Desi Cows- Our Childhood Memories!

India used to be a land of the indigenous (desi) cows. However, since the 1970s, the exotic breeds of cows started finding their place in India. These exotic breeds were cross-bred with the indigenous ones to produce hybrid off-springs for superior milk production. How have these exotic breeds changed the Indian ecosystem w.r.t. milk production, milk quality, agriculture and sustainability? What were the opportunities gained or lost? This article answers these interesting questions.

The White Revolution

During the 1960s, India was deficient in milk production. In order to develop the Indian milk industry and reduce dependence on imports, the government undertook a series of steps. One of them was introduction of the exotic breeds of cows who were known for their high yields of milk.

However, these exotic cows were not able to adapt to the Indian conditions. Hence, our Indian cows were cross-bred with the exotic ones through artificial insemination with the expectation that the resulting hybrid off-springs will be able to adjust to the Indian conditions better and also give relatively more milk than the indigenous ones.

The rigor of the AI program was such that laws were enacted in some states which made castration of Indian bulls at birth mandatory. With the White Revolution, India did achieve high production of milk.

Since 1990s, India has been the highest producer of milk in the world. But how much of this success has been sustainable for our farmers?

Unlike the indigenous cows which can easily adjust to the Indian conditions, the exotic breeds & cross breeds need proper shelter as they are easily susceptible to diseases. The cost of maintaining exotic cows is higher. Cows are sacred in India. But once the cows become old and cease to bee productive, would the farmers be able to sustain them? Let's analyze these issues in detail.

Indigenous Cows, Bulls & Sustainable Farming

In India, the dung from the cattle is extensively used in the farms as organic fertilizer. However, there’s something special in the dung of the indigenous cows. Studies conducted by agriculturist and proponent of natural farming practices, Padmashree Subhash Palekar, concluded that the dung from the indigenous cows contains microbial culture which helps the roots of the crops absorb nutrients from the soil. This, however, is not the case with the dung of the exotic ones. The indigenous cows thus play a pivotal role in helping the farmers to make their farmlands fertile through the sustainable and natural farming methods.

The indigenous bulls have also played a pivotal role in making agriculture sustainable. Traditionally, the indigenous draught bulls have been used by the farmers for ploughing and transportation purposes. The exotic bulls, on the other hand have not been found suitable for draught purposes. Hence, they become a liability right from their birth. They eventually find their way to the slaughter houses. These issues cast a doubt on whether the introduction of exotic cattle in India has really helped the farmers.

Brazil- The Land of the Indian Cows!

While India focused on nurturing the exotic breeds and cross breeds of cows, there was another country that tried the Gujarat's Gir cow to boost its milk production- Brazil. Programs like selective breeding with good quality bulls, proper nutrition & DNA registration of each cow to keep track of them were implemented by Brazil. Their efforts yielded marvelous results.

Today, Brazil boasts of high milk yields from their Gir cows, which are more than double the yields obtained from their Indian cousins. In India, the pure Indian milch breeds were completely ignored! This leaves us with an obvious question- Could India have achieved self-sufficiency in milk production without the help of the exotic cows? Well yes- This report indicates that India would have achieved self-sufficiency in milk production sustainably even if it had focused its attention only on nurturing the Indian milch cows instead of importing the exotic ones.

A1 Milk or A2 Milk?

Do you know that there are differences in the types of proteins found in the milk from the exotic cows and that from the indigenous ones? 80% of proteins found in milk belong to a family called beta-caseins. There are two types of beta-caseins found in milk- A1 beta-casein and A2 beta-casein. The human milk contains A2 beta-caseins which are easily digestible. Same is the case with milk obtained from the indigenous cows. It is said that the indigenous cow milk is as good as mother’s milk. However, along with A2 beta caseins, the milk from exotic cows also contains A1 beta caseins which cannot be digested by the humans. Certain research reports also mention that the consumption of A1 milk may increase risk of type 1 diabetes, heart disease and autism. However, more research in these areas is still awaited.

The Challenges Ahead

In the recent years, India has also emerged as the top exporter of beef in the world. Since 1980, the production of beef has increased from 0.9 million tons to 3.6 million tons.

Although the beef export figures are high, the story behind these figures is disturbing. Traditionally, what mattered to the farmers was not the quantity of milk obtained from the cows, but the milk economics- the quantity of milk desired versus the cost of fodder. The cattle in India were fed by-products from the farms like sorghum straw. Cows or buffalos would give sufficient milk for the family. The bulls were used to plough the land and for the transportation of goods. The economics was set for a family. The farmers never felt the need to sell their animals to the slaughter houses.

However, with the influx of the exotic breeds, things began to change. The cost of maintaining exotic cows is high. The exotic bulls are of no use in farm operations or transportation. The use of tractors has also rendered the indigenous bulls useless in many sections of rural India. Increased dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides for productivity has robbed the farmers of their profits. Rearing of cattle in India has become increasingly unsustainable and the farmers are left with no choice but to sell the unproductive cattle to the slaughter houses through the middlemen.

The farmers are in distress. A gradual shift to natural and organic farming techniques coupled with breeding of Indian cattle can help resolve the situation over a period of time. These problems can be resolved only with patience and time, something which our farmers unfortunately fail to realize today.