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BR Research

An interview with Aamer Hayat Bhandara, progressive dairy farmer

“Breedable livestock population far lower than planned insemination doses” Aamer Hayat Bhandara is a ...
24 May 2021

“Breedable livestock population far lower than planned insemination doses”

Aamer Hayat Bhandara is a progressive farmer from district Pakpattan of southern Punjab. He was an elected member of the district council 2016-18. Prior to joining his family farming business, Hayat Farms, he studied politics and journalism at Bahauddin Zakaria University, Multan. He has also attended training in “Pro-Poor Market Development in Rural Areas” at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a former Fellow of Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) under LEADership Development Program.

In his role as a district council member, he served as member of various district and divisional level committees of Agriculture Department, Price Control Committee, and district Aman committee of Punjab government. As a livestock farmer, he is also attached with milk processing companies as a commercial dairy farmer.

Bhandara’s areas of interest include rural development, tertiary level governance and community politics, and sustainability of small- and landless farming. As a grassroots politician, his activism is focused on climate & food security, specifically, on the subject of Water- Food-Energy nexus. He is currently serving as Vice President, Australia Awards Alumni Pakistan. He regularly contributes op-eds to various international and national publications on issues of agriculture policy, and climate change.

BR Research spoke to Bhandara last week to discuss the upcoming mass livestock artificial insemination announced by GoP to improve dairy sector’s productivity. Bhandara shares insights from rural battleground, while adding candid reservations on the promised efficacy of the ambitious program.

Below are the edited excerpts:

BR Research: Livestock experts in Punjab and Sindh claim that the healthy livestock growth rate claimed by GoP in Annual Economic Surveys over the past decade may not be a true reflection of reality on ground. Do you agree?

Aamer Hayat Bhandara: Serious reservations exist in the expert community over the livestock and dairy figures claimed by GoP. National Account Committee claims that livestock GDP growth rate has averaged at 4 percent per annum over past 10 years, which is the highest LT growth rate within agriculture sector.

Because the last Livestock Census took place in 2006, the growth rate is estimated using the inter-census growth rate between the 1996 and 2006 census. The inter-census growth rate does not take into account changing demand patterns over the last 15 years, such as increasing meat consumption due to improvements in income per capita.

Moreover, anecdotal evidence indicates that there is a growing trend towards culling of young calves before they reach milking age to meet the increasing demand from meat slaughter segment. If livestock population were growing in tandem with demand, this would not be the case.

BRR : Do provisional census conducted by provinces corroborate this theory?

AHB: It would appear so. Unfortunately, the results of provisional livestock census attempted by government of Punjab under Naseem Sadiq’s committee were rejected by Statistics division. Therefore, the official figures available to us thus far place Pakistan among the top 5 dairy and meat producing countries in the world. If this were truly the case, malnourishment, stunting and wasting would not be such pervasive challenges across the country, especially in rural areas. Similarly, increase in dairy and meat prices would not outpace long term food inflation rate.

BRR: It appears that Pakistan would increasingly face shortfalls in agricultural commodities output because of both high population growth rate and stunted productivity growth. What makes the livestock problem different than others?

AHB: In absence of any annual surveys for at least past 15 years, it is quite possible that the livestock output may in fact be declining, rather than increasing. Because livestock products – dairy and meat – are high value items in average household’s food basket, it is likely that lowest income quintiles simply reduce consumption volume in response to increasing retail prices. As a result, unlike grains or sugar, lower production over past years may not be immediately noticeable in wider media.

Moreover, the all-pervasive milk adulteration could mean that if milk production has been declining over time, it may not necessarily catch public attention. Same is the case of meat supply, where culling of young calves for slaughter ensures that declining production does not raise alarm.

BRR: Is the mass artificial insemination program recently announced by GoP a step in the right direction?

AHB: It must be emphasized that the incumbent political party cannot be blamed for lack of livestock census, that has been due since 2016. However, during its three years in power, it has failed to announce any plans for a fresh livestock census, neither at the centre nor at provinces.

In the absence of accurate and recent data, how will the government determine the number, quality, and types of doses required? Widespread fears exist in the livestock and dairy community that pure local dairy breeds are on the brink of extinction, as no attempt is made on protecting them.

Officials claims in the media indicate that three million doses of American exotic sex semen will be freely distributed among dairy farmers each year for the next three years. If we make results of last Livestock Census our benchmark, then the number of breed-able animals is far lower! Why are excess doses being imported? Will imports be made by private sector to benefit certain vested interests?

BRR: Do you believe that artificial insemination program is ill-conceived?

