Gaolao breed of cattle is cherished for its capacity to carry load and quality milk, but only 3,000 of them are left
Three years ago when I bought these bullocks, they were worth Rs 58,000. Now they are worth at least Rs 1,00,000,” exclaims Anil Kale with pride, pointing out the distinguishing features of the Gaolao breed—muscular bodies, fleshy humps, bulbous foreheads and narrow, slit-eyes that give it the characteristic ill-tempered but majestic look.
Suresh Awathale, who sold Kale his proud pair, does not sound that enthusiastic. Awathale has set up a camp near Kale’s village of Shirpur in Wardha district of Maharashtra. The camp, where he has moved his herd of 50 cattle, is 20 km from his village Chopan. He does this every year during summers in search of fodder. “There is no fun in rearing Gaolao cattle anymore,” he says. “They do command a price but the forests are closed to us, and who has the money to buy fodder from market?”
The much admired Gaolao breed of Vidarbha is on the verge of extinction. According to experts, about 3,000 of these majestic animals are left, of which less than half are of true type (pure breed). The number of true type bulls is an abysmal 150.
“Unless urgent attention is paid to conservation and regeneration, the Gaolao breed could be extinct in five to seven years,” warns A R Sirotia, professor and head of the department of animal genetics and breeding, Nagpur Veterinary College.
Decline in Gaolao numbers started soon after Independence due to skewed government policy. Historically, the breed was recognised as a dual purpose variety—the bullocks were valued for their strength and speed, and the cows were known to yield 6-8 litres of milk a day. However, in the early days after Independence, only the draught value (capacity to pull or carry) of the breed came to be emphasised by government agencies. The Nagpur gazetteer, for instance, records Gaolao as a draught breed, neglecting its milch utility. With this shift in policy, says Sirotia, breeding practices also shifted in favour of bullocks, with the result that milk yields came down. Government milk production enhancement schemes, too, were based exclusively on exotic foreign breeds like Jersey and Holstein. With time, perceptions changed and Gaolao cows came to be seen as a loss-making prospect.
Government’s overenthusiastic hybrid-isation programmes made it worse. Sirotia says, “There were actually two programmes—inferior and nondescript animals were to be cross-bred with imported high-milk-yield breeds to improve breed quality, whereas good indigenous breeds were to be maintained in pure condition through selective breeding. However, due to a target-oriented cross-breeding programme, even good quality Gaolao animals got crossbred.”
Another government programme, the Gramin Valu Khacchikaran Mohim (local bull castration drive) led to indiscriminate castration of indigenous bulls, including Gaolao, says Sajal Kulkarni, researcher associated with non-profit baif Development Research Foundation (baif). These factors ate into the gene pool of the animal, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of pure Gaolao cattle.
At present, scientists say, a germplasm (genetic resources of an organism) crisis is looming, with pure bulls and cows difficult to find. Decrease in herd sizes due to fodder crunch is adding to the problem. Most of the Gaolao populations, which have become confined to Arvi, Karanja and Ashti tehsils in Wardha, are not of true type. This is making revival difficult.
Chandrabhan Asole of Panjra village, a Gaolao enthusiast, says finding good bulls is becoming difficult. “In my childhood, the herds of Gaolao were huge, and farmers kept bulls of their own. Now herd sizes are shrinking, and keeping bulls is no longer feasible.” Asole, 65, has six head of pure Gaolao, including cows, heifers and calves, but says breeding is becoming difficult.
“Knowledge of animal progeny is very important in breeding, and our elders would emphasise on maintaining khandani bulls for the purpose,” he explains. “A bull that is strong and born of a good milk-yielding cow is considered best, and breeding it with a good milch cow ensures that both male and female progeny will be good. But female progeny may not be good if the father bull was born to a low milk-yield cow.”
He says that without the wherewithal to keep their own bulls, farmers are relying on the visual characteristics, or worse, on availability, to choose bull for breeding, which does not yield desired results. Sirotia says research organisations are facing the same problem. “We, too, rely on visual character-istics instead of performance history. We are not sure of genetic purity of the animals.”
Community practices on Gaolao breed-ing have also changed. Namdeo Jhambre of Dahegaon village in Wardha says the religious practice of releasing community bulls or sacred bulls voluntarily by farmers to roam free in the village is declining. “Bulls need to be replaced or added every two years to prevent inbreeding,” he says. “But increas-ingly, debt-ridden farmers are not able to spare bulls for this purpose—selling bullocks has become a survival necessity,” he adds.
What are the options?
Devendra Shinde, artificial inseminator from baif, says in the past few years people’s awareness of the quality of Gaolao milk has gone up and is one of the reasons behind the desire to revive the breed.
Shinde sees artificial insemination as one way to conserve the breed. He has been supplying Gaolao semen to farmers for three years and says the demand is rising.
B R Ramteke, technical officer at Maha-rashtra Livestock Development Board’s Frozen Semen Laboratory in Nagpur, says that about 15,000 doses of semen are produced yearly.
Artificial insemination, however, is a stop gap measure, says Sirotia. “Community-based conservation practices will have to be revived and supported for effective revival of the breed,” he explains. “Scientific institutions can help by identifying genetically pure germplasm and making it available to the communities. But it takes 8-10 years from birth to certify an animal as possessing the required characteristics for propagation. Without a community base, the breed will remain a showpiece.”
The good news is that government agencies have started taking interest in Gaolao. The National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources—country’s premier research body on conservation and utilisation of livestock and poultry genetic resources—recently agreed to help set up an animal cytogenic and molecular genetic laboratory at Nagpur. This will help in genetic screening of true type animals, informs Sirotia.
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