August 28th, 1982

Breed improvement and milk production

Breed improvement and milk production in developing Countries

The role of farmers’ organizations

V Kurien


National Dairy Development Board, India

World Jersey Cattle Bureau

10th International Conference

Edmonton, Canada, August 28th – September 1st, 1982


The role of farmers’ organizations

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the subject of “Breed Improvement” not as an animal scientist, but rather as a manager who is employed by Indian farmers. For managers like myself, breed improvement (like all the animal sciences) is one of the important tools which we managers have a duty to make available to farmers, to help them increase their milk production and, through increased milk production, their incomes.

Such applications of modern science in milk production in India differ very much in practice from their applications in other parts of the world. In the industrialized countries, for example, the drive for increase farm production and productivity takes the form of substitution of capital equipment for human labour – and of scaler economies achieved by ever-increasing sizes of farms, so that as few as two men may operate, say, a 500-acre farm. In the planned economies, the modernization of agriculture is often sought to be achieved through the socialization of land via large state-owned farms, communes etc. India’s society and resources, however, are such that neither the Western capital-intensive approach to agriculture modernization, nor the socialistic approach via collective ownership of land, are likely to be acceptable to our rural population.

For these reasons, if no other, India has to find a “third way” to achieve the modernization of its agriculture and animal husbandry. Far from aiming at the substitution of human labour by capital equipment, we have to aim at maximizing the use of human labour in productive and remunerative employment in order to increase the incomes of our rural people. Nor, in our animal husbandry, can India move in the direction of increasing milk production by the industrialized countries’ approach of feeding animals ever-increasing amounts of feedstuffs edible to man. India’s resources – especially, the pressure on our agricultural land – are such that animals must not compete with man for food. Thus, as we modernize our animal husbandry, we must retain its present input-output structure, whereby our milk production is achieved mainly by feeding milch animals on natural herbage and crop residues which are inedible to man. For any farmer or breeder new to the Indian agricultural sector, it may seem surprising that our population of some 87 million milch cows and buffaloes (plus 81 million draught males) can be kept on regimens consisting primarily of crop residues and natural herbage – but, it is a fact that this is how our milk producers keep their animals and it is on this basis that they have made India the fourth or fifth largest milk producing country in the World, having raised our country’s milk production from some 21 million tones in 1970 to an estimated 32 million tones in 1981.

Before addressing the subject of brred improvement itself, it is desirable to clear away one misconception which is quite prevalent, I believe, about Indian milk production: namely, the idea that our unwieldy number of milch animals exists mainly because the killing of cows is contrary in our majority’s religious beliefs. It is true that the slaughter of cows is repugnant to our Hindu majority – but is also true that, in any case, at least 90% of our land is worked with draught bullocks and these are unlikely to be replaced by tractors in the foreseeable future. Therefore, probably most of our farmers keep cows in order that they may produce male offspring to be reared as draught bullocks. Milk production for home consumption and/ or the market is for these farmers a by-product of bullock production.

Thus it is that, so far, most of the milk produced in India for the market is the product of stall-fed buffaloes. Some 60% of the milk produced in India is buffalo milk – and probably 80-90% of milk processed in our modern dairies for the market place in buffalo milk.

There is little or no taboo in India against the slaughter of buffaloes and, in most of our better milk sheds it can be observed that, over the last 5000 years during which our farmers have kept buffaloes, they have selected types (if not “breeds”) for their efficiency as milk producers under our farming conditions. Even in our milksheds, however, it has been estimated that there are one-tenth of one per cent of adult female buffalo population which produce more than 12 litres daily.

It is also true that India has indigenous breeds of cows which are quite good milk produces, such as Red Sindhis, for example. That having been noted, however, it must also be said that by far the majority of our cows, as well as most of the buffaloes outside our better milkshed areas, are “non-descript” that is to say, they are randomly bred and have no recognizable breed characteristics.

Thus the animal scientist who is concerned with breed improvement in India starts with foundation herds of buffaloes and cows which are primarily non-descript. Since they were selected over many centuries for other characteristics than milk production, they are characterized by their low yields of milk – as little as 1 ½ litre daily in the case of our cows and probably not more than 3 litres daily for buffaloes outside the milkshed areas.

