The Last Animal Farm

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India’s biggest project in cattle innovation comes to an end. So does a colonial legacy

GULABI SQUINTS AGAINST the morning sun, eyeing the intruders impatiently. The black-and-white spotted cow, unusually enormous in built than a regular cow, fidgets as a worker lifts her left ear up to reveal her official name: CAD 967. “This is the first thing we do here. The moment a calf is born, we get her name inked inside the ears. The initial letter of the mother’s name is retained for the calf’s name,” says S Yadav. The animal eases as we step away, engaging herself with the cud, calm and collected as her caretaker continues to milk her. The venue may look like any other gaushala, but the Allahabad Military Farm, the first ever organised dairy in India, holds its own within the 128-year-old colonial enclosure that spreads across 700 acres of land. Its specialty: the highly esteemed Frieswal cows, a cross between Netherland’s Holstein-Friesian and India’s native Sahiwal developed exactly 30 years ago by the Indian military farms and Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).

As part of the Government’s orders to shut down the military farms to cut costs and better use its vast defence land portfolio, the Allahabad Military Farm is on its way to closure, one of the 39 (of which 15 are already shut) across the country. Historically, military farms were set up by the British Army at all major cantonments for the production and supply of fresh cow milk to troops located in garrisons across India, even pioneering artificial insemination for cattle in 1925. Additionally, the head of military farms in 1946-1947 was the ‘Imperial dairy expert for the country’, a position which has, since, been taken up by the ICAR, which has led several collaborative projects with the military farms to develop crossbred cattle for India. The Frieswal Project, even today, is recognised as the country’s largest crossbred cattle program.

The Allahabad Military Farm was scheduled to shut shop on October 14th, but operations, it seems, continue. “It’s a policy decision [the closure]. What’s not required needs to be done away with. That said, we were supposed to cease operations on the 14th, but that did not happen. What’s on paper and what is happening, it’s not clear,” says Lt Col Gyan Prakash, the officer in charge at the farm. Here, though, it’s anything but the state of limbo.

Life at the Allahabad Dairy Farm begins at 4 am, when the cows are milked, fed, washed, and repeat. On account of their high yield, the Frieswals are milked three times a day. The upkeep of the stock, as is evident, is expensive: a report states that the farms cost more than $46 million a year to run. Here, the Frieswals are fed a special mixture of wheat bran, crushed maize, molasses and salt, among others. For every worker, there are 14 cows assigned. The number of staff varies—with 50 permanent staff, and around 150 casual labourers. M Sahu, the manager of the farm, says, “There used to be around 250-300 permanent staff members here at one point. Now, we’re left with this much.” The farm, additionally, was also the centre of hay production, apart from milk. “Army transport units used to use mules and horses, which used to feed on hay. Allahabad had a major role in hay production, procuring, bailing and dispatch. All of Eastern Command and the northern sector used to get hay. Now there are roads, so slowly this activity, like many other activities, also stopped,” says Sahu.

Several personnel in charge come up when summoned, explaining every department’s function, from administration to the cowshed to the production unit, with childlike enthusiasm. Inside the campus, one finds sheds with ‘dry’ or ‘high’ labels, denoting the yield the cows produce. When we arrive, a few cows are in the process of being milked. A few steps away, a caretaker cleans up after his stock. “Not all of them are high yielders,” says Yadav. While 1,200 litres are produced in the morning, by evening, the yield goes down to up to 1,000 litres. “The yield also depends on the genetics of the cows,” says Yadav. Predictably, the Frieswals, apart from their physical structures, are highly efficient than the regular cows. “A regular cow would probably give 10-12 litres a day. A Frieswal will give 30 litres,” says Lt Col Prakash. Various boards project different parameters of produce, with the high yielders’ names listed like an honorary roll call—today, Rocky, Mira, Gori and Parag are ahead of the class. The daily herd strength is noted meticulously too—out of a stock of 183, 163 are Frieswals; there are133 among the young stock. The milking performance, last noted in September 2017, shows Frieswals lagging behind than last year.

Walking around, one finds the main building in the campus, a striking yellow and white bungalow, lying in a state of disrepair. Shiv Baran, one of the caretakers who stays within the campus, tells us, “Kisi zamaane me idhar hi doodh aata tha, garam hoke thanda kara jaata tha aur jawaano ko diya jaata tha (At some point, this building was used for milk production, where the milk used to be heated, cooled down and then given to the jawans).” Now, there are new buildings in the campus. Most old buildings are defunct. “Jab bandh karna hi tha toh kandam rehne, na rehne me kya farak hai (When it was supposed to shut down, what’s the point of asking if it’s defunct or not),” he says.

“If the military farms close, the frieswals will vanish. Our 30 years of scientific research, all that money spent, will be for nothing” Birham Prakash, director, Central Institute for Research on Cattle

SET UP IN February, 1989, the Allahabad farm’s original function was on the lines of quasi-commercial departments of the Military Farms Corps of the Union Ministry of Defence, which maintains large herds of cattle and buffaloes for milk production for the Armed Forces. The origin of the military farms in India goes back to the latter half of the 19th century when a large number of British troops were inducted in India, who turned up with their families. According to a 1976 report of the National Commission of Agriculture, ‘The responsibility of providing rations to these people was vested with the Master General of Supplies. Milk and milk products were important articles of diet for them and these were being arranged from local sources. The incidence of diseases among the British troops and their families were found to be high and this was attributed to poor quality milk supplied to them.’ This led to the setting up of the first military dairy in Allahabad. So successful were its operations that it led to the establishment of more such farms in many other cantonments in Haryana, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Jammu and Kashmir. The report notes the setting up of 24 military farms on April 1st, 1975, with a total of 9,835 animals, which included 7,231 cows and 2,604 buffaloes.

