Harish Damodaran

Give milk its ‘primary’ due

HARISH DAMODARAN | Updated on March 12, 2018

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The old model of viewing dairying as a subsidiary agricultural activity has outlived its utility.

There is a certain ambiguity to milk’s place in Indian agriculture. Viewed as a ‘crop’, even if originating from the udders of animals rather than the fields, it is the country’s largest with a farmgate value (output multiplied by average price realisation) higher than that for rice and wheat combined (see table).

The ‘milk group’, in fact, accounted for 18.5 per cent of the total value of output from agriculture and allied activities in 2010-11. Thus, almost one in every five rupees generated in India’s farm sector comes from dairying.

Even from a consumption standpoint, “milk & milk products” had a 15.21 per cent share of the average food spend in rural India, according to the National Sample Survey Office’s latest household consumer expenditure survey data for 2011-12. That was next only to the 20.37 per cent for “cereals & cereal substitutes”. In urban areas, milk’s 16.41 per cent share in food expenditure exceeded even the 15.61 per cent for cereals.

The by-product approach

Yet, despite its No.1 position in production and also consumption at least in urban India, milk occupies only a ‘subsidiary’ or ‘residual’ status in the minds of our policymakers.

There are probably three reasons for that.

The first is an inability to see milk as a ‘crop’. This, even though the dairy producer in reality is someone who grows fodder or aggregates farm wastes from his fields, and the cow simply a machine that converts these to milk.

Second, much of milk production in India is, indeed, a by-product of regular crop agriculture. Our cows and buffaloes are largely fed on wheat and paddy straw, sugarcane tops or the protein-rich cake remaining after extraction of oil from groundnut, mustard or cottonseed. While farmers do grow berseem, jowar (sorghum) or bajra (pearl-millet) as fodder in isolated plots, the predominant animal ration comprises residues and concentrates derived from ‘primary’ crops.

Third, milk is a crop that is harvested and marketed daily in litres. This is unlike paddy, wheat or sugarcane, which are four to 12-months duration crops sold in quintals. Their harvesting is a conspicuous, one-time event. Being a day-to-day affair sans any pongal or baisakhi festivities to mark its arrivals, milk sales don’t attract the eyeballs to provoke the planner into thinking of dairying as more than an incidental farming activity.

Not just incidental

But it is precisely the capacity to bring in a steady flow of daily cash that ought to focus policy attention on milk as a crop in itself and dairying as an independent agricultural activity. Right now, every farmer produces some milk along with whatever might be his main crop; these little drops add up to a gigantic production of 134 million tonnes at the national level.

This approach needs to change. One reason why we don’t get to hear about farm suicides in Gujarat is not because of Narendra Modi being a good chief minister, but because of Amul. The dairy cooperative today procures around 11.5 million litres of milk daily from three-million-odd farmers covering over half of the State’s agricultural households, including those not owning land.

Last year, Amul’s unions made a total payout of Rs 12,492 crore to its milk producers. This money wouldn’t have generated bulk income to marry off one’s daughter. But it would have ensured enough liquidity for the farmer to avoid going to the moneylender for meeting daily household expenses.

The case for giving dairying a special thrust as a standalone farming proposition is equally compelling from a consumer angle. Milk, in the Indian context, is a ‘superior’ food with income elasticity of demand greater than one. It means that as incomes rise, the demand for milk goes up even more. Meeting this will not be possible if dairying continues to receive subsidiary/residual treatment.

Unfortunately, the dominant policy paradigm still seeks to fit milk into a mixed crop cultivation-cum-livestock rearing system. In this, the same farmer grows one or two main field crops and keeps cattle — maybe even goats, pigs or poultry — that are fed on the former’s residues. The dung from the animals, in turn, becomes fertiliser for the fields.

The above so-called integrated approach, while intellectually, morally and ecologically appealing to city-folk, has limited practical utility.

The farmer eventually has to specialise in one or two crops, where he can concentrate resources and attention to maximise productivity. Resources here include family labour, which also, unlike in the past, has an opportunity cost. And he can afford to specialise in milk, for which there is a ready market in India. It is, moreover, a crop-giving cash round the year and less prone to price volatility than, say, pepper or cotton.

new White Revolutionaries

The good news is that we are already seeing a breed of ‘pure’ dairy farmers emerging. And they aren’t necessarily those with 100 or more animals.

Take Gujarat, where Adivasi tribals with no tradition of rearing milch animals until a generation ago have taken to full-time dairying on modern scientific lines.

They typically keep three cross-bred cows: one freshly-calved producing 10-12 litres a day; the second, 5-6 months pregnant giving 3-4 litres; and the third about 8 months already gone dry. The last animal would, then, calve just when the second one stops lactating; in this way, the farmers can sell 14-15 litres daily at Rs 23-24/litre throughout the year.

By providing an assured market for their product, besides finance for purchase of cows and artificial insemination/veterinary services support, Amul has basically enabled these first-generation milk producers to focus all their energies on dairying. Many of them have, over time, also increased their herd size to 8-10 animals.

The Chennai-based Hatsun Agro has, likewise, sought to convert ordinary 4-5-acre farmers to full-time dairying by getting them to exclusively grow fodder such as Co-4 (a high crude protein-content Napier- bajra hybrid grass developed by Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, yielding 120-130 tonnes an acre over 7-8 harvests annually).

By cultivating fodder and resorting to selective mechanisation — brush-cutters for harvesting and rain-guns to halve water consumption — the farmers are able to meet roughly half of the dry matter and protein requirements of their animals in-house at one-tenth the cost of purchased concentrate feeds.

If Amul has shown that even poor Adivasis in Valsad, Dangs and Panchmahal can become ‘pure’ dairy farmers, Hatsun has demonstrated the success of this model in Dharmagiri and Krishnagiri. The latter today procures six lakh litres of milk daily from these two backward, once Naxalite-prone districts of Tamil Nadu.

The time has come to promote dairying as a standalone farming proposition tailored to the specific needs of smallholders. The old subsidiary/crop by-product model, based on exploiting unlimited and underutilised family labour, has outlived its utility both from a production as well as future consumption demand perspective.

If only our policymakers and animal husbandry experts would accept this new reality!

Published on December 01, 2013

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