of his buffalo by the number of teats she had was too much. I started to giggle.
“Siddhant, teats? Really”
Siddhant, translator/interview coordinator/chauffeur/bodyguard/research partner extraordinaire, confirmed that yes, he was positive the man was talking about teats. And pointed to his own teeth.
Apparently this was not a management misconception, but a translation gap between what Siddhant swears is “UK pronunciation” of “th” and “American pronunciation.” As the interview process ends and I start compiling over 100 villager perspectives on livestock and milk production, I am left realizing how many details and rich, important pieces of information I am missing because of this translation gap. For my next project in India I am going to have to make sure I know more Hindi.