My Odyssey with Dairy Farmers
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Sep 2017
1 Sep 2017 – When I travelled for my first assignment to a village as a bank manager, I believed the best way I could help the poor villagers was by helping them with loans for purchasing livestock. A cow (or a goat) is a much better medium for income than training a poor family to learn to set up a small business. It can be conveniently managed by the female of the family also. It is sturdier than paper money. Friends and relatives can’t ask for small pieces of it. If you own a cow, it yields milk, it can plow the fields, and it produces dung that can be used as fuel or fertilizer. Similarly goats also have economic value as they are maintained on low budgets and breed fast. In a pinch they can be slaughtered and turned into saleable meat or simply eaten. The same is the case with ducks and chickens.
Cows were to be my top priority because dairy animals have a twofold benefit: the milk can fetch income for the family and also afford wholesome nourishment for the children. The end product is the same whether you own a highly expensive breed or an inexpensive native: all manner of cheese, yogurt and butter. Cows are the main draft animals of India, their manure is the fuel which cooks Indian food and their milk is an important part of Indian diet.
There are seven ways a cow can help poor people restrict spending and save:
- Indivisibility – you can’t sell only a leg
- A waiting period – the cow can’t be sold immediately
- A financial penalty – there are costs involved in buying and selling a cow
- Mental labeling – the cow invites clear associations to what people save for
- Peer pressure – the whole town will know if you sell a cow, and everyone may question your financial judgement and start asking to borrow money
- Perceived production – the cow’s milk production raises the mental stakes of selling it
- Social meaning – cows can represent deep cultural beliefs, divinity or fertility or completeness of family
To me it appeared a simple but magical formula. I even wondered why banks, government and development agencies needed highly qualified bankers and veterinary staff to handle such a simple task. Perhaps even a villager with some basic level of literacy would do a more efficient job than we bankers who didn’t even know the basic difference between a Jersey and a Holstein or what the average milk yield of a local breed was. Our knowledge about cows was restricted to what we had learnt in schools. We knew that cow was a highly revered animal for Indians and several healing properties were associated with its milk and excreta the urine had potent medicinal properties. The dung was of great utility to villagers who used it for making fuel briquettes.
I remembered my childhood trips to grandma’s village where the main laneway was lined on each side by thick mud walls spotted with hundreds of dung patties, a mix of manure and straw, slapped on to dry in the warm winter sun. Once the dung cakes were dry, the village women stored them in mounds, which they sealed with more mud, giving them the appearance of anthills. They were the family woodpiles.
In a city, cow’s milk was a rare commodity and much more expensive than buffalo milk which was a more preferable choice. it was only when grandma had to prepare some medicines or somebody was recuperating from a long illness that cow’s milk would be needed .We had to cajole the local milkman to help us with half a litre each day. Grandma would tell us a way of distinguishing cow’s milk from buffalos. Cow’s milk was watery and slightly yellowish, that of buffalos was thick and viscous. But there was a caution grandma had mentioned. Since cow’s milk was so scarce and yet much in demand, milkmen would often try to dilute buffalos milk with water and dye it with an edible yellow colorant to pass it off as cow’s milk. The only way of being sure that it was genuine cow milk that was being supplied we had to rely on the reputation and credibility of the milkman and to be personally present when he drew the milk in the bucket. I learned to keep a keen eye on the milkman to make sure he didn’t, via a well concealed tube, water down the milk.
As a manager of a bank branch dealing with peasants I was once required to accompany the farmers to negotiate the purchase of dairy animals. I could have delegated the task to my junior officer, but the poor farmers insisted that I would be able to negotiate a better deal .The government rules for cattle purchase required that animals should normally be purchased from areas known for healthy breeds of animals. The Animal Husbandry Officer fixed up transactions with a cattle supplier from Bihar who had settled in Wardha. I would have normally checked in a hotel but the farmers were insistent that I should be present through the entire dealings; so I preferred to stay with them .I was habituated with night halts in villages and it was not a big challenge.
Our cattle supplier’s house was small but of pucca construction. We decided to sleep close to the spacious courtyard redolent with the fragrance of jasmine. We shared the cowshed for our night sleep along with the bawling calves and the wafts of cow dung that kept producing an acrid tang and almost neutered the sonorous effect of jasmine.