Obviously, not even the most enthusiastic animal scientist or geneticist would, in practice, aim at a breed improvement programme which would cover 87 million milch animals ! During this century at least, our breed improvement programme aims at creating what we refer to as “National Milch Herd” consisting of 10-12 million genetically improved female milch animals by the end of this decade (this number will rise, perhaps, to 25 million during 1990’s).

Thus, when we talk about breed improvement in India, massive though our programmes are, we are still dealing with only some 10-12% of our milch animals. Therefore, the much talked-of Hindu taboo against cow slaughter is not quite the problem which people imagine to be, if only because the farmers who adopt breed improvement can cull by selling their less productive cows, because even these culls are more productive than most of the cows in areas outside our milksheds.

Our programmes for breed improvement are usually described as “cross breeding” of cows and “up-grading” of buffaloes. These terms are simply a form of shorthand for the use of genetic material from western breeds for “cross breeding” wioth out non-descript cows – and the use of genetic material from selected (and, ultimately, proven) bulls for buffalo breeding purposes.

It is now widely agreed that, in most milksheds the Jersey breed is ideal for cross breeding with our non-descript cows. The Jersey’s compact size is one of its advantages. Also, the breed adapts well to our agro-climatic conditions.

At the moment, there are certain problems with our cross breeding programme. In particular, there is still some uncertainly as to how the second generation of cross breeds should be treated. However, I shall not attempt to dilate on such questions, since they are better left to geneticists and experts who are specialists in these matters.

There are also problems in our buffalo breeding programme. In practice, it is quite difficult to identify males with a genetic potential for imparting high milk yielding characteristics to their female progeny – and the task of “proving” such bulls is particularly difficult in a livestock sector which is dominated by small land-holdings and matching herds of not more than 2 or 3 million animals.

Thus, our programmes of breed improvement must satisfy the following criteria:

i. For cows, they must capture the advantage of hybrid vigour which can be gained in the first generation by crossing a proven breed with non-description cows.

ii. For buffaloes, they must identify males which can pass on to their female progeny milk yield characteristics which are at present evidenced only in approximately one-tenth of one per cent of the adult female buffalo population in our better milkshed areas.

iii. The systems used in these programmes must be such that they can be organized, and the breeding process replicated, for at least 10-12 million breedable female milch animals.

iv. The milk yield characteristics which are sought to be improved must be achieved while also retaining the advantages of our present stock: namely, the ability to produce milk in semi-tropical, agro-climatic conditions, resistance to diseases which are endemic to India and likely to remain so for some time.

v. The milch animals so developed must be such that they can continue to be fed primarily on crop residues and natural herbage and their total feed requirements for efficient milk production must be such that they can be met by the landless milk producer families and small holders with not more than 2-3 acres of land.

These criteria may at first appear to demand the impossible of breeders and geneticists whose experience has been gained in the more industrialized countries! India’s animal producers and geneticists, however, have identified some approaches which we believe will satisfy the criteria which I have listed and permit even our poorest milk producers to benefit from the application of modern breeding methods to their small herds of milch animals.

The importance of making breed improvement available to our landless milk producers and our small holders cannot be overstressed. Out of our approximately 90 million rural households, at least 20% are landless people who are dependent on agricultural labour for their subsistence and for whom work available is only during one or, at the most, two seasons for planting and harvesting. Probably another 30% of our rural households have less than 1 hectare land (say, 2.5 acres). Another 20% achieve meager self-sufficiency on holdings of 1 ½ hectare (3.6 acres) and the remaining 30% constitute our rural upper-class, who own 7%% of our agricultural land. But the holdings of even this upper class average only slightly more than 5 hectares (13 acres), not more than 2% of whom can be described as “large land owners”, having 10 hectares or more of land (25 acres). Thus, even in our best milk shed areas, by far the majority of the milk producing families have either no land or less than 3-4 acres of land – and of these 40-50 million poor rural families, probably 50% are to be found in the milk shed tracts selected for the modernization of our dairy sector.

