By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Mar 16 2013 (IPS) - Mohammad Ali’s routine has not changed in over three decades. A small dairy farmer in the village of Aliabad, in the Narowal district of Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, he wakes at sunrise and walks to the barn to milk his three cows manually, stopping only for a breakfast of unleavened bread and tea heavily laced with milk before getting back to work.
Unfazed by the multitude of flies hovering around the stainless steel milk buckets, he carefully transfers their contents to an aluminium container and, securing it firmly on his motorbike, heads off to the nearest shop that purchases 14 litres of milk from him every day.
For many years, the forty-year-old farmer had accepted that each of his cows would produce no more than three to four litres of milk a day, hardly enough to put food on the table and clothes on his back.
Until he heard of Jassar Farms, that is. Located in a village by the same name just two kilometres away, as Ali learnt from his neighbour, cows on Jassar farm produce three times the quantity of milk as the cattle in Aliabad.
Run by Shahzad Iqbal, a 43-year-old social entrepreneur, this “miracle” farm – on which over 500 of the 600 cows produce 12 to 14 litres a day – began in 2007, based on a scientific model and backed by a sound business plan.
“I began by importing the embryos of pure exotic bulls instead of the more common practice of importing elite cows from the United States or Australia that cost thousands of dollars,” Iqbal told IPS.
He then used local cows as surrogates and once the first generation was born, started crossbreeding them with his own herd.
Iqbal sees great potential in Pakistan’s dairy and livestock industry, which engages roughly 20 percent of Pakistan’s population. About 8.5 million small and landless families in rural areas comprise the bulk of the dairy and livestock sector, with 35 to 40 million people dependent on it for a living. Most farmers own just three or four cows.
With a herd of 162 million animals, including cows, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, horses, asses and mules, Pakistan has the world’s fourth largest livestock population.
Speaking to IPS over the phone from Narowal, Iqbal admitted, “The attitudes of these poor farmers are hard to change.” But change is exactly what he is after, convinced that artificial insemination could push milk production up by a minimum of 2,000 litres per animal per year.
This “translates into 80,000 rupees (814 dollars) extra revenue for every farmer from each animal if the milk is sold at the current rate of 40 rupees (.40 dollars) per litre,” he says.
“According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, livestock generates 40 percent of rural income and 11.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — if we can double the yield, we can contribute significantly to Pakistan’s GDP,” he added.
If farmers could embrace scientific practices, he said, the country could produce an extra 16 billion litres of milk per year.
Given its advantageous geographic location, Pakistan would then be poised to become a leading supplier of milk and dairy-based products to import-dependent “Islamic countries, from Malaysia to Morocco”.
But based on the 2006 national livestock census, estimated milk production for 2011-12 was just 42 billion litres, scarcely enough to meet the country’s own demand: according to Iqbal, the country spends half a billion dollars annually to import milk-based products. In an effort to fill this gap in yield, Jassar Farms now produces “high quality” bull semen at an affordable price. Utilising a network of 6,000 technicians, the enterprise distributes 75,000 doses per month from Punjab to Sindh, at a bargain price of 150 to 300 rupees (1.5 to three dollars).
Rizwan Hameed, a marketing graduate working at Iqbal’s farm, told IPS that the quality of this semen can be compared to elite imported varieties but comes at a much cheaper rate.
“Our dose is tenfold cheaper than the comparable imported variety, which is available at 2,000 rupees (20 dollars),” he said.
Keeping it local
Dr. Tanveer Ahmad, at the Livestock Production and Management Department of the Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi, agrees that artificial insemination could result in a genetically superior herd, thereby “decreasing the spread of veneral diseases and increasing the yield”.
But he fears lax market regulations could compromise the health of local breeds.
“There is indiscriminate insemination going on, which could spoil our pure breeds,” he told IPS.
He favours the use of high quality semen taken from local beasts like Sahiwal cattle, which originated here in the Punjab, rather than the imported variety “because our local elite animals are more resistant to the weather and environment, can endure the heat and do not develop ticks the way cross-bred imported varieties do”.
Irfan Elahi, secretary of the Punjab Livestock Department, echoed his words. Talking to IPS over the phone from Lahore, Elahi said a bill has recently been tabled in the Punjab provincial assembly, aimed at regulating semen production units across the province.
There is already a ban on artificial insemination of Sahiwal cattle with exotic semen – these beasts can only be inseminated with better quality semen from the same breed, he added.
The Punjab government has also been actively engaged in livestock research and in 2006 began testing the progeny of Sahiwal cows and the local Nili-Ravi buffalo.
In addition, the Punjab provincial government has set up 976 artificial insemination centres to provide services to smallholders. The Punjab Livestock and Dairy Development Board is training inseminators and provides them motorbikes and insemination kits free of cost to provide services in the field, where the Livestock Department has limited reach.
Still, many farmers are reluctant to embrace the change.
Shafaqat Ali, a member of the Pakistan Dairy Farmers’ Association, believes this is because the practice is cost-prohibitive: “Each imported dose costs anywhere between 6,000 and 25,000 rupees (60 and 250 dollars) and there is no guarantee that one dose will impregnate the animal.
“An impoverished farmer cannot afford to take the risk and so relies on the natural method,” he told IPS over phone from Faisalabad, a city in the Punjab.
In developed countries, 90 to 92 percent of animals are impregnated through artificial insemination, but the rate in Pakistan is as low as seven to eight percent, according to Iqbal.