Cow rearing has been an integral part of the socio-economic and cultural fabric of rural Bharat since time immemorial. The cow touches all our religious, cultural, economic activities and is the backbone of nutritional and economic security of the masses. Excreta of all living beings, including human beings are discarded. Only cow dung (excreta of cow) is adorable and considered as fit to be used. Cows and its progeny provide nutrient-rich food products, draught power, dung as organic manure and domestic fuel, hides and skin, and are a regular source of income for rural households. Bharateeya agriculture from ancient times makes use of bullock draught power besides cow based products such as cow dung and urine as natural fertilisers and pesticides. Fertility of soil is best nurtured and sustained by urine and dung. Dung as a manure prevents soil erosion.
In Bharateeya health systems produce of cows namely milk, curd, ghee, dung and urine (Panchagavya) and butter milk are extensively used to cure various diseases. Cow milk (Gau-Dugdha) has fat, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, antimicrobial substances and other health promoting agents. Dung (Gau-Maya) is used to purify the environment as it checks toxic radiation and its cakes are used for fire which saves firewood.
Desi cow urine (Gau-Mutra) or its distillate is extensively used in Ayurveda and traditional system of medicine for treating various ailments and has been reported to have anti-fungal, immune-modulator and anti-oxidant properties. Ghee (Gau-Ghruta) is useful in the treatment of many disorders.
Population and Status of Indigenous cows
Bharat has the largest bovine (cattle and buffalo) population in the world and ranks first among the world’s milk producing Nations since 1998. Seventy-nine per cent of the 30 crore bovines in Bharat are indigenous (Desi, Zebu) represented by 39 well recognised indigenous breeds of cattle and 13 buffalo breeds. Bharat has some of the best breeds of cattle with traits for dairy, draught power and dual purposes. These breeds are essentially the products of long term natural selection and are better adapted to tropical fodder and environment. As per the BAHS, 2012, in Bharat there are about world’s 12.5per cent cattle (199.07 million) with 2nd position. A prominent hump, a long face, upright horns, drooping ears, a dewlap and slender legs characterise the indigenous breeds. Desi cattle have lower basal metabolic rate, better capacity for heat dissipation through cutaneous evaporation and thus adaptation to tropical heat and resistance to diseases specially the tick-borne diseases, need less water, can walk long distances than exotic cattle.
They could also be turned into high milk producers given the right kind of feed and environment. Desi cattle generally require low maintenance energy. Thus the impact of climate change will be minimal on them. The low milk production cost in our country compared to other countries is another remarkable strength. The different production systems like zero input – low output, low input – moderate output, intensive input – high output are characteristics of Bharateeya cattle production system. However, some of the desi breeds of cows’ viz. Punganur, Krishnavalley are facing the threat of extinction. The factors responsible for pathetic state of affairs of desi cattle include lack of programmes for their improvement, indiscriminate crossbreeding, loss of grazing land, westernisation of lifestyle, catastrophes, conflicts, legal restrictions on marketing of livestock products, invasion of chemical inputs into agriculture, large scale mechanisation of agriculture and transport, changing cropping patterns, degradation of forests, shrinking grazing and water resources, state driven afforestation and silvipasture programmes.
Milk Production and quality of desi cow milk
During 2013-14, Bharat produced 137.4 million tons of milk. About 70per cent of milk is produced by marginal and small farmers owning 2-4 animals. The milk productivity of Bharateeya cow, crossbred cow, buffalo and goat is only 2.30, 7.02, 4.53 and 0.40kg/day respectively. Not much selection has gone into the improvement of indigenous breeds for milk yield. Considering the body size, the requirement of balanced feed mostly grain based for crossbreds and their susceptibility to various diseases, their performance is not impressive. Among Bharateeya cattle, cows producing good quantity of milk have been recorded under Central Herd Registration Scheme. Sahiwal, Thaparkar, Gir and many other breeds of desi cattle have good milk potential. Even among Malnad Gidda-dwarf cattle with body weight of 80-120 kegs, many cows give 3-4kgs of milk per day with regular calving under low input production system.
Casein makes up to about 80 per cent of the protein in the milk. Milk from desi cattle and buffaloes contain only A2 allele of beta-casein protein and produce A2 milk. A1 allele of beta- casein is present in higher frequency in most of exotic breeds, hence they produce A1 milk or mixture of A1 A2 milk. The difference in A1 and A2 beta-casein is the amino acid histidine in A1 and proline in A2 milk at position 67. On digestion of A1 casein, BCM7 (beta casomorphin 7) is released but not in A2 casein. Several reports are available on the adverse effect of BCM7 on human health and are reported to be related to Type 1 diabetes, heart disease, sudden infant death syndrome, autism, digestive disorders, neurodegenerative disorders, intolerance, allergies, and autoimmune conditions. Animal studies have shown digestion of A1 milk promotes formation of oxidised LDL, a marker of heart disease. First human digestion trial published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition by the researchers from Curtin University in Western Australia reported a digestive difference between A1 and A2 protein supporting previous studies. The indigenous cow’s milk has high level of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) Content (a vital health promoter) besides a rich source of carotenoids (yellow colour of indigenous cow's milk is due to high carotenoids which is good for eyes), Vit D and Vit B12 besides antimicrobial substances viz. lactoferrin, lysozyme and immunoglobulins. CLA promotes Cardiac health, disease resistance, boosts brain development in children and has anti-carcinogenic properties. Cows reared mainly on grazing produce milk with low saturated fats. The content of lactoferrin is higher in desi cow milk as compared to crossbred and buffalo milk. Lactoferrin is a well-known antimicrobial and antiviral substance which is highly beneficial to prevent infection and to boost immunity. The cholesterol level in milk and other products of indigenous cattle is lower than European cattle and type of fatty acids found in them is beneficial to the human health.
Cows role in ecological balance
The practice of pruning forest trees and moderate cattle grazing allows sun light to reach the ground level which facilitates green undergrowth in forests. This undergrowth stabilises the forest soil and also promotes multiplication of beneficial microbes. Researchers with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) reported that if cattle are allowed to graze moderately, soil quality can be restored and emissions of carbon dioxide can be reduced which substantiates the description in the Vedas that a herd of cows converts waste land into farm land.
Beef production is counterproductive to environment
Beef production is environmentally unfriendly as water footprint is very high and grains are diverted for beef production. One kilo of grain- fed beef production takes about 13,000 to 15,500 litres of water while one kilo of rice and milk production utilises about 2,000-2,500 and 1,000-1,200 litres of water respectively. This has been very much realised by the western countries and thus there is a strong move towards vegetarian food considering it as healthier and also helpful for environment.
Need to Improve of Bharateeya cattle
The cow protection and improvement makes economic and ecological sense. Desi cows are robust and resilient with multi-utility and are particularly suited to the climate and environment of their respective breeding tract.
There is an urgent need to launch a massive Research and Development based programme for the improvement of indigenous cattle.
Dr K P Ramesha
(The writer is Principal Scientist, Southern Regional Station, ICAR-National Dairy Research Institute Adugodi, Bengaluru-560 030)