Around 5.30 am, just as the sun begins to emerge from behind the clouds, Rajeev Gupta, 52, asks Govardhan, his employee, to switch the feeding positions of Madhuri and Priyanka. “Look, Madhuri is eating all of Priyanka’s fodder and then Priyanka will not produce milk. Keep them apart,” he says. “Ab bhaison ko kya pata apna khana kahan hai aur doosre ka kahan. Itni si jagah mein kahan le jayein in sau janwaro ko (How can buffaloes distinguish between their own food and that of another? In such a small space, where do we accommodate these 100 animals)?” Govardhan mutters to himself.
At Harvilas Dairy in Agra’s Soda Wali Gali, one of the biggest in the region in terms of production, discussions over space constraints have now been overshadowed by those on the crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses in the state. “We can’t say much about India’s beef market but we can proudly say that we are the world’s largest producer of milk. It is obvious that the two are interrelated and a ban on slaughter will impact the legal buffalo and dairy industry,” say Rajeev, who now runs the dairy, which is more than 70 years old, with his son Abhi Gupta, 25.
However, he adds, he voted for the BJP in the recently held Assembly elections and is “happy” with the Yogi Adityanath government’s crackdown on illegal slaughter houses. “Business will be hit a little, but as a Hindu, I am happy that he has stopped the illegal slaughtering of animals,” he says.
It is around 7 am now and the dairy farmer is mixing fodder for his 60 buffaloes, all Murrah, and 33 cows, all Jersey, which are housed in a 1,500 sq ft cattle shed. The feeding process, Rajeev says, is initiated at 5.30 am, and his day involves bathing his milch herd, ensuring that the sick animals receive treatment and most importantly, that they are milked on time.
“These animals eat for almost two hours, between 6 and 8 am. Then we milk them; it takes around four hours to milk all 93 cattle heads I have. Some produce 12-13 litres while there are some which give 25 litres of milk. This depends on the animal’s mood and health. The cows produce more milk than the buffaloes but the demand for buffalo milk is higher as it is thicker,” explains Rajeev while milking Julie, which was brought to him almost a year ago. While most of his animals are named after Bollywood stars — he considers them “his heroines” — Rajeev’s top producing milch animal is Mayawati.
Once the animals are milked in the morning, they rest between 1 pm and 4 pm. Rajeev also uses this time to relax. “The cycle is repeated again from 4 pm — fodder for two hours and milking for the next four. The buffaloes and cows are spared the bathing in the evening as they hate water,” he says, adding that he sleeps only at 12 am after ensuring all his animals have eaten properly and are comfortable in the shed.
While he refuses to reveal how much he earns, being among his buffaloes and cows has been worth his while, Rajeev says. The trade has allowed him to buy a house, a car, and provide for the education of his two children. He says he spends almost Rs 250 a day on each animal, with his monthly expenditure for all 93 animals totalling almost Rs 7 to 8 lakh. To make dairy farming financially viable, he buys and sells animals at regular intervals, from 9 months to 1.5 years.
“For better production, cows should be made to produce calves at least once a year and buffaloes once in 15 months. The calves are separated from their mothers for three to four days after birth. This is traumatic for both but it leads to a 15-30 per cent increase in milk availability for humans. Following separation, the calves are mainly fed on milk substitutes and are allowed only limited suckling. The mother’s milk is instead diverted for human consumption,” says Abhi, hosing down the cattle with one hand and messaging on his iPhone with the other.
The latest entrant to the family enterprise, Abhi, who has a BCom degree from Agra University, says he joined the business at the age of 15.
To keep dairy animals productive, animal husbandry manuals recommend re-impregnation around 60 days after calving — a longer calving interval is uneconomical and a shorter one reduces milk production.
Once the calves are born, Rajeev says, the norm in the industry is to either release the male animals onto the streets or send them for slaughter, but adds that he doesn’t do this. “Hum nahin chhodte apne jaanwar balki bech dete hain kisanon ko (We don’t leave our animals on the streets. Instead, we sell them to farmers),” he says. “The healthy females are kept for use in the dairy. It is only when milk production starts to decline after three to four lactations (pregnancies) that the cows and buffaloes are sold for slaughter through middlemen, or to smaller farmers who will use them for an additional two to three lactations before selling them for slaughter or abandoning them,” he adds.
It is some of these practices that have led to veterinarians and animal rights activists to term dairy production as being as traumatic and lethal to animals as slaughter. “Farmers who buy the male animals from the dairy owners subject them to castration without anaesthesia, before whipping and forcing them into hard labour until they are old and weak. The healthy females are kept alive for use in the dairy industry, which means a repeated cycle of impregnation, separation, painful milking, oxytocin shots and mastitis (inflammation of the udder),” says Yogesh Sharma, Veterinary Officer at the Agra Municipal Corporation (AMC).
Rajeev claims none of his buffaloes has ever died as he keeps replacing them, but admits that almost 2,000 cows have died in his shed in the 30 years of his career. “While buffaloes can be beneficial even in death as their meat can get an owner around Rs 25,000, the cow is useless and we need to pay Rs 500 to a ‘kasai (skinners)’ to remove the carcass,” he adds.
“If dairy producers are not allowed to slaughter male calves and spent, sick or injured cows, it has considerable implications for animal welfare as well as meat and leather production,” says M K Jain, a customer of Rajeev Gupta who visits the dairy at 7 pm every day.
The fallout of this, as a 2012 census by the Animal Husbandry Department revealed, is that there are 5.3 million stray cattle abandoned by their owners across the country, almost one million of which are in urban areas. “Stray animals spread vector-borne diseases, cause occupational health hazards and environmental pollution. These hazards must also be considered,” says Meenakshi Singh, another customer at the dairy.
Ramesh Chandra, 73, Rajeev’s father, blames the Agra Development Authority (ADA) for another major problem afflicting his dairy — the lack of space. “In 1998, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had directed the ADA to shift all industries, be it petha (a sweet), leather or dairy, outside the city to ensure less pollution. I also want to modernise my farm for which I need a bigger space outside the city. The animals are forced to huddle close together against their nature, and if we let them loose, they will bathe in the Yamuna and make it dirty. If we take them out for walks, they cause traffic snarls. So we avoid that,” says Ramesh Chandra, adding that he has written many letters to the ADA but “the authorities are not paying any heed.”
With his customers having all left by 9 pm, Rajeev audits his account books. “Animals are animals anyway. Life can be nasty, brutish and short for male cattle and a little comfortable for the female ones. The fate of every cattle head is slaughter, whether you accept it or not. Actually, meat and milk are just two sides of the same coin,” he says, before heading home, within the premises of the cattle pen, at around 11 pm.