Only the Gir indigenous cow breed is being promoted under Rashtriya Gokul Mission; here is why

Gir is a hardy, adaptable breed with high milk yield and calm disposition; experts however say genetically superior cows should be identified and bred from among all indigenous breeds

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 26 October 2023
Photograph: Mayur Sisodiya_

Almost a decade into the Rashtriya Gokul Mission—India’s flagship scheme to improve indigenous cattle breeds—the country has hit a peculiar roadblock. Instead of improving the quality of all the indigenous breeds, as envisioned under the scheme, it has ended up promoting only one indigenous variety, the Gir cow, across the country. This trend, if not corrected, could end up threatening the purity of indigenous breeds across the country.

The Rashtriya Gokul Mission, rolled out in December 2014, has two major components: research and development of high-quality semen to increase the chances of female calf births and the setting up of semen stations to ensure easy access to high-quality semen for livestock rearers across the country.

“The initiative was started with the idea that research will be carried out on a host of high milk-yielding indigenous bovine varieties such as Sahiwal, Tharparkar, Red Sindhi and then depending on the geographical location, the high-quality semen will be used to impregnate other indigenous varieties. In practice, almost all states are demanding Gir varieties for carrying out artificial insemination,” says a senior official with the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, the nodal agency for the scheme.

The official says the reason behind the popularity of Gir stems from the fact that the mission was started in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh where milk production of indigenous bovine varieties impregnated with Gir increased by three to four litres a day. “Subsequently, livestock rearers across the country started to demand only Gir,” the official adds.

There are other reasons as well. “Being a native of the west and central parts of India, Gir has the ability to adapt to the entire central belt and northern and southern stretches. In contrast, Sahiwal, a native of Northern India or Tharparkar, from the Northwest, does not adapt as well to new environments,” says Hathisinh Sisodiya, Gujarat-based veterinarian and cow breeder. A purebred Gir has the highest milk production among indigenous varieties at 18-20 litres a day, says A K Dang, principal scientist and public relations officer at the National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI), Karnal, Haryana. He adds farmers also prefer Gir as they are calmer in nature than other indigenous varieties. This helps in milk collection.

The impact of the programme can be seen in the livestock numbers. The country recorded 2.3 million purebred Gir cows in the 2019 livestock census, which is an almost 70 per cent jump from the 2013 estimate of 1.38 million. The population of graded Gir, a crossbreed between Gir and other nondescript varieties, increased by 22 per cent between 2013 and 2019 to 4.56 million. In contrast, the population of Sahiwal stood at 1.88 million in 2019 and its graded variety increased from 3.79 million to 4.07 million between 2013 and 2019.

The graded variety of Hariana, the only high-yielding breed with a population larger than that of Gir, saw a dip from 46.41 million in 2013 to 15.78 million in 2019.

Faulty belief

The recent obsession with Gir cows are unfounded, as graded Gir cows are not performing better in most states. “Our research shows no increase in milk production of graded Gir in Haryana,” says Dang. In east Rajasthan, researchers claim the milk production of graded Gir is, in fact, lower than that of indigenous varieties. “Farmers in the region have complained that their graded Gir cows have shorter lactation periods and lower daily milk production,” says Sibhash Yadav, head of Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Alwar, Rajasthan. He, however, adds that the milk yield of graded Gir cows is higher than indigenous breeds in west Rajasthan because of climatic conditions.

“The issue goes beyond adapting to microclimatic conditions. Do the covered farmers or cow sheds have enough resources to rear the graded cows?” says Chanda Nimbkar of the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute in Phaltan, Maharashtra. For instance, Gir cows prefer living in herds and their milk production reduces when bred in isolation, says Yadav. In such a situation, they become more of a liability. This was seen in 2016 when Holstein crossbred cows were distributed to farmers in Vidarbha to arrest farmer suicides. “Many farmers abandoned the cows as they could not take care of the cows,” says Nimbkar.

Local solution

Instead of the current focus on a few high-yielding bovine varieties, experts say genetically superior cows should be identified and bred from among the indigenous cows. “These cows can be crossbred,” says Nimbkar. Maharashtra’s animal husbandry department successfully experimented with a similar model in 2012-14 where semen from genetically superior indigenous breeds was delivered at farms,” she says.

The long-term challenge with the way the Mission is being implemented is that the country might end up losing purebred varieties of indigenous bovines. “India has a diverse cow population each suited for a specific region. If we constantly crossbreed indigenous varieties then over time the graded varieties might completely lose the region specific traits,” says Nimbkar. For instance, Badri cows in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are short and hairy, two traits that help them survive in the harsh, cold mountains. “If they are crossbred with Gir, their milk production might go up, but their physiology will also change,” warns Sisodhiya.

Currently, almost 30 per cent of all calves in the country are born through artificial insemination. The guidelines of the Mission, last updated in October 2020, target increasing it to 70 per cent.

Sisodiya warns the scheme is repeating the mistake of the White Revolution, when the country imported exotic breeds like Jersey to crossbreed with Indian varieties. “On the face of it, the country’s milk production increased, but it did not translate into higher income for livestock rearers as the crossbred cows were more prone to diseases and required more care,” says Sisodhiya.

This was first published in the 16-31 October, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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