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Livestock Sector in India Has Shown Remarkable Resilience, Expert Says

India produces 22% of the world’s total milk production; India is also the largest sheep and goat meat exporter. It is among the largest exporters of bovine meat too. There must be something that livestock producers in India have got right, argues Dr Kohler-Rollefson.

On April 11, 2022, researcher Dr Ilse Kohler Rollefson, who has long worked among the camel herders of Rajasthan, delivered the keynote address at the National Livestock Conference in Visakhapatnam during the 28th annual convention of the Indian Society of Animal Production and Management. 

Her presentation was titled ‘Rethinking Animal Science: To make it fit for the 21st century. What she pointed to right at the outset was the phenomenal success of small livestock breeders, who made India the world’s largest milk producer, even though the country is only seventh-largest when it comes to landmass, with a high population density.

India produces 22% of the world’s total milk production; India is also the largest sheep and goat meat exporter. It is among the largest exporters of bovine meat too. There must be something that livestock producers in India have got right, argued Dr Kohler-Rollefson.

Most of India’s livestock is mobile, kept in long-distance transhumant or village-bound pastoralist systems. India’s pastoralist producers raised cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camel, pigs, yaks, ducks, donkeys, horses, and guinea fowl. There are at least 46 different communities of livestock breeders, who are estimated to be about 10% of the country’s total population.

In his book Agrarian Conquest, historian Neeladri Bhattacharya shows that pastoralists were a much-valued part of rural life in pre-colonial India, deeply entrenched in a reciprocal relationship with farmers. Pastoralists provided the animals for farm work, and the herds that were penned in farmlands left behind valued organic manure. The services of the pastoralists were rewarded with rations of food grains from farmers

Villages had common grazing grounds or sacred groves that the pastoralists could use; even open land that was part of the landscape served a useful purpose. The livestock cycled nutrients from uncultivated lands to farmers’ fields.

However, the colonial government was poorly educated about the richness of these interrelationships and saw uncultivated land as a “wasteland”. “Nature was an enemy that had to be conquered and transformed into orderly, fenced farms, preferably wheat fields,” said Dr Kohler-Rollefson. This worldview caused the colonial government to acquire and cultivate lands that were earlier left fallow or uncultivated.

Despite all these changes, agro-pastoralism remains India’s dominant livestock production system. The integration of the herders with the farming communities is how organic manure is made available on the farms of India.

Pastoralism has a huge economic contribution to rural India – 53% of India’s total milk production and 74% of meat production are from such producers. The value of organic manure alone, in terms of Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium content (NPK) is over US $45 billion.

There has been much discussion in scientific journals about the greenhouse gas emissions from raising livestock in recent years. Veganism is catching, and some UN agencies have begun promoting “plant-based diets”. Dr Ilse Kohler Rollefson explained two fallacies at the root of such arguments – higher yields mean higher income for farmers, and efficiency is also sustainability. These arguments hold little water – the efficiency of livestock management cannot be assessed from merely the feed conversion rate or efficiency.

A holistic approach would also consider the water usage, biodiversity, nutritional density and public health impact of the different forms of production. While higher yields may translate into higher income for farmers, we have witnessed spells of price shocks in recent years, where prices have fallen so low that milk producers have preferred just to let their milk flow in the streets rather than incur the cost of transporting it to the market.

India’s agro-pastoralist system utilises a range of grazing resources, including crop residue, weeds, natural vegetation and what is left behind from foliage that is lopped off. The animal herders generate what might be called a “second crop” from the fields while also helping to enrich the soil with natural manure from the animal dung. The animals provide free de-weeding services, and they help germinate some varieties of seeds that need to go through the gut of the animals before germination.

Agro-pastoralism in India is one of several ways in which communities have meshed together—complex and wide-ranging social arrangements exist between landowners and animal herders, farmers, local communities and traders.

This manner of production is free from expensive or imported inputs, and the animals move according to changing seasons. If there is no water after a while, the whole herd moves to an area where water availability is higher. Animals adapt to weather conditions, too, eating little in times of shortage and feeding in excess when food is abundant. The long years in herding have meant that the communities that herd animals are also repositories of specialised knowledge. 

For instance, among the Raika camel herders of Rajasthan, ethnomedical practices of high efficacy were noted. Since camel health is seldom taught in veterinary colleges in India, the Raika remain the most efficacious doctors treating camels.

In times of economic shock, the herding communities offer a source of labour and can absorb labour that might be displaced in other sectors. In her last slide at the meeting, Dr Kohler Rollefson offered a few suggestions on the way forward – she said city herders need support, rights to customary grazing should be respected and legalised, and all animal husbandry could become land-based, and pigs and chickens could be fed food waste. Livestock could be re-integrated into the landscape through government policy and the promotion of organically produced food.

Livestock keeping is connected with nature conservation, and this link must be stressed and promoted. The food thus made should be processed locally, and subsidies could be put in place to encourage local dairies and decentralised processing infrastructure.


The writer is a freelance journalist.

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