India, a Dairy Titan, Researching how to keep milk flowing in a hotter world

KARNAL, India – Inside a warehouse in the northern Indian state of Haryana, the sound of flutes fluttering softly from loudspeakers. The audience grazing silently were dozens of cows, the unwitting subjects of an experiment in music therapy.

The people who staged this scene are a team of scientists working on a simple question: How does dry heat affect milk production? For India’s dairy-loving population, another season of rising temperatures has left the answer on their doorstep, as their morning milk delivery prices have once again gone up.

Scientists from the National Dairy Research Institute are quietly working to maintain India’s status as a dairy power in the face of the country’s dire threat from climate change, conducting studies on every everything from developing new varieties of buffalo to testing new shrubs for protein content. .

As part of this work, a team studied daily yield data from hundreds of animals after late spring temperatures rose 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. of previous years. While warmer months typically see production declines, the researchers found that heat stress in April directly led to an additional nearly 11 percent reduction in milk production in healthy crossbred cows.

Dr Ashutosh, who led the study, said: ‘The animal is physiologically fighting to self-regulate and also give two or three liters of milk.

India, the world’s largest milk producer, produces more than 200 million tons per year. The dairy industry, which relies on 80 million farmers across the country, most with small herds, has grown steadily and now accounts for almost 5% of the Indian economy. In a sign of the country’s appetite for dairy products – from slow cooker bottle curd and cheese butter and cream let go in almost every dish – only a small part of large production is used for export.

Stress on animals is just one way that extreme temperatures are challenging this vital industry. When announcing a 4% increase in milk prices last week – the second increase this year – dairy producers said the cost of feed had increased by nearly 20%.

While soaring prices of fuel and other necessities have not helped, scientists and farmers point out that extreme weather is exacerbating the forage deficit was worrying that is holding back India’s dairy industry from growing again.

This year, the withering heat came earlier than usual, with temperatures regularly hitting 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in April and soaring as high as 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in May. And it stays hot for a long time.

On the other hand, rainfall is very erratic. The fields were flooded in the previous months when farmers expected less rain, while during that time the rainfall should help alleviate the heat, which is below normal. In Punjab, farmers reported many 15% off during the wheat harvest, affecting the availability and quality of forage.

Sudhir Kumar Tyagi, who collects milk from farmers in the state of Uttar Pradesh and supplies it to areas around New Delhi, said: “Wheat production has decreased, so the price of fodder, especially wheat straw, has decreased. increase. capital.

“From March to September, milk production normally remains low and then increases again,” he added. “But this year, due to intense and prolonged heat, milk production in the summer has dropped by 10 to 15 percent.”

As extreme climate patterns affect every aspect of life, India has the great advantage of its strong tradition of scientific research. At institutes across the country, researchers have looking for answers questions long before they became the subject of public alarm.

India has about 300 million cows. Almost half of milk production comes from buffalo and more than a quarter from crossbred cows, combining the resilience of indigenous cattle with the higher productivity of European breeds. In recent decades, as the country has increased the proportion of hybrids for better yields, scientists have closely studied their adaptability to rising temperatures.

Hybrids adapt more slowly than native buffalo and cattle. Scientists at the National Dairy Research Institute found that the impact of the April heat was minimal for buffalo, in stark contrast to a yield drop of about 11 percent in crossbreds.

During a recent visit to the institute in Karnal, which covers 1,400 acres and includes more than 2,000 animals, large numbers of buffalo are grazed on fresh food.

AK Dang, a scientist at the institute, said: “When you give them enough food, they won’t fight. “Otherwise, like humans, they’re bossy – they’ll fight for it.”

In a small corner that focuses on work on the effects of climate change, there are special rooms to examine the behavior of animals under high temperature conditions. New shrubs from the northeastern state of Assam, which are said to be higher in protein, last longer and have a shorter harvest cycle, are being tested. And researchers are conducting field tests on the mineral intake of cattle; they have developed a prototype of an instrument that measures temperature and humidity and produces color-coded readings that help farmers know the stress levels of animals.

Dozens of cattle graze as the soft flute music plays – an image that resonates with Hindus, as the god Krishna is often depicted with a flute and oxen. pull along.

The musical experiment is part of an effort to test all ways of reducing animals’ stress. About a year and a half ago, when Dr. Ashutosh first started his research – “40-60 decimal sounds are best,” he said – cattle from more distant barns began to congregate near the barn. with speakers.

“We added another speaker there,” said Dr. Ashutosh, who adapted research from scientists elsewhere. “We had to find a way to make the animal stress-free. Only then can we make them resilient.”

Dr Ashutosh says it is clear that shocks from extreme climates have contributed to significant reductions in milk production under “normal scientific conditions”. But what that means for real-world milk production depends on the form of stress-relief care given.

While large dairy farms can alleviate the heat with things like fans and sprinklers, much of India’s milk supply comes from smallholder farmers of the tens of thousands of cows. village cooperative society. The tiered effort has revolutionized India’s dairy industry over the past 50 years, but it has also slowed the diffusion of new technology and best practices for efficiency.

Dr Ashutosh says that while many farmers have gone to extremes to protect their herds, which are often their only source of income, water shortages have made that increasingly difficult. He laments the decline of old heat-reducing mechanisms such as communal village ponds that help cattle cool off.

“Those old systems are having an emergency utility,” he said. “But now these facilities are absent.”

Bijender Singh, a farmer in Mukari village in Uttar Pradesh, has three buffaloes and one cow. He said that about 15 years ago, villagers would lead their cattle to the edge of a nearby river when the temperature was high.

“Now that river is so polluted that cattle can’t go there,” he said. “The other village waters have also disappeared.”

This summer, he said, he tried to cool down his livestock by keeping them in a covered yard, where he used a fan and bathed them twice a day.

“The heat and temperature directly affect milk production, so we do whatever we can to save our livestock,” he said.

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