Those whose job it is to manage the provision of services to milk producers in our milk shed areas cannot escape the implications of these numbers. Take, for example, the area served by our first milk producers’ cooperative in Kaira District. This area is one of the 400 districts which make up rural India. Its human rural population numbers some 2.4 million: surveys show that average family size is approximately six in number, so this rural area contains some 400,000 rural families, 90% of whom are dependent on the land for their livelihood. The membership of the milk producers’ co-operative now comprises 320,000 milk producing facilities: that is to say, almost 90% of all families in the districts who depend on the land. A typical milk producing family in Kaira District conforms to the national profile: those who have land have average holdings of 3-4 acres with 2-3 adult milch buffaloes kept for milk production. Probably some 40% have no land at all and their most valuable possessions are 1 to 2 adult milch buffaloes which they keep for milk production.

The landless are such an important group that it is necessary to explain briefly how they produce milk, considering that they have no land.

Their method is quite simple. In Kaira District they keep Surti-type buffaloes which are compactly built and very docile. As is the case with most buffaloes, they thrive on regimen consisting of mainly coarse fodders and forages. The landless people who keep these animals earn a meager living by hiring themselves out during each season as labourers for work such as weeding farmers fields and harvesting major crops, most of which are cereals. When they get employment for weeding and harvesting, they are paid partly in kind: they are permitted to take from the field either the weeds which they have picked or some of the straw residues from a cereal crop – and they feed these materials to their buffaloes. For much of the year, no gainful employment is available for any member of the family – and certainly not for women and children. One of the few productive activities available for these unemployed or underemployed humans is to go into the surrounding countryside, to garner whatever natural herbage can be found which can be digested by their buffaloes. Over the last 50 centuries these families have identified species of trees and bushes, the leaves of which can be digested by buffaloes, and these are judiciously garnered by poor milk producing families, especially during the hot, dry 3-4 months which precede the monsoon rains.

Over the last decade, particularly, irrigation by tubewell and canal has increased in the district, so more grass and other herbage can be found, even during the hot summer, around irrigated fields and irrigation canals. Even so, the lives of our landless are hard. One can only reflect that they would be harder still if their milk cooperative did not exist.

The milk producers in Kaira District went on strike in 1946 against a private dairy company which had been granted a monopoly over milk procurement in the district by the then colonial government. The private dairy company used its legalized monopoly to suppress the price which was paid to the district’s milk producers for their milk – until, in 1946, producers would bear it no more. They not only refused to sell their milk to the private dairy, but they also demanded the right to handle their own milk business co-operatively. This movement had its origin around the town of Anand – and the pattern of dairy cooperative which has evolved there is now usually referred to as “The Anand Pattern of Dairy Co-operative”.

In effect, the Anand Pattern of Dairy Co-operative is a three-tier structure. Its basic unit is the village milk producers’ cooperative, formed by all the producers in each village who wish to market their milk cooperatively. In Kaira district, for example, there are some 960 villages and hamlets and there are village milk cooperatives in 940 villages (the remaining hamlets being served by nearby village cooperatives). These village milk producers’ co-operatives collectively own a dairy processing plant, on the outskirts of Anand, which has facilities for processing up to 800,000 litres of milk daily (that is, some 176,000 gallons). In addition to milk marketed as liquid milk to major cities (ranging in distance from Anand between 50 miles to 1250 miles: 80-2000 km), approximately half the milk processed at the dairy plant is used to make pasteurized table butter, milk powder etc. For the producers who own this dairy through their co-operative, its value is two-fold: (i) It ensures that they have a year round market for their milk (in India’s milkshed areas which have no such dairy plant, milk often has to be sold at distress prices during the flush season) – and (ii) the dairy plant confers value on the solids-non-fat of milk, which otherwise (especially during the flush season) have little or no marketable value in those parts of India not served by modern dairy plants.

Consider the problems involved in organizing the purchase of milk from hundreds of thousands of milk producers, most of whom have only one or two liters of milk to sell daily (at that, too, in two lots: once in the morning and again in the evening) m- it is a task which calls for fairly demanding level of managerial and technical competence. Indeed, it is widely agreed that the competence of the Anand Co-operative’s professional staff – and, above all, their commitment to the milk producer-members who employ them – has set an example for India’s professions not only in our rapidly growing dairy industry, but also throughout our agro-based industries.

