Meet the Kerala farmers on a silent mission to conserve native cows

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The farmers are attempting to conserve various lesser known cattle breeds such as Periyar, Vechur, Kasaragod dwarf, Vilwadri, Cheruvally and others.

Indiscriminate crossbreeding has seriously affected the country’s indigenous cow population. Studies have proved that indigenous cows are heat tolerant, disease resistant and low maintenance breeds. But many farmers opt for crossbreeding because indigenous cows can give only one or two litres of milk a day.

In Kerala, crossbreeding was greatly promoted, to the extent that the Kerala Livestock Development Act, 1961 made castration compulsory for local breeds. Also, individual farmers were not permitted to own bulls that weren’t certified as castrated. This led to the gradual extinction of many breeds. However, now the Livestock Development Board itself provides monetary support to farmers who intend to buy native cows. In this background, there is a silent movement, organised and unorganised, in Kerala to conserve some of these indigenous cow breeds.

Cos Kurien, who owns a school in Ernakulam district’s Kodanad, worked on a project along with his students on the indigenous cows in their area for a science fair. Inspired by what he found, he realised the importance of conservation of indigenous cows. That is when he started exploring more about a lesser known cattle breed called Periyar, which was found on the banks of the Periyar river. These cows lived in the forest regions and came back to their shelter for the night or occasionally.

“It was five years ago that I came to know that the milk from these cows not only has medicinal value but is highly nutritious. As part of a school project, we conducted soil testing, when we collected soil where fertilisers are used, soil where these Periyar cows’ urine and dung is used as manure, and soil where other organic manure is used. We conducted the test at the Kerala Agricultural University. That’s when we realised that the soil with the Periyar cows’ urine and dung was highly fertilised compared to the other soils,” Cos says, explaining how he became a saviour for these indigenous cows over the years inspired by a group of students. He won the 2018 Breed Saviour Award from the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR).

Cos is one among the many people in Kerala who are on a silent mission to protect various indigenous breeds of cows. Some of these farmers rear indigenous breeds just to conserve them, without aiming for any profits.

The individuals involved in the conservation

Cos travelled across the Periyar river banks in Kuttambuzha, Kothamangalam and Kodanad regions of Ernakulam in search of original Periyar breed cows. He now owns 80 Periyar cows. He also formed a group of 40 farmers who only nurture this particular breed. To ensure that the breeds maintain full purity, he keeps around 20 bulls without opting for artificial insemination.

“When I buy a bull or a cow, I get a DNA test done to make sure that it’s a pure breed.  I don’t opt for crossbreeding even though such cows give more milk. I don’t get any profit from these cows, I keep the bulls only for pure breeding,” Cos says.

Periyar cows are in the process of getting the indigenous breed status. Scientists from NBAGR under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have already visited them in March 2020. Vechur is the only cow breed in Kerala to hold the indigenous breed status. These cows are found majorly in the Vechur region of Kottayam district.

Roy Vargese, a farmer hailing from Thodupuzha, similarly undertook extensive travel to procure indigenous cows. He owns Vechur, Periyar, Kasaragod dwarf and Cheruvally cows. A few years ago, he travelled to Kuttambuzha 16 times to obtain a Periyar cow. He also keeps bulls for breeding to avoid crossbreeding.

“I rear only indigenous cows so that they are conserved. We get milk with medicinal value, the cows don’t get any diseases, they tolerate weather changes very well and their maintenance cost is very low. Since I don’t get any profit, I keep only 10 cows,” Roy says.

To procure a pair of Vechur cows, he recalls how he travelled to many government veterinary hospitals asking whether the doctors there had any information on their availability. Later, he reached Vechur but even then he couldn’t find them. Finally, he obtained one cow from the Mannuthy Veterinary College.

“We have a group of farmers who keep only indigenous cows. We exchange calves and bulls, and share information about their availability. This made it easier to get more cows,” Roy explains.

