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Discovering mutual challenges and goals among dairy farmers in Northern India & Northern California

Discovering mutual challenges and goals among dairy farmers in Northern India & Northern California

Posted by Straus Family Creamery, May 12, 2014

What do dairy farmers in Northern India have in common with dairy farmers in Northern California? Quite a bit. While environmental and cultural contexts are dramatically different, there are realities and challenges for dairy farmers that are surprisingly similar, such as low prices for milk, high feed costs, the struggle for economic viability and concerns around animal health.

This, and much more, is what Albert Straus and Pankaj Uttarwar, Straus Family Creamery’s Director of Research & Development and Quality Assurance, discovered during their journey to Northern India and Rajasthan in November 2013, when they responded to an invitation by renowned environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Dr. Shiva has been named one of the seven most influential women in the world by Forbes Magazine and heads Navdanya, a nonprofit organization aiming to protect biological and cultural diversity in India and around the world. During a visit to California in 2011 that included an afternoon at the Straus dairy in Marshall, Dr. Shiva had asked Straus to visit her in India to help provide technical assistance to dairy farmers, with the goal of introducing organic farming practices and improving quality of milk.

Straus, intrigued by the idea, made the journey in the fall of 2013 with Uttarwar, a native of India. During a carefully planned trip, the two visited dairy farms, dairy equipment suppliers, veterinary clinics, and feed mills, and were able to observe and learn about the challenges Northern Indian dairy farmers face.

Everywhere in the world, quality of milk is determined by the health and diet of animals and the practices of milking and milk handling. Straus observed that providing a balanced diet for cows was a big challenge for many of the farmers he met. In Northern India, growing government-subsidized crops is more profitable than raising livestock, and high prices for feed make it difficult for farmers to provide their cows with a diet that can ensure the cows’ health and economic viability.

Straus saw that the main forage dairy farmers were feeding their cows was wheat straw, and a mush which contained a mixture of mustard seeds, cottonseed meal, sorghum and other grains. The Indian government incentivizes the commercial growth of wheat and therefore the availability of wheat straw is abundant, and also affordable. Unfortunately, this agricultural by-product is not very nutritious for cows. Unlike green forages, such as pasture grass, it lacks sufficient levels of protein and carbohydrates, which are important elements in a balanced diet for dairy cows.

As a result, many cows are undernourished and farmers get little milk, which does not provide a sustainable income for them. While an average organic cow in Northern California produces 6-8 gallons of milk per day, cows in Northern India produce approximately 1-2 gallons. Farmers either use the milk for consumption at home or for income, by selling it for 25-30 Rupees per liter (approx. one quart) at the market -- a small compensation in a country with high inflation rates and high food prices. Usually, the raw milk is neither commercially pasteurized, nor refrigerated, which gives it a brief shelf life of less than one day. To ensure the safety of the milk, most people boil the milk at home and consume it within a day.

Milk quality is further diminished by unsanitary milking methods and widespread occurrences of mastitis (an infection of the teats and udder), all readily and often treated conventionally in India with antibiotics. Due to a lack of regulations in India on how long cows must be removed from the milking herd after an antibiotic treatment, the amount of medication remaining in the milk by the time of human consumption varies widely.

When farmers like Albert Straus and the Tresch family first started implementing organic farming practices in California, they, too, had to overcome potential problems around nutrition and animal health. With the elimination of antibiotics under organic standards, best practices had to be developed and maximized to focus on prevention of illness for animals. Feed rations for and diets for cows had to be rebalanced accounting for sporadic availability of certified organic feeds and forages. Through trial and error, they developed and adapted organic standards into farming methods, which not only improved their animal’s health without the use of antibiotics, but also increased the dairies’ overall income.

After carefully listening and learning, Straus saw similar potential to improve animal health and economic viability for farmers during his visits in Northern India. By sharing his knowledge of animal health and nutrition, prevention, sanitation and organic farming practices, farmers could be empowered to make their farms more economical and environmentally sound.

When Albert Straus and Pankaj Uttarwar visited the farm of Bharat Nehra, who raises 55 dairy cows near the town of Bawal, Southwest of New Delhi, they observed the typical issues. Lovingly called “The Wrestler” in his community for his former profession, Nehra had a lively exchange with Straus over their shared challenges as dairy farmers, a topic that quickly bridged the cultural gap. The two decided on the spot to work together and walked the farm to brainstorm solutions.

Some could be addressed without much effort: Straus suggested keeping the cows’ bedding cleaner and dryer and spreading limestone powder on the yard where the cows spent their time lying, resting and sleeping. Limestone neutralizes the PH in the ground and makes it inhospitable for bacteria growth, thereby reducing the potential for infections of the cows’ udders.

In addition, Nehra introduced sanitary milking procedures, such as wearing gloves, using iodine to sanitize the udders before milking, and by isolating infected cows.  Today, a few months after making these changes, Nehra has seen a 90% reduction in costs for antibiotic treatments of mastitis, as well as much higher quality milk.

The cows’ diet was also improved to include more green forage, such as green corn stalks, and a vitamin-mineral supplement. The change in diet did not affect Nehra’s feed costs, but it did increase milk production by 33%. This, and the cost reduction for medical treatments, resulted in bringing a much more sustainable income for Nehra and his family from their farm.

Since returning from their trip, Straus and Uttarwar are continuing to train a colleague, Abhijit Maid in the New Delhi area, to continue working with Nehra and to serve as an ongoing resource to an expanding network of farmers who take an interest in moving toward organic practices. The main goal is to provide technical assistance for the implementation of organic farming methods and to increase income over costs for farmers.

The lack of economic viability of family farms is a worldwide phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides in India have been a much discussed topic since the 1990s, and are widely believed to be caused by economic pressures. On this side of the globe, dairy farmers are going out of business in drastic numbers in the United States, or are turning to organic as a new way to adapt and survive in the dairy industry.

The value and income added through good animal husbandry, and the changes toward more sustainable farming practices are first and important steps, but they are still no guarantee for sufficient farm income. The next step, increasing the quality and value of the milk is equally important to sustain farms, just as Albert Straus discovered when he founded Straus Family Creamery 20 years ago.

While Abhijit Maid is helping to build a network of farmers, Straus is coming up with innovative ideas to address this second issue. How can lack of refrigeration be overcome? Safety and shelf life of milk are highly increased through pasteurization and refrigeration, both usually requiring centralized infrastructure systems. How can these services be provided in an environment where 60% of the population depends directly on an agricultural system that is based on decentralized, widely dispersed human resources?

We will continue telling this story over time, as ideas start to evolve and materialize. In the meantime, we thank you for supporting organic family farming.