Sunday, 8 January 2012

Vechur of Kerala - World's smallest cow breed

Many thanks to H.H.Bhakti Rasamrta Maharaj for this wonderful post!

Incidentally, I am in Kerala at present and was heading to meet this man!

Both articles (5th Jan and 6th Jan) are pasted below along with their links.

------- Forwarded Message ----------
From:      Bhakti Rasamrita Swami
Subject:   Nice articles in The Hindu
Hare Krishna,dear Bharat Chandra prabhu,I thought I should inform you about
two nice articles in the Hindu newspaper of 5th & 6th January written by
P.Sainath on the Vechur cows.I am not aware of how to send the articles to
the Global Varnasrama mission conference.Perhaps you could do     that.Regards,Bhakti Rasamrita Swami
------- End of Forwarded Message ------



DATE: January 5, 2012

Holy cow! Small is beautiful
P. Sainath

Chandran ‘Master’ with the tiny Vechur calf, the latest addition to his diverse herd. He has animals of 11 different indigenous breeds in his compound. Photo: P. Sainath
The Hindu Chandran ‘Master’ with the tiny Vechur calf, the latest addition to his diverse herd. He has animals of 11 different indigenous breeds in his compound. Photo: P. Sainath

Endemic species of cow faces extinction Call for steps to conserve indigenous livestock breeds Milk of the indigenous Vechur cow beneficial to health Cattle class: native vs exotic

Kerala 'masters' struggle to keep alive rare cattle breeds.

When Kerala Agriculture Minister K.P. Mohanan paid Chandran ‘Master' Rs.15,000 for a Vechur calf last September, he was rewarding a conscious law-breaker. Yet, the Minister, on behalf of the Livestock Development Board, was doing the right thing — and everyone approved. Chandran ‘Master' and other intrepid souls have helped keep Kerala's unique cattle varieties alive. This, despite antiquated laws that made the breeding of such animals by farmers illegal without a licence from the State's Director of Animal Husbandry. And through some years when livestock inspectors relentlessly castrated the bulls of these ‘inferior' breeds, boosting the dominance of crossbred cattle.

This flowed partly from the idea that higher milk yields, regardless of costs and consequences, were all that mattered. In what could mark an attitude shift, the State is now paying rebel farmers for resisting its own depredations.

Chandran Master keeps 24 head of cattle, mostly rare indigenous breeds, in the compound of his home in P. Vemballur village of Thrissur district. These include the tiny Vechur cow, symbol of Kerala's domestic cattle crisis. By 2000, the animal was on the FAO's World Watch List of Domestic Animal Diversity, in its ‘Critical-Maintained Breeds List.' A variety makes that list “when the number of breeding females” is 100 or less. Or when “the total number of breeding males” is five or less. Or if the overall count is 120 or less, and falling.
Smallest cattle breed

In Chandran Master's home, the count is rising. “I gave the Livestock Board five Vechur calves,” he says proudly. And got two Gir calves and Rs. 45,000 in return. A tiny Vechur calf had been born — in his compound — just six hours before we arrived there. Her mother, a fine animal, is 82 cm high. The Vechur is the world's smallest cattle breed. November 2010 saw Diana, a 77-cm Vechur (also from Thrissur district), enter the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest cow in the world.


Mostly, this breed averages around 90 cm in height and about 130 kg in weight. It yields up to 3 litres of milk a day and requires very little by way of feed or maintenance.

Alongside the “world's smallest cow” are the Vadakara Dwarf, the Kasargode Dwarf, the High Range Dwarf and other indigenous cattle breeds. The 72-year-old former school teacher scoffs at the official mind-set on cattle. “The cow for them is just a milk-production machine” he says. “Their view has no room for the composition and quality of the milk. Much less for the role of cattle in agriculture and in a farmer's life. None at all for the impact on the environment, diversity or community.”

Nambiyandra Ayyappan Chandran ‘Master' is an award-winning former English teacher who worked 36 years in Kerala and Oman. He has “pledged what remains of my life” to conserving breeds of Bos indicus (native Indian cattle). His living room sports a huge photo of the Rs.15,000 cheque from the Kerala Livestock Development Board. “Roughly what I lose each month on my passion.” But Chandran Master is okay with that.
‘Zero maintenance'

“My cows,” he points out, “are zero maintenance — they are native and do not need a high-input diet.” But he also tries to grow 30 types of mangoes and an equal number of bamboo varieties, all indigenous. Also a few native kinds of fish and many traditional plants. His son tries to bridge the household deficit through high-earning horticulture. If the family converted some of its 18 acres to real estate, he would be rich, but Chandran Master has “a mission and a passion.”

