Impact of Summer on Dairy Farming

Summers are getting hotter and 2024 will be no different. The Indian Meteorological Department’s (IMD) forecast for 2024 indicates that India will face a harsh summer with longer-than-usual heat waves. Last year was the 2nd hottest year for India (2016 being the hottest) in the last 122 years, exposing humans, animals, and plant life to increasing heat stress. Experts opine that the trend of rising temperatures, with more frequent, intense, and prolonged heatwaves will exacerbate in the future, as the temperature could rise ±1.2° to ±3.5° C by the end of 2050. Rising temperatures and cycles of prolonged heat waves are already triggering water scarcity, increasing instances of pest and disease attacks, lowering farm productivity, and consequently, leading to food price inflation.

While the impacts of the climate crisis on agriculture are well studied and reported, the effects of the crisis on India’s livestock sector remain under-researched. Heat stress in cattle and buffaloes caused by increasing temperature and humidity impacts their health, well-being, and production capacity. We are mid-way through the summer and dairy companies are reporting a decrease in the milk supply. A report in Lancet forecasts that the rising temperature in India threatens to reduce milk production by 25% by 2085. India is the largest milk producer and consumer in the world, these production losses will put the livelihoods and nutrition of millions at risk, especially to the 89 million smallholder dairy farmers that contribute 85% of the total milk production. Dairy experts use a scientific method – Temperature Humidity Index (THI) to evaluate the impact of heat stress on cattle and buffaloes. This index measures the thermal comfort of the animal. An index value up to 72 is optimal for milk production, and for each THI value increase beyond 72, the milk production level in cattle starts declining by 200 grams per day. In a study conducted in the northern plains of India (a region that accounts for 30% of India’s milk production), the THI level crosses 80 and beyond, during summers. Dairy cattle suffer from heat stress for more than half the year (April to October). Animals find little respite since temperatures don’t cool fast enough in the night either. If these conditions continue unabated, heat stress-induced production losses in the northern plains are estimated to reach ~3.4 lakh tons of milk by 2030. Dairy farmers will lose approximately 15,000 crores as their cattle produce less milk and will suffer from heat-induced health issues.

Recognizing the challenge of heat stress-induced production losses, the Government of India launched programs in 2017 to identify traits for heat tolerance and develop climate-resilient dairy practices. The National Bureau of Animal Genetic Record (NBAGR) has identified 3 major heat tolerance traits in cattle—heat shock proteins, coat color, and woolly hair. Research has shown, that indigenous cattle, among them the Sahiwal breed, have better heat tolerance capacity than exotic cattle. However, these resilient traits are not always prioritized in animal breeding programs. In a market of close margins, farmers prefer raising animals that can produce more milk over animals that are sturdier but produce less milk. To help balance the trade-offs between producing more milk and ensuring a healthier dairy herd, animal breeding programs need to equally integrate performance traits like milk production as well as heat tolerance traits so that farmers can raise productive and healthy cattle.

As mercury levels soar and heat wave conditions grip various parts of India, beverage and dairy companies are experiencing a welcome boost in sales. The scorching weather may be a challenge for many, but it’s proving to be a boon for businesses dealing in thirst-quenching beverages, curd, buttermilk, and ice creams. According to Amul, the growth in sales has been remarkable, reaching up to 30%. Specific regions such as Uttar Pradesh, East India, South India, and Maharashtra are witnessing even higher growth rates ranging from 35% to over 50%. Mother Dairy echoes this sentiment, highlighting that the summer season has been exceptionally favorable for the industry, with sales skyrocketing by over 40% in many product categories. People are looking at a lot of innovation. New launches are a combination of Indian flavors, coupled with some international flavors. Intending to increase milk production in Goa, the GCCI conducted a training workshop for dairy farming to encourage them to take up fodder cultivation both as a sole crop and as an intercrop in a coconut plantation. Of the 3 lakh litres per day milk requirement only one lakh litre is produced in Goa and the balance is sourced from neighbouring states.

Observing that “citizens are consuming” milk products “which may not be very safe”, the Delhi High Court will set up a “pilot project” in MadanpurKhadar Dairy — one of the nine designated dairies in the city — to address issues such as the use of “spurious” banned drugs like Oxytocin which increases milk production, cattle health, and hygiene at the premises.

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