AHB: The objective of the project is to increase national average dairy yield by 3 litres per day. While insemination can also help achieve this goal, the same can be easily achieved by improving the nutrition quality of local breeds, without inseminating them with semen from exotic American bulls.

BRR: But both options must be evaluated in terms of returns on investment and payback period. Will artificial insemination not improve dairy yields of next generation females immediately?

AHB: There are serious question marks over the suitability of exotic breeds to the local environment. Many progressive dairy farmers have observed that the dry matter intake of US Holstein cows is extremely high compared to local breeds. Every time insufficient feed is available, the dairy yield of cross-bred animals declines precipitously. In contrast, even though local breeds have much lower dairy yield in absolute terms, it has long adapted to survive on poor nutrition, whereas its dairy yield does not drop drastically in case available feed is insufficient.

BRR: Will farmers not be better off to replace low yielding local breeds with high yielding imported and cross-bred animals?

AHB: No, because the challenge is of feed affordability, not yield per se. Those who have envisioned this project seem to have ignored that over 80 percent of Pakistan’s dairy farmers are either small or landless; therefore, they cannot afford to grow their own feed. Their animals are mostly grass-fed (i.e., survive on grazing).

Free distribution of exotic breed insemination will lead to a next generation of cows owned by small and landless farmers, who cannot afford to meet the animals’ high-quality silage and fodder demands. As a result, they may be forced to sell-off their high maintenance livestock. Remember, most small hold farmers retain a large share of their output on-farm for family consumption. Instead, if they can no longer afford to feed their livestock, they may be forced to repurchase dairy products at higher prices from the market.

BRR: But given the ground realities, is your vision to revive local breeds realistic?

AHB: It is true that artificial insemination using exotic semen has been taking place in Pakistan since 1970s. However, later on, dairy farmers realized the better potential of local breeds. Consider that the Sahiwal cattle has potential dairy yield of 40 litres per day. Moreover, over the lifetime, Sahiwal cattle can go through up to 10 birth cycles, whereas American Holstein can give birth to up to 4 calves only, after which it goes dry and must be culled.

Given the severity of Pakistan’s stunting and wasting challenge, the artificial insemination program should not be opposed in principle. Especially since cross-breeding practices have a widespread prevalence. However, efforts must be made to protect and boost reproductivity of local breeds. Afterall, local breeds have long adapted to domestic climate, diseases, and feed.

Thus, the artificial insemination program must be handled with great care. Moreover, without improving feed affordability for small hold and landless farmers, insemination program may fail to deliver promised results.

BRR: Have any instances of disease outbreaks been observed in cross-bred animals in the past?

AHB: Currently, cross-bred and exotic cows are largely in use by large scale commercial and corporate dairy farms, respectively. These can afford to provide better care facilities such as vaccination, veterinary services, and silage-based feed. Corporate farms also have semi-automated and automated milking plants. Therefore, cross-bred animals have not been met with severe disease outbreaks.

However, because exotic breeds are used to better care, they may not be able to battle respiratory diseases, ticks, and other challenges that are prevalent in small hold farms locally. Moreover, Pakistan is not a Foot-and-Mouth disease free country. Without adequate livestock veterinary services system, small-hold farmers may not be able to leverage the much-needed productivity aimed by the program.

BRR: Coming to the subject of nutrition. Just like poultry sector does not have access to indigenous soybean production, is cattle feed for exotic breeds not produced locally, or is the challenge primarily limited to affordability?

AHB: American Holstein cattle requires very large volumes of corn for dry matter intake. Although Pakistan has made substantial gains in corn productivity over the past two decades, yield improvement has slowed down in the past couple of years due to bottlenecks in adoption of seed innovation.

Already, we have witnessed large increases in poultry prices over the last two years as it appears that corn production is no longer growing in tandem with growing poultry consumption. If domestic corn production is insufficient to meet poultry segment’s demand, will demand from cattle segment be met with imports?

BRR: But GoP has announced plans to double the corn area in coming years.

AHB: Where will the additional area for corn production come from? The government is simultaneously encouraging conversion of southern Punjab corn acres back to cotton. How will the two competing objectives be met?

Unfortunately, the conversation surrounding crop output is dominated by acreage, whereas productivity improvement receives little attention. It is remarkable that GoP has no problem with artificial insemination of livestock with exotic semen but refuses to allow adoption of both Bt. cotton and Bt. corn varieties that can help improve output without requiring additional acreage.

And let’s not forget that the insemination does not – for obvious reasons – guarantee birth of female calves. Naturally, 50 percent of cross-bred livestock will be male which may be put through calf fattening for meat production. If corn production is not raised immediately to meet demand from both female as well as male calves in mind, the meat potential of exotic breeds will also suffer.

© Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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