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‘It was like wringing out a dry sponge’: Indian dairy farmers face scorching heat |  Environment

Kailas Ramasamy gently guides his cows into a shed-sized shed, ties them to their posts, spreads their fodder and cleans the floor. Then, on his way out, he activates a switch: the ceiling fans begin to blow air on the cattle.

Ramasamy Dairy Farm is one hour from the city of Bengaluru in southern India. Usually known for its temperate climate, the region has seen a sharp increase in temperature compared to previous decades. Elsewhere in India, temperatures have reached 50C (122F) this year.

This is bad news for the Indian dairy industry, with heat stress leading to reduced appetite, reduced weight gain and reduced fertility in cattle. Rising temperatures could reduce milk production by up to 25% in the hottest regions of India by 2085, according to a recent study published in The Lancet.

Heat stress is a global problem, with thousands of cattle believed to have died in the US state of Kansas last week as temperatures above 37C were made worse by high humidity levels.

But for India, any significant drop in milk production could be devastating to food security if it ends dairy self-sufficiency in the world’s second most populous country.

Fans keep the barn cooler and protect against heat stress on Kailas Ramasamy’s farm. Photography: Samyukta Lakshmi/The Guardian

The consequences would also be devastating for 80 million Indians employed in the dairy industry.

These are issues that Ranganatha Reddy knows well. Temperatures at his dairy farm in Anantapur, 200 km from Bangalore, reached 43°C in May.

“My cows usually have an internal alarm clock and start mooing around feeding time because they’re always hungry,” he says. “But during the heat wave, I almost had to force-feed them.”

Milk production on his farm fell by 30% month-on-month. “I felt like I was wringing out a dry sponge.”

map of india

While climate change is a global phenomenon, the large number of small dairy farms in India and a growing reliance on breeds vulnerable to heat stress could affect the country more than other major dairy producers such as the United States. United or Brazil.

In the 1970s, India began crossing high-yielding imported cattle varieties with local breeds, which allowed the country to go from a milk deficit to producing 22% of the world’s milk.

The latest Indian Livestock Census revealed that the population of crossbred cattle has increased by 26% since 2012, while native varieties have decreased by 6%.

It makes financial sense to switch to crossbred cows because they produce “much more milk”, says Ramendra Das, a veterinary scientist who has studied the impact of warming temperatures on different breeds – but they are more vulnerable to heat stress than native varieties.

‘It was like wringing out a dry sponge’: Indian dairy farmers face scorching heat |  Environment
The milk production of indigenous breeds is more robust than that of crossbred cows during heat waves. Photography: Samyukta Lakshmi/The Guardian

Ramasamy, who buys and sells milk to local farmers through the Vrindavan Dairy Company, is trying to promote the use of indigenous cows by paying more for milk from Indian cows (42p per litre) than for crossbreeds (32p ).

Solutions to avoid heat stress include specially designed sheds with fans and sprinklers to keep livestock cool, but this comes at a high cost. “Only large intensive dairy farms can afford such an infrastructure,” says Girdhari Ramdas Patil, former co-director of the National Dairy Research Institute. Almost two-thirds of India’s milk is produced by small farmers.

‘It was like wringing out a dry sponge’: Indian dairy farmers face scorching heat |  Environment
Gyr cows quench their thirst at Vrindavan dairy farm near Bangalore. The Gyr breed is hardier and more resistant to climate change. Photography: Samyukta Lakshmi/The Guardian

Philip Thornton, scientist at the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers and lead author of the Lancet study on heat stress-related milk yield losses, says crossing climate-resistant cattle varieties with high-yielding cows could help long-term.

For Ramasamy, the answer was to seek out better native breeds. He started breeding North Indian Gyr cows which give more milk than other breeds while consuming less feed and water than crossbred varieties.

Does he think that lower maintenance costs and the risk of heat stress will encourage more breeders to turn to Indian breeds? “It’s going to be difficult, but I’m convinced it’s the future,” he said.

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