Bishwa Bhaskar Choudhary and Smita Sirohi
INDIA’S achievement of transforming itself from a milk-deficient country to the world’s largest milk producer has been exemplary. With over 136 million bovines producing about 198 million tonnes of milk in 2019-20, the Indian dairy sector exhibits strong growth potential. Nonetheless, the country has a small share in the global dairy trade. Milk production is an integral component of Indian agriculture, supporting the livelihood and food security of more than two-thirds of the rural population. The demand for milk is buoyant owing to population and income growth and increasing urbanisation. As per the estimate of the National Dairy Development Board, the demand for milk and milk products in India is expected to be around 266.5 million metric tonnes by 2030. Recent growth trends in the Indian dairy sector have shown its resilience to external shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic. However, when it comes to susceptibility to climate shocks, there is ample evidence to suggest that the sector in India is highly vulnerable.
Year-wise milk production in India
The performance of livestock is strongly influenced by the thermal environment. The anatomical and physiological characteristics of livestock help them adjust their body temperature, within a limited range, to remain productive. Ambient temperatures above the thermo-neutral range not only cause stress in the animals, directly impeding their growth and productivity, but also impinge on various factors crucial for livestock production, such as water availability, feed and forage quality, reproduction and health. When exposed to such stress, dairy animals display a variety of behavioural and physiological acclimatisation as essential survival strategies, but at the cost of decreased milk production. The extent of production losses is largely conditioned by genetic potential, life stages, nutrition and habitat management practices. Studies have indicated that indigenous breeds of cattle are more thermo-tolerant, while crossbred cattle are highly sensitive to heat stress. Buffaloes, though natives of a tropical climate, are also sensitive to thermal stress owing to their thick black skin with sparse hair coat and fewer deeply situated sweat glands, compromising heat dissipation through evaporative heat loss.
A study conducted by the authors at the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal (Haryana), has brought out that each unit increase in the temperature humidity index (THI) — an indicator of thermal stress — above the critical level, which is around 72 under sub-tropical climatic conditions of India, significantly reduces the fortnightly milk productivity of dairy animals by 0.42-0.67% in the northern Indian plains. The stress condition in farm animals in this region stretches from mid-March to early November.
Under the business as usual scenario of population and productivity growth trends of dairy animals in the high milch animal density region comprising Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the production losses due to heat stress are projected to be around 3,39,000 tonnes during 2020-29, which will further increase to about 6,29,000 tonnes during 2030-39. At the current price of Rs 45 per litre, this translates into a monetary loss of Rs 15.25 billion (2020-29) and will further accentuate to about Rs 28.30 billion in the subsequent decade. Disaggregating these economic losses at the sub-regional level shows that the share of western and central Uttar Pradesh will be higher.
In India, though the profit margin per litre of milk produced is low, the cash income from milk production is an important source of earnings for millions of farm households. Accentuating heat stress due to climate change would further erode profitability. The empirical estimates of the economic losses due to heat stress indicate that the yield-enhancing technological and genetic advancements would not suffice to boost productivity without focus on the climate change adaptation measures at the field level. Hence, together with increasing the milk yield of dairy animals, interventions are required to mitigate the adverse impact of future climate warming — an integrated approach to take up adaptation strategies at all levels to arrest this decline would be needed to be put in place.
Standard livestock cooling methods, such as fans, sprinklers and foggers require significant amounts of electricity and water and hence are not economically climate-smart options for smallholder livestock producers. Low cost, renewable energy-operated evaporative cooling systems need to be fabricated as important adaptive devices catering to the needs of rural India.
The thermal stress also alters nutritional requirement of the animals and thus reformulation of diets becomes essential to cope with the production losses under a hot environment. For lactating cattle, feed rich in starch and poor in fibre has been unanimously recommended under such an environment. Therefore, research investment in developing high-quality forage would be crucial in ameliorating the stress effect in the long term.
The Union Budget 2022-23 has some key initiatives to give momentum to the Indian livestock sector. The budget for livestock has been increased by 40% and the allocation for Central sector schemes is up by 48%, indicating the government's commitment to the growth of livestock keepers. An increase of 20% in the budget for the Rashtriya Gokul Mission and National Programme for Dairy Development reaffirms the government's thrust on increasing productivity potential of indigenous bovine population and quality milk production. However, the state governments have to play a catalytic role in ensuring policy support through suitable institutional mechanisms apposite for the effectual delivery of various adaptation and mitigation strategies required for attaining key goals in the context of climate change and the dairy production system.
Choudhary is a scientist at ICAR-Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute,
Jhansi; Sirohi is Adviser (Agri & Marine Products), Embassy of India to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg. Views are personal
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