Penn Vet signed a memorandum of understanding in June with the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to help Indian farmers become more productive.

Penn Vet on a ‘Milk Mission’ in India

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. — India is the world’s leading milk producer, accounting for one-fifth of global dairy output, but most dairy farmers there struggle to make a profit.

“Most of the global poor are engaged in agriculture, but in a subsistence way … We want to create a more entrepreneurial approach,” said David Galligan, professor of animal health economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.

Penn Vet signed a memorandum of understanding in June with the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to help Indian farmers become more productive. The project, called Milk Mission — An Elite Dairy Project, will bring Indian nationals to the New Bolton Center to learn advanced nutrition and herd management.

The Indians would then pass on their knowledge to other farmers, becoming something like an Extension agent. There’s a lot to learn, as the Penn Vet team found when they visited India this summer.

Most Indian dairy producers own fewer than five cows or water buffaloes, and farm production is focused on meeting the family’s dietary needs, according to USDA. Average milk production in India is less than 2 gallons per cow per day, even lower in Andhra Pradesh. That translates into low profitability for farmers.

Indian cattle come from a panoply of local breeds, which are points of local pride, said Dipti Pitta, a Penn Vet ruminant nutritionist who grew up in India. The animals have been bred to survive harsh conditions, often at the expense of milk production, said Victor Absalón-Medina, a Penn Vet genetics lab director.

Absalón-Medina wants to increase the use of reproductive technology, which should speed up selection for high milk yield. “My approach is to implement new technology in rural areas,” he said.

Culling is uncommon in India for religious and cultural reasons. Cattle generally spend their entire lives, sometimes more than 15 years, on the farm. As a result, the country has an overpopulation of bulls. Pitta hopes to reduce this problem by using sexed semen to select for females.

To get farmers producing enough milk that have some to sell, genetic improvements alone will not be enough. Much of the feed the cattle receive is highly signified or of scant nutritional value.

Forage production in Andhra Pradesh is limited by a dry climate, and cattle are often underfed. “Farmers don’t have a great knowledge to feed the cows,” Pitta said.

Improving nutrition will, among other benefits, reduce the average nonproductive days a cow is in the herd, and increase profitability, Galligan said. Over the long term, Galligan and his team believe, Milk Mission could help India develop its dairy industry and make small farmers profitable.

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