Ananda Bhat, who lives in a border village in Kasaragod district, owns 10 cows belonging to the Kasaragod dwarf breed. He doesn’t believe in rearing breeds that give more milk.

“It’s very rare to find pure breeds. Only we farmers can save them from extinction. People mainly opt for foreign breeds that give a lot of milk. But I’m particular that I want these cows to remain indigenous,” he says.

Ramesh Korapath of Ivarmadom in Thiruvilwamala is known for conserving an indigenous cattle species called Vilwadri. A post graduate, he gave up other careers to dedicate his life to cremating bodies at the Ivarmadom crematorium. He also developed a cattle farm at the graveyard’s office. The milk from the cows is also used in the funeral rituals.

Other farmers are involved in the conservation of the Cheruvally cows, which were found in the Cheruvally, Mundakayam and Kanjirappally regions of Kottayam district.

It all began with the Vechur breed

Dr Jayadevan Namboodiri, Assistant Director in the Animal Husbandry department, was one among a group of veterinarians who started a movement to conserve the Vechur cows in the 1980s.

“In 1988, when I was a student at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (KVASU) in Mannuthy, we planned to publish a college magazine. Vasudevan Namboodiri was its editor then. It was he who told us that there was a cow breed in Vechur which was on the verge of extinction. He said we should at least get a picture of the cow to publish in the magazine. Dr Satish, Dr Anil Zakariya and few others were also in the team,” Dr Jayadevan recalls.

He says that the group of students found a cow belonging to the breed after many attempts. “Though we found a cow, we couldn’t get a bull. The search for a bull went on for a long time and finally we got one from the Vaikom temple.”

It was these students who decided to bring the cows to their college. Professor Shoshamma Ipe, their teacher, also joined them in their conservation efforts and extended all needed support. “There was an unused farm building in the college premises. We students ourselves renovated it and converted it into a cow shed. We were guided by Prof Shoshamma, who was an exceptional researcher, so it turned out to be a better cattle farm, as you can see even now,” he says.

The college runs the Vechur cattle conservation project, in which a number of Vechur cattle are reared. The cattle farm has around 140 cows. Though it was just the beginning, Dr Jayadevan played a major role in popularising the concept of conservation among the public. He believed that community conservation was more sustainable than conservation by an academic institution or trust.

“There were a few aspects to promoting this to the public. When there was an organic revolution, people started cultivating organic vegetables at home where they used cow dung and urine as manure. Around a decade ago, there was a move against packet milk and pesticide infested vegetables, and people started thinking about organic milk. So, these cows started getting quite popular,” he says.

He also made attempts to brand and sell Vechur cow milk. He conducted many seminars across the state explaining the benefits of A2 milk, which comes from desi cows, and is good for fighting lifestyle diseases. The book Devil in the Milk by Keith Woodford, a professor from New Zealand, also raised the popularity of Kerala’s indigenous cows.

Dr Jayadevan was also involved in attempts to conserve other breeds like the Periyar, Kasaragod dwarf, and others. He provided support to farmers and farmer groups that rear these breeds. The farmers were inspired by well-known agriculturalist Subhash Palekar’s idea of making natural fertilisers such as jeevamrutham and panchagavyam from the urine and dung of indigenous cows.

Dr Jayadevan says that it was a good development in the conservation efforts, as milk alone is not enough for farmers to get an income. With his help, a group of farmers brought out branded medicines from native cow products with ideas from Palekar and Nilanjan Varma.

Breeding is the toughest challenge faced by these farmers. Keeping bulls is not affordable for small-scale farmers. “Breeding is done through veterinary hospitals, who inject semen into cows. But they use the semen of one or two bulls to inseminate cows across Kerala. That is genetic narrowing. Diversity is lost. The government should bring a solution to support farmers to keep bulls,” he says. He also adds that farmers who come forward to conserve native cows should be recognised so that they become an inspiration for others.

Dr Jayadevan observes that there is a possibility that the Periyar breed can outdo the Vechur breed in number and quality.

 

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