The first ten years or so in the life of the Anand milk producers’ co-operative were preoccupied with the formation of village milk producers’ co-operatives, the establishment of the first of its dairy processing facilities – and (of the utmost importance) the establishment in the market place of the co-operative’s brand-name, “Amul,” which current surveys show to have greater recognition by urban consumers than the brand-names of any other consumer products in India (including those made by multi-nationals which manufacture dairy and other food products).

By the time the Anand Cooperative’s first arduous ten years were complete, its management was able to turn its attention to the task of helping their milk producer members to increase their milk production and its profitability. The first step taken by the co-operative to achieve this objective was the provision of veterinary services by teams of veterinary doctors and para-veterinary workers. Today, the co-operative employs more than 300 such workers and 23 “mobile veterinary clinics” visit every village milk co-operative in Kaira District once weekly, according to a fixed schedule – and another 26 mobile veterinary clinics are available for round-the-clock emergency calls, which producers make to the co-operative’s centre at Anand by telephone or by messages carried by the trucks which collect milk from the village every morning and evening. In addition, the co-operative now operates its own radio communication channel, by which it can reach the mobile veterinary clinics and direct them to service emergency calls as they are received.

Over the last 25 years or so, the co-operative has developed other services to help its milk producer-members to increase their milk production. These include provision of assured quality fodder-seeds, cattle feed concentrates compounded according to a least-cost formulation, training of para-veterinary workers for each village co-operative etc.

The remaining service of this type is the co-operative’s artificial insemination system which is of course the key to the cooperative’s work on breed improvement.

When the co-operative initiated its provision of milk production services, in the 1950’s, it conducted a survey of Kaira District’s villages. A major finding of that survey was that there were simply too few buffalo bulls to service the female buffaloes kept by the district’s milk producers. The buffalo is a highly seasonal breeder – and the majority of effective natural services have to take place within a period of 2-3 months. Producers who fail to get their buffaloes serviced during 2-3 months, usually have to retain them dry for at least another 8-9 months, which they can ill afford to do.

At the time of the survey, as can well be imagined, calving intervals in the district averaged 18-24 months. With the provision of artificial insemination, this has been reduced to 14-16 months. Last year, the Anand Co-operative conducted some 325,000 artificial inseminations. These are performed by lay artificial inseminators who reside in the village and are employed by the co-operative. The semen used is produced at the co-operative’s stud farm which has some 60 superior buffalo bulls.

For many years this AI system used “wet semen,” which was delivered daily in ice-cooled containers by the trucks which picked up the co-operative’s milk from each village. Now, the co-operative’s AI system has switched to the use of frozen semen.

I have described at some length the original Anand Pattern Dairy C-operative because it is this pattern of dairy co-operative which India now seeks to replicate in all its best milkshed areas. At present, we have some 59 district milk producers’ co-operatives (i.e: in 15% of all districts in India) which have a total of some 16,000 village co-operatives with a combined membership of 2.2 million milk producer families. Ninety per cent of this co-operative structure has been erected since 1970, as a result of the dairy development programme in India which is popularly know as “Operation Flood” – and each of these dairy co-operatives is now erecting its own infrastructure for providing milk production services to its members, including an artificial insemination service. It is hard to envisage any other structure which could be expected to reach our target for the latter half of this decade of enrolling a total of 10 million milk producer families as members of our milk co-operatives – and enabling them to rear a National Milch Herd of 12-14 million genetically improved milch animals.

This is particularly pertinent in India’s case, if only because our rural milk production depends on such a large number of small-holders and landless milk producers, almost all of whom have non-descript milch animals with relatively low milk yields. By contrast, in the industrialized countries, farmers can stay in the milk production business only by constantly increasing the size of their herds and improving the efficiency of their animals. These farmers have a direct and heavy stake in breed improvement. They support their Breed Association and their Dairy Boards, Milk Marketing Boards etc. which manage their breed improvement programmes.

Since milk production in India is, for majority of our rural milk producers, a subsidiary occupation based on non-descript animals, the conversion of agricultural waste – and the use of family labour with virtually zero opportunity cost – India’s milk producers have much less of a stake in such matters as breed improvement: they have to be motivated and helped with considerable skill before they will adopt breed improvement and the management practices which must accompany it. Hence, our need to get tasks like breed improvement done through organizations such as the Anand Pattern Dairy Co-operatives, which the milk producers know are their own organizations, following policies set by their elected directors, and employing their own professionals to carry out those policies.

