Indian farmers traditionally reared cattle for three main purposes.

The first was for draught – the cow here basically being the mother of bullocks that helped the farmer plough the field, draw water from wells for irrigation, thresh grain by trampling, and pull his cart. The second was for dung that was composted into manure for fertiliser application, or dried and caked for use as fuel.

The third, of course, was for milk. These three purposes – draught, fertiliser-cum-fuel, and milk – made the cow a much-venerated creature not just from a religious standpoint, but even for its practical indispensability to farm and off-farm operations.

The cow, as the renowned economist, Prof K.N. Raj put it, was uniquely endowed with a simultaneous capacity as producer of consumer good (milk), intermediate good (dung), capital good (oxen for traction) and ‘mother machine' (for reproducing other cattle).

Revolutionary redundancy

This exalted position , however, has been considerably undermined since the advent of the Green Revolution.

Between 1971-72 and 2009-10, the estimated share of draught animals in total power deployed in Indian farms has fallen from 53 per cent to below nine per cent. Just as bullocks have progressively given way to diesel engines, tractors and electric motors, the nutrient requirements of crops, too, are nowadays predominantly met by chemical fertilisers. The latest 2011 Census results also show only 10.9 per cent of rural households in India to be utilising dung cake as fuel for cooking.

All this has, therefore, reduced the utility of cattle to largely being milk-producing machines.

But cows account for less than 45 per cent of India's milk output today, and within that, well over half comes from exotic or cross-bred animals containing genetic material of ‘western' breeds like Holstein Friesian, Jersey and Brown Swiss. The native indigenous breeds – the true Holy Cows – still make up 45 per cent of India's milch animal population, yet produce just about a fifth of its milk (see Table).

More than 55 per cent of the milk that Indians consume now flows from the udders of buffaloes, which are neither born holy nor have holiness thrust upon them. The share of buffaloes in the overall bovine numbers has also steadily gone up since Independence, with the accompanying graph capturing this trend at an all-India level.


But more interesting is the data for States.

While buffaloes constituted 34.6 per cent of the country's total bovine animal population (male plus female) as per the latest 2007 Livestock Census, the corresponding percentages were higher for Haryana (79.3), Punjab (74), Uttar Pradesh (55.8), Andhra Pradesh (54.2), Gujarat (52.4), Rajasthan (47.8) and Bihar (34.8). Most of these states are in the Vaishnav-Jain-Arya Samaj heartland, where the cow is specially revered. On the other hand, the buffalo shares were the lowest in Kerala (3.2), West Bengal (3.8) and the North-East states (4.6) that have no blanket laws prohibiting cow slaughter or sale of beef!

The above numbers suggest a growing preference among farmers, particularly in the so-called Cow Belt states, to keep buffaloes.

The most obvious reason for that is milk. An average Murrah buffalo produces 2,000-odd litres over a 300-day lactation period, which is more or less what comparable elite indigenous cattle breeds such as Sahiwal yield. But buffalo milk also fetches higher price, as it contains 7-7.5 per cent fat – almost twice that from cows.

Besides, buffaloes are more efficient converters of low-quality feeds or coarse fodder. This is important in the Indian context, where livestock survive largely on crop residues – wheat and paddy straw, sugarcane tops, or the protein-rich cake remaining after extraction of oil from groundnut, copra and mustard-seed – and not many farmers can afford costly compound concentrate feeds or set aside land for intensive forage cultivation. Buffaloes are also not very finicky about quality and taste, unlike cows that require their straw to be finely bruised and laced with jaggery or flour.

Milk, however, has not been the decisive factor in ‘buffaloisation'.

The impetus for that has come really from farm mechanisation. Male cattle may be superior draught animals on farms than buffaloes, being lighter, nimbler and easier to train. Buffaloes, apart from being sloppy, cannot also work for long hours in the sun because of their black skin absorbing more heat.

But with the bulk of field preparation and tillage operations now performed by tractor-drawn implements, there is no special advantage to be derived from maintaining oxen. If at all, they are needed only for carrying load, where buffaloes actually score. A single male buffalo can comfortably lug 25 quintals over 10 to 15 km, whereas cattle bullocks cannot manage beyond 15 quintals.

No holiness intended

Better milk price realisations and farm mechanisation apart, the other reason for buffaloes becoming the preferred bovine choice of Indian farmers is that they do not – unlike cows or pigs – evoke extreme sentiments. There are, hence, no social taboos attached to their slaughter.

A buffalo delivers its first calf when around four years of age and can undergo another 7-8 calvings in its lifetime. But farmers typically don't wait that long and sell their buffaloes after about five calvings, when milk yields start tapering off.

These animals – and also most of the young male progeny – head to the slaughter house.

Although the farmer may not himself slaughter, there aren't any religious and legal hurdles stopping him from selling buffaloes for further processing into meat either for domestic consumption or even exports. In 2010-11, 7.1 lakh tonnes of buffalo meat, worth Rs 8,413 crore, was officially shipped out from India.

What does the future hold for the cow, then? Well, it is a function of farmers' willingness to rear them as milch animals, which is practically their sole utility today. That being the case, farmers would increasingly prefer exotic or cross-bred cows, which give more milk than the holy desi breeds.

A safer option is buffaloes. Legislations making cow slaughter a cognisable, non-bailable offence inviting seven-year jail terms and laying the burden of proving innocence on the accused – which is what some States have done – would only hasten the process of buffaloisation. How many farmers, after all, would risk keeping animals that cannot be easily disposed of once they stop giving milk or happen to be male?

For an indication of where farmers' rational choices are leading to, one needn't look beyond Gokul and Vrindavan – the holy sites of Lord Krishna's childhood life centred around cows, milk, butter and gopis . According to the 2007 Livestock Census, Mathura district, of which they are part, had a total cattle population of 141,326, whereas its buffalo numbers were five times higher, at 722,854.

So much for the Cow Belt!