“Malayalis take the easy way out in everything,” Minister K.P. Mohanan had said while handing over the KLDB cheque. “Hence, they have not taken pains to preserve native breeds such as Vechur cow and Kasargode Dwarf. Instead, they have gone for cross-bred varieties. Malayalis should be aware of a global movement for preservation of domestic breeds of animals.” (The Hindu, Sept. 25, 2011).

However, native breeds were ruined not by people but by official policies over a long time.

Kerala's anti-indigenous drive across decades was one factor in the collapse of its native cattle numbers. Livestock Census figures show a drop of 48 per cent in the total cattle population between 1996 and 2007. But it goes back further, to when the Kerala Livestock Improvement Act of 1961 gave “the licensing officer” the “power to order castration of bulls.” And farmers ordered to castrate their bulls had 30 days to do so. An amended Act in 1968 also promised fines and imprisonment for those failing to comply.

Dr. Sosamma Iype, retired Professor, Animal Breeding and Genetics from Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) was a pioneer in reviving the Vechur breed. She and Dr. Abraham Varkey, retired Professor of Veterinary Surgery, make this point. “On the one hand, you needed a licence from the State director of the Animal Husbandry Department to be able to keep a bull. On the other, an inspector finding such a bull [Vechur or any other kind] was bound by orders to castrate it! So no one ever sought a licence!” The castrations drove some native breeds to near extinction. (Similar drives occurred in other parts of the country, notably Orissa. There, an insane project aimed at boosting milk production, all but wiped out the Khariar Bull, the best breed of the Kalahandi region by 1980. It also transformed what was then a milk-surplus region, into a milk-deficit one).

Still, the Vechur survived. Partly, says Professor Varkey, “because a few escaped, being in regions too remote or forested for the vets to reach. And partly because Temple Bulls were exempted for religious reasons.”

They also survive because of people like Sosamma Iype. She and others were part of a drive to conserve local breeds that saw the founding of the Vechur Conservation Trust in 1998. “The search for survivors, though, began in 1988,” says Prof. Iype. “And with the help of a student search team headed by Anil Zachariah, we found eight by the end of that year. We got Rs. 51,000 sanctioned by the then Vice Chancellor of KAU to buy the eight animals and provide them with feed.” Her work at KAU saw a turnaround in the fate of the Vechur breed and earned it wide recognition.
Milk yields and input costs

But don't the crossbreeds outclass native breeds in milk yield? “That can't be the only yardstick,” says Prof. Iype. “Check the milk yields against input costs. The expense of the crossbreeds is enormous. They are far more prone to outbreaks of illness as we were reminded again in 2009 during a severe outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease. There are indeed several farmers who prefer crossbreeds as an income source, through sale of milk. There are also 25-30 per cent, who prefer smaller, less costly animals. These households look at it from the point of view of home consumption, quality of milk and food security. “The Trust today promotes the cause of not only the Vechur, but other Kerala breeds of cattle, goats, pigs and ducks as well.

Back in his home in P. Vemballur village, Chandran Master wants to know: “When are you going to help me get a Khariar Bull from Orissa?”


DATE: 6th Jan

Cattle class: native vs exotic
P. Sainath

The mother Vechur cow is 82 cm tall. Vechur is the world’s smallest cattle breed. Photo : P. Sainath

Kerala is feeling the ill-effects of an official policy that favoured disease-prone crossbreeds over low-maintenance native breeds.

Visitors flow in and out of Chandran Master's compound in P. Vemballur, Thrissur, Kerala. Students, teachers, trainees in animal husbandry work and even officials walk around like it's a public space. And in some ways, it is. People come a distance to see his 22 cows and two bulls — mostly from rare indigenous breeds. Also, the many kinds of mango, bamboo and fish he has cultivated, again species native to India. The former English teacher also boasts a classic Kathiawari horse and several native breeds of poultry. But the star attractions are the tiny Vechur — “the world's smallest cow” — and other dwarf varieties of Kerala cattle.

The visitors' interest also reflects a growing concern in the State about the fate of domestic breeds of cattle and other livestock. Like elsewhere, a strong emphasis on crossbred cattle that aimed at higher milk production also saw a sharp decline in native animals. There is now a serious debate on the results of that approach. Kerala's cattle population declined by around 48 per cent between 1996 and 2007.
Changed stance

Dr. R. Vijayakumar, Director of Kerala's Animal Husbandry Department (AHD), says the State's new breeding policy “limits exotic [that is, non-native] germplasm to 50 per cent of cattle. We are now also propagating native breeds. We even conduct artificial insemination with the semen of native bulls.” And while the number of animals may have fallen between 1996 and 2007, “milk productivity of cows in the State rose in that period. From an average of six litres a day to 8.5 litres, even as crossbreeds came to account for 87 per cent of Kerala's cattle.”

