The first words out of my mouth to introduce my lecture on calf feeding and management fell on the confused ears of my translator. I glanced over the attentive faces of village health care workers that sat ready to take notes and tried again. Flipping through my mental thesaurus, I attempted to find other words to articulate and was relieved as my interpreter gave an understanding nod and began speaking my sentence in Tamil. We had just begun the day of veterinary training in Salem, Tamil Nadu. With the help of local and American veterinarians, we gathered to offer advice and hands-on skills involving a variety of animal husbandry topics. Transitioning to southern India in Salem after my previous research in Hyderabad, Telangana has been as stark as the change in barometric pressure. The Telugu language certainly separates itself from Tamil and different crops dominate the fields. However, the characteristic blats of the water buffalo and the scurrying of geckos across the window screens remains the same. The vast amount that I learn from the diverse culture and extravagant hospitality of India each day has also stayed consistent.
As I made my way through the lecture with much gesturing, chalkboard drawing, and rephrasing, I was delighted at what I learned from the farmers and workers in attendance. Much of the topic was the feeding of colostrum to calves. Colostrum, or the ‘first milk’ of a cow, is extremely important to provide maternal antibodies and nutrition to a calf. The recommended amount of colostrum for calves is 3-4liters within 6 hours after birth to efficiently protect the calf from disease.
Encouraging the calf to nurse frequently or bottle feeding the required amount may seem like a simple change, but I learned from my students that it comes with many challenges. In this area, colostrum is sold at a premium (at about 10xs the price of milk) to give to infants. Often, the first milk is even spoken for as soon as the cow is confirmed to be pregnant by the family of the farmer or by a local client. The demand for colostrum in the human market then makes it difficult to secure the health and growth of a calf. This delays the reproductive maturity of cattle and makes dairy production less economical. In some village traditions, colostrum for calves has long been thought as detrimental to calf health as it causes loose stool and feeding it is also considered difficult long term investment. Through the lecture, which turned into an enriching discussion, many concepts and challenges like those just mentioned provided valuable insights that will contribute to further development efforts in the future. It seems that when things go south in the literal and figurative sense, it is just an opportunity to reorient your sense of direction and soak in new knowledge. Throughout my last few days here in India, I will be continuing to observe nutritional practices in this new Indian state to gain a wider perspective and a more well rounded view of dairy nutrition. I also hope to savor the spices and fresh roti while avoiding pickled mango (there are just some things that you only need to try once).