How technology can boost India’s milk production

The dairy sector needs technological solutions to address low milk yield to ensure economic prosperity of small and marginal dairy farmers.
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India is the world’s largest producer of milk at 190 million tonnes in 2019, growing at over 40 percent in the last seven years. About 75 percent of the total milk produced in the country comes from the cattle owned by small, marginal, and landless farmers. However, the sector is riddled with low-productivity problems caused by lack of affordable technology, access to information, and finances.

For small and marginal farmers, sophisticated cattle-rearing techniques aided by technology can exponentially bolster milk production and improve livelihoods. For startups eyeing a share of the pie in the dairy sector, this is a large customer base running into millions of potential users.

This problem of productivity can be attributed to three reasons – breed management, health management, and feed and fodder management.

1. Breed Management

Managing the reproductive health and genetics of the cattle is key to ensuring profitability. The goal of every farmer is to have a healthy calf once every 365 days. Two sets of factors can affect the reproductive efficiency of a cattle – genetic and non-genetic. Technology, which can hardly influence non-genetic elements, can play a critical role in genetic factors. Artificial Insemination (AI), a widely used technique whereby sperm is collected from (preferably) genetically superior bulls, processed, stored and manually introduced to the female cattle’s reproductive tract, can upgrade the existing gene pool and increase the value of the cattle in terms of improved health, lower disease incidence, and optimised production of milk.

Lack of access to quality AI

Though the success rate of AI ranges between 35-40 percent, it depends on several factors, including the quality of semen, on-time detection of heat, and skills of the paravet.

Poor quality semen reduces successful conception leading to increased breeding costs. Even where high quality semen is available, storage and handling are major problems. The semen must be stored at a low temperature of –196 degree Celsius using liquid nitrogen, which is expensive. Administering AI is a skilled task that requires trained professionals with access to affordable AI guns, both of which are in short supply. A significant number of unsuccessful AIs occur due to improper processes.

Lack of affordable technology to detect body heat

There are several technologies to help detect heat in cattle, such as teaser bulls, heat mount detectors, milk progesterone, and activity monitors but most smallholder farmers find them expensive. They use traditional methods of visual observations, behavioural changes, and rectal exams to identify if the cattle is in heat.

Traditional methods are not foolproof and can lead to failure in detection of cattle in heat. Every heat cycle missed is equivalent to 21 days of loss of production per cattle.[1]

2. Health Management

Maintaining cattle health is essential since diseases, including bacterial infections, can lead to reduction in milk yield, and, hence, loss in income. The Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, had observed that several Indian villages still lacked basic veterinary facilities and required infrastructure. The report also noted that in many cases, even if samples were taken, they needed to be sent to the nearby block or district facilities for test results.

Disease detection

Mastitis, an inflammation of the udder, is a common ailment, leaving the milk unfit for human consumption. It requires the farmer to empty the milk from the infected teat and avail of vet services. Additionally, cattle not treated for mastitis early, can experience reduced productivity in the long term. Regular screening of lactating cattle with California Mastitis Test (CMT) is too expensive for these farmers.

Access to vet services

Acute lack of veterinary services and medicines at the farmgate often force farmers to travel to district offices of vets with their cattle.

Farmers also tend to overmedicate or incorrectly medicate their cattle after consultation with para-vets who are not usually qualified to prescribe medication. Generally, farmers do not follow the required wait period after the antibiotic dosage before milking the cattle, leading to health concerns for humans consuming the milk.

3. Feed & Fodder Management

Cattle require a balanced diet comprising high quality, nutrition-rich fodder along with sufficient water to drink. Two important problems plague fodder management:

Lack of access to green fodder due to lack of availability of fresh water

Lack of access to fresh water during summer leads to the drying up of fodder, thus, increasing the demand and, consequently, the prices of green fodder, affecting both accessibility and affordability for smallholder farmers.

Minimal usage of feed concentrates

For the cattle, fodder alone isn’t enough. Animals need high fibre and high protein food along with other micronutrients to stay healthy and disease-free, and to produce high quality yield. Very few farmers know that to maintain the health and output of the cattle, they need to mix the fodder with feed concentrates.

Looking for solutions

There is a dearth of affordable interventions to ensure early detection of diseases, access to vet services, high-quality AI, and technology for heat detection. This shows that entrepreneurs have ample scope to cater to this underserved market.

Product-based solutions

There is a need for affordable and easy-to-use equipment for quality AI, detection of body heat and early detection of mastitis/ health management. The current solutions can only be afforded by dairy farmers with a herd size of at least 10 cows. Further, these equipment may need to be bundled with other add-on services to provide complete health management solutions.

For instance, an AI gun costs as much as Rs 10,000. Is it economically viable for a small-scale vet to outright buy these products? A single AI attempt fetches the vet only Rs 200. For such product-based solutions, a leasing model may help in wider adoption.

In addressing feed-related issues, startups such as Krimanshi and Hydrogreens have been able to leverage the existing distribution networks. However, we need solutions that address issues of raw material availability and volatile prices, prohibitive fixed costs, and working capital to ensure operational sustainability.

SaaS Solutions

Several startups are now providing video-based vet services to smallholder farmers, which are cost-effective. However, in rural India, trust plays an important role in adoption of products and services, which comes from meeting the company representatives in person. Genflow AI has been experimenting with a hybrid model to gain trust.

Reliable internet connection, electricity availability, and proper training are required to use these products and services apps. Users have a few basic questions - Does the product require excessive charging? How long does the battery last? Does the app require a strong internet connection?

Lastly, smallholder farmers need ready access to capital to avail of the existing solutions. Startups may consider offering credit to their clients to increase adoption.

Need for an enabling ecosystem

Investments in the dairy sector have largely been in the post-production value chain. It is the production side of the sector that now deserves attention. With the government also creating infrastructure and the likes of MooFarm, Krimanshi, Animaal and Stellapps receiving early-stage funding, there is a scope for startups to grow and reap economic value. The private sector also needs to step up efforts to back technologies that boost milk production and create predictable livelihoods.

Social Alpha, a multistage innovation, curation and venture development platform is playing an important role to create an enabling ecosystem for science and technology startups in the dairy sector. It is actively looking for solutions that are ready for deployment, have the potential to create a large-scale positive impact and demonstrate a sustainable business model.

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