It was a mildly chilly night and I kept myself swaddled in a thick blanket. I had bought a bottle of anti-malaria pills to keep me disease-free on my trip. I was given a cot and the farmers slept on the floor where a huge coarse carpet was laid out for them. They had an enormous meal and farted painfully through the night. While we were there, a fist fight broke out among the farmers and I had to intervene to restore order. There were already bickering among the farmers; from tongue lashing to abusive outbursts as each one tried to project himself as a dairy wizard. I had to pull away the blanket and get out of bed to restore order. I raised my voice and asked the farmers to concentrate on sleep so that everyone could rise early for the morning ritual of milking the cows. It was necessary that they dosed off early.
I kept tossing and turning as the farmers grunted, sighed and snored in their sleep. After jerking awake several times, I dosed off into a fitful sleep around midnight but rose up early. Although the dark cloudless sky was spangled with a million twinkling stars that glistened like sequins, I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of night. My mind was clouded with all sorts of worries. All the peasants were illiterate and very poor decision makers, and I had to handle the entire purchase. We were planning to buy at least a dozen cows. If my assumptions worked right, the life of farmers in the small hamlet of Nanda was expected to improve considerably. But there were several risks too.
A flood of questions kept tossing in my head. The average milk yield of two days – at least two times in a day – is used as the metric to calculate the milk output of a cow. For every one litre of milk, the cost of the cow was fixed at Rs. 1000. Thus a cow having a yield of 8 litres was priced at Rs. 8000. The first yield of the cow was taken in the predawn.
My hosts didn’t want me to wake me up at the odd hour when the cows were scheduled to be milked. I couldn’t sleep properly and the bustle of activity aroused me early. A haze of smoke drifted somnolently over the countryside as the morning meal was prepared .Then the typical sounds of the rural dawn came like a jarring note to the ear-usual coughing and wheezing, raucous clearing of throats and nostrils, spilling and brushing of teeth, the clang of utensils ,the sputtering of taps, the slurping of hot tea. For the older village men, there is nothing like a good deep chestful of bidi smoke to quell a morning cough. Even as the men snore, women are up; there is an explosion of life.
Stepping into the gentle sunshine of a spring morning, I heard the lowing of snowy white cows impatient for being milked to ease their udders. Kishore had already organized the buckets and was gently caressing the cows. I could see how dearly he loved them. I was sure that after the cows reached the villages the yield would straight away dip by a litre because none of the borrowers would extend such fond care to the animals. Kishore’s palms were greased with vegetable oil which the cows licked with relish. One of the aides brought a tray of steel tumblers with steaming tea made out of milk from the cow tethered in front of us. It was the best way to start the day.
Kishore and his aides sang a lovely rural tune as they went about the task of milking. Kishore was wrapped tightly in a brightly washed loin cloth raised up to the knee as he squatted in a hunch positioning the pale to collect the milk. On the chest he sported the western polo shirt. The cow and sent warm streams of milk into the pot. The calves were separated from their mothers, and Kishor and his aides began milking the cows. Streams of rich, yellowish fluid spurted into steel buckets. Kishor and his friends milked the cows so enthusiastically that I was afraid little would be left for the calves. Kishor put my mind at ease. “There are four teats to each cow,” he said. “We milk only three and leave the fourth for the calves. They never complain”
I asked some of our peasants to participate in the milking ritual so that they themselves could assess the quality of the animal. I was disillusioned with the poor pace at which they sponged the udders. It appeared they were best candidates for animal welfare awards, too gentle and kind to squeeze even the surplus milk. Kishore placed three bucket full on the table when our farmers were still halfway through the first cow. Peeved at the superlative performance of Kishore they started making unnecessary complaints about the cows, blaming them to be uncooperative with strangers. They asked me to reject these cows as they were sickly. Kishore pushed the farmer aside, took the bucket from his hand and sat below the udder with the bucket firm between the two legs and in seconds jets of milk started streaming into the bucket. Kishore was doing it all in an effortless style. It looked as if the milk was almost on the point of bursting through the udders as Kishore’s lubricating hands hastened the flow.
I was left with ample proof that milkmen who practice dairy as a hereditary vocation alone can make it a highly profitable business.
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Sep 2017.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: My Odyssey with Dairy Farmers, is included. Thank you.
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