The military farms were the first to take up organised crossbreeding of indigenous cattle with European breeds on a large scale. ‘This was found necessary because of poor milk yield of indigenous cattle as well as their late maturity and long calving intervals,’ states the report. In 1907, the Ayrshire breed, which originated from Scotland (the strains of the cattle crossed to form it still not exactly known), was imported to India. In 1952, the crossbreeding work with European breeds was halted when a committee of experts stated that in view of dependence on foreign countries on exotic bulls, the crossbreeding work should be discontinued and that the crossbred stock at the military farms should be back-crossed with bulls of indigenous breeds. The 1976 report further notes, ‘It was also recommended that herds of Indian zebu breeds of cattle should be introduced in these farms and improved by selective breeding.’ This was when indigenous breeds such as Sahiwal, Sindhi, Hariana, Gir and Tharparkar were introduced. However, when the ban on crossbreeding on military farms was lifted in 1958, on the recommendation of the Reorganisation Committee, the purpose of crossbred herds came into fore and the focus fell on Friesian bulls. ‘Maintenance of exotic inheritance at 50 per cent level in crossbreds was suggested by this Committee,’ says the report.

Between the 1970s and 80s, the crossbreeding programme got a major boost. In 1960, the Military Farms Directorate imported 15 Friesian bulls from Holland and restarted the crossbreeding work. In fact, additional bulls of exotic dairy breeds were supplied by the Union Ministry of Agriculture from Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1972 and 1973, 12 more bulls were brought from the US. In four years, the military farms saw a substantial growth in the crossbred herd. The format of crossbreeding followed the one adopted in the West. A ‘crisscross’ system was maintained for the sole purpose of production. ‘As the present stock of crossbreds in the military dairy farms which has to be used as foundation stock for breeding comprises a large number of animals with different levels of exotic inheritance, the resultant progenies in the coming years would be of a wider assortment of crossbred animals,’ says the report.

In 1987, a significant collaboration took place between the military farms and a wing of ICAR called Central Institute for Research on Cattle (CIRC), based in Meerut. In a country of around 190 million cattle population, the institute helms developmental programs to improve the cattle productivity in the country. Apart from research on genetic improvement programs of breeds such as Kankrej, Sahiwal and Gir in their native tracts, the institute spearheaded the Frieswal project, which produces a breed of 5/8th Holstein Friesian and 3/8th Sahiwal. “While the military had the resources to carry out this program, the ICAR had the scientific and technical expertise. Starting 1987, we developed Frieswals, which still stands as the highest yielding breed in the country. We started off with 2,300 Frieswals and now we have some 20,000 at military farms across the country,” says Birham Prakash, the director of CIRC. The scientists involved in the project collected the semen of the ‘elite’ bulls (which means the highest yielding). “The same semen is used for the ones we breed for military farms,” says Prakash. Apart from the military farms, the breed is used in four units in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Kerala, all under the ICAR. The Frieswal Project, estimated at over Rs 100 crore, also coincided with other cross-breeds, such as Karan Frieswal, Karan Swiss or Vrindavani, but their numbers are much too less. The Frieswal Project spread slowly, but surely, starting with the military farm at Meerut, with approximately 1,000 head of cattle, on September 4th, 1984. It later spread to the military farms in Jalandhar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Ambala and Lucknow, with approximately 4,000 head of cattle. The last phase of the project involved dispatching about 10,000 to 15,000 cattle to the rest of the military farms. The milk, says Prakash, is almost the same as a regular cow’s. “There must be just half a per cent difference in the fat content from regular cows. The more the produce is, the fat content also goes down,” he says.

Today, as the military farms give way to government-run cooperatives, the only thing standing in their way is their pet project. “ICAR does not have the resources for even 1,000 Frieswals. We don’t have the infrastructure. Military farms are the only ones that can accommodate these cows and provide the management expertise that is needed to maintain this stock. If the military farms close, this breed will vanish. Our 30 years of scientific research will be for nothing,” says Prakash. The Frieswal Project is still listed as an ongoing project on their website, headed by Sushil Kumar, S Tyagi, Mahesh Kumar and DK Mandal of CIRC, studying the “genetic and phenotypic variance in milk production of Holstein-Sahiwal crossbreds and associated characters related to growth, production, reproduction and survival, and covariances among all these characters with a view to develop suitable selection criteria for improving milk production”, dated November 3rd, 1987, till present.

All of this will meet its end soon. Several organisations have been approached by the military farms to take the cattle. “But nobody has stepped up. Every state government got the mandate for the aftermath of the closure. The Frieswals do not feature in any of them. There is no budget for them,” says Prakash. “If some of these military farms are facing a limbo, the reason is clear: Frieswals are the only ones standing in the way.”