The only alternative organizations in India which can undertake the task of breed improvement are our State Government, which under our constitution are responsible for agricultural and animal husbandry policies. Some of our State Governments have made commendable efforts to introduce breed improvement in their States’ milksheds on a large scale – by and large, however, they are impeded in such tasks by their inevitably bureaucratic structure and by their lack of financial resources.

This is why, in undertaking its responsibilities for the implementation of Operation Flood, India’s National Dairy Development Board is supporting the Anand Pattern Dairy Co-operatives as its chosen instrument for effectuating breed improvement throughout the country’s milksheds. Under Indian conditions, this presents our animal geneticists, our breeders – and our milk producers’ co-operatives – with some hard choices.

To date, the main policies adopted can be summarized as follows:

  1. Although crossbred cows from non-descript cows crossbred with Holstein-Friesians can be the most efficient milk producing animals in India under optimal management conditions, these crossbreds are suitable only for our relatively small number of larger farmers who have sufficient resources to support them and good farm management conditions. For the majority of our milk producers, crossbred cows from non-descript cows crossed with the purebred Jersey breed are more suitable, because they are adaptable to our agro-climatic conditions, more resistant to diseases endemic to India – and less demanding with regard to management practices. While there is still some dispute as to the level of Jersey inheritance which is to be aimed at, there is now wide agreement in India that in the foreseeable future a 50% cross is desirable – and our immediately important task is to stablise the Jersey inheritance at this level by inter see mating in the halfbred population with 50%-Jersey bulls, which must of course be progeny-tested if the milk yield advantage of cross breeding is to be maintained and if the performance of the new, mixed breed is to be sufficiently predictable for the milk producers to rely on it.
  2. With regard to buffalo breed improvement, our first imperative is to identify and progeny-test buffalo bulls which are capable of conferring on their female progeny the highest possible milk yield characteristics. The speed with which buffalo milk yields can be increased by the use of these bulls is, of course, much less than the dramatic results which can be obtained with cows by cross breeding. Nonetheless, the suitability of the buffalo as a milk producing animal in most of our difficult farming conditions is such that at least equal priority must be given to buffalo breed improvement as that which is being given to breed improvement in cows.
  3. Our breeders and geneticists have driven home the message to the policy makers concerned in National Dairy Development Board – and in the Anand Pattern Dairy Co-operatives also – that, while genetic potential for high milk yield is the most important economic characteristic to be aimed at in our breed improvement programmes, nevertheless, milk yield and profitability are really a function of such factors as age at first calving, calving interval, fertility and the economic life of each milch animal in the improved National Milch Herd. Ultimately, our task must be to progeny-test bulls for their ability to confer the best possible “mix” of these characteristics upon their female progeny.
  4. There is a further lesson probably to be drawn from the example given above of the suitability of Holstein-Friesian crossbreds for our larger farmers; it may also be true that a single, stabilized crossbred population may not be ideal for both our small holders with 3-4 acres of land and also for our landless milk producers. The resources of these two groups – and, in some milksheds, their animal management skills – differ so greatly that we must be prepared to find that the stabilized crossbred which is best for small holders is not the same as that which is best for landless milk producers. This principle may also be found to apply in the case of genetically up-graded buffaloes.

Difficult though the policies adopted will be to implement, we nevertheless believe that job can be done – and that the majority of India’s milk producers in our best milksheds will adopt breed improvement, provided that they can see that it is in their interest to do so. They will gain confidence in the programme when they see that their elected representatives are responsible for the policies of their dairy co-operatives – and this confidence will be reinforced if the competent, committed professionalism of their co-operatives’ employees is such as to win their trust.

In other words, while it is of course essential to attach the greatest importance to the application of the sciences of genetics and animal husbandry in devising and implementing our breed improvement programmes – nevertheless, the success of these programmes will ultimately depend upon the effectiveness of milk producers’ own co-operatives in their implementation. Considering the social importance of enabling the poor majority of rural people in India to improve their level of living by access to applications of modern science, the task of breed improvement is one which has socio-economic implications which are perhaps of greater importance for India than for any other country which aspires to develop a modern dairy industry.