However, the cost of milk production is much higher with the crossbreeds. The feed requirement of native dwarf breeds like Vechur and Kasargode are very minor. Their feed-to-milk conversion is very good. The crossbreeds are high-maintenance animals and are disease-prone. “See this Vadakara Dwarf,” says Chandran Master. “I doubt I spend five to ten rupees on her feed daily. Still she gives me three to four litres. But the quality of her milk is highly prized and I could get Rs.50 a litre for it. So even in that way, the benefit is greater. There is no high standard of feed required either. Kitchen scraps and leftovers can be used. And they don't require special sheds or anything.” He, however, does not sell milk. He does sell “very few calves each year when the numbers exceed my capacity to manage.”

Of the Vechur, he says its milk has medicinal qualities recorded by Ayurveda ages ago. In more recent times, studies at the Kerala Agricultural University have also shown the percentage of fats and total solids of the Vechur cow to be higher than that found in crossbred cows. The smaller size of the fat globules in the Vechur's milk makes it more suitable for infants and the sick.

AHD Director R. Vijayakumar says the decline of native species had many causes. Not just the castrations of ‘non-descript' varieties that had occurred in a much earlier period. He points to “the trend towards cash crops which brought about a decline in animal-based agriculture and to a younger generation of farmers with no time or patience for rearing large animals — they prefer smaller ruminants. And to a greater interest in crossbreeds due to their higher milk productivity.”
Hardy and healthy

But costs and maintenance are another matter. “Before I switched to local breeds in 1994,” says Chandran Master, “I had three crossbreds, including one Swiss Brown. I had to spend up to Rs.400 a day on each. The feed was very costly and over Rs.200 a day. Pellet feed, rice powder, wheat powder, oil cake, green grass, it's endless. They would fall ill all the time and the vet was here every week, with each visit costing me Rs.150 apart from the expense of arranging a vehicle for him.”

Since making his switch: “No vet has attended my cows for 17 years. And I have not even insured a single one of them. These are hardy, healthy creatures.” And several experts do point out that India's native cattle (Bos indicus) have evolved to cope with the climate and to “withstand diseases, parasites and calve easily without human assistance.” Scientists like Dr. Sosamma Iype, who pioneered the revival of the Vechur at KAU, also point out that these dwarf animals “have good resistance to foot and mouth disease and mastitis. Both, diseases which plague crossbred cows in Kerala. Vechur cattle also have a far lower incidence of respiratory infections.”

Most livestock owners in Kerala are either small or marginal farmers or even landless. The State has the highest percentage of crossbreeds in the country. And while its average milk yield has risen, production is far below demand. The State is not amongst the top producers in the country. Feed utilisation per litre of milk is also one of the highest in India. Critics say it's wrong to ignore the steep fall in cattle numbers and native breeds that has hurt the State, alongside decades-old policies that made it illegal for a farmer to keep any bull without a licence for it. That licence is only granted at the level of State Director of the AHD.

Technically, Chandran Master and others are breaking the law. But surely the State has no way of knowing whether a farmer is keeping an “illegal” bull? “A hostile panchayat can make life hell for a farmer,” says one expert. “If that farmer is at odds with the ruling outfit of that panchayat, they can keep him in court for months.”
Red tape nightmare

Haritha Bhoomi (Green Earth) a journal on agriculture recently summed up the red tape involved in permissions of any kind: Say a farmer wishes to exceed the limit of six large animals and 20 head of poultry, even by a minor number. He needs clearances from the panchayat to just start the process. If you exceed the quota, you have to go to the Pollution Control Board. Depending on the size of the establishment you wish to build, you will need certificates from the District Town Planner. Perhaps even from the State Chief Town Planner. Manage to get these done and you have to prepare a technical report for the panchayat and get three or four certificates from them. Then the farmer must get clearances from the district medical officer to whom he has to submit NOCs from all residents within 100 metres of his planned farm.

On my first visit to Chandran Master's home I had run into a Livestock Inspector (LI) from another region. Wishing to remain unnamed, he told me “On most of my visits I see the problems faced by the crossbreeds. They fall ill with the slightest change in climate. They cannot take the heat.” Chandran Master chipped in: “You cannot sleep one night peacefully. Crossbreds can't stand ten minutes of rain. With local breeds, you don't even need cowsheds.” The LI nodded: “If I keep a cow, it will be a Vechur.”

(PS: Following Thursday's story in The Hindu, the Sahabaghya Vikash Abhiyan, a community-based body deeply involved in Kalahandi's agriculture, has announced it will gift Chandran Master two calves of the rare Khariar breed. The challenge now is to transport them from western Orissa to Thrissur in Kerala.)

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