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Drought Kills Crops but won’t Impact Milk Output

30 March 2017 01:40 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


You may not believe me; I have news about the drought: Good news, better news, best news and the bonus.Did you know that the income from selling milk compensated the farmer’s losses incurred from crop failures during this period? That’s the good news as the farmer with dairy cows received 46.1% higher income this Maha season. The drought had a beneficial effect on milk production, increasing it by 77% during this period. That’s the better news. The cost of production of a litre of milk in the Dry Zone is between Rs.10 to 15 and the sale price is between Rs.65 to 80. Hence, the turnover is between 300 to 700%. Now that is the best news. In addition to these, there is an overall increase of 13.3% income per cow.  
Can any agricultural enterprise match this?

Furthermore, consuming milk from Dry zone cattle is ecologically sensible, as these cows are part of an integrated agricultural system that raises crops primarily for human consumption. No dedicated crops were grown for them and their diets are mainly human food crop residue and naturally 
growing grasses.  
This news implies that Sri Lanka should capitalize in the Livestock sector sub-sector. Why? The effects of climate change and drought can be minimized by crop farmers rearing livestock. This is a fact. Such livestock enterprises can be considered as a facilitator for the sustainable growth of human food of crop origin. Here I am referring to an integrated farming system, which consists of around 95% of the ruminant (cattle, buffalo and goat) population of Sri Lanka. The prevailing drought condition severely affected paddy and highland food cultivation. Farmers usually start land preparation and planting paddy and highland crops from the beginning of September to October and November. It is safe to say that this expenditure is around Rs.40,000 per acre in both paddy and highland cropping and will be recovered after the sale of the harvest at the end of season. It was not to be, this time, as the prevailing drought destroyed their crops. However, farmers with dairy cattle recovered this amount within 21/2 months See table below.   

With the advent of the Maha season, farmers are busy with land preparation, followed by crop cultivation and will have less time to attend to livestock activities. In this period, cattle and other ruminants are restricted to prevent any crop damage and easy management. They will not be provided with adequate amounts of food and water, no grazing and sometimes no milking, which will result in the loss of 2 million litres per year. The consequence of this restriction results in a low feed intake- and very little milk is collected during the Maha season when compared to the Yala season. However, due to the drought conditions in the 2016/17 Maha season, this has changed. This season, paddy land and highlands have been mostly abandoned and look bare but there is a luscious growth of grass, remnants of the failed crop and a few wet patches due to intermittent rains. Grazing herds are visible in these abandoned 
crop fields.  

This situation has allowed the milking herd to consume sufficient herbage to provide nutrients required for their body and milk production. However, unlike in a normal year, these animals were able to maintain a healthy condition and a nutrient reserve throughout the year that may have indirect results such as increased milk production, prolonged lactation period, increasing fat percentage and increase in the number of calves who would initiate milk production. This added income through these direct and indirect benefits will support the total farm activities in this crop-livestock mixed farming system. The following chart 1 shows an increase in milk production by 43.8%, 76.6%, 98.3% and 103.7% in the months of November, December, January and February respectively. This is contrary to what we usually witness in the regular Maha season (from 2007/08 to 2015/16) with normal rainfall.  
 Poor nutrition in the Maha season can cause severe problems in the cattle population. Indigenous cattle breeds were less affected but crossbreeding with European and Indian breeds showed poor growth, a shorter lactation period and longer calving intervals. A poor body condition is apparent through visible hips and pin bones, the outline of 3 to 5 ribs and the outline of the spine. Some of these features can be observed in the image 1 below. 
Yet, after the Maha harvest, an ample amount of feeding will allow these cattle to recover and increase milk production. However, during the 2016/17 Maha season there is a sufficient amount of feed to maintain a favourable body score. This will reflect in increased lactation periods by about 30 days and reduced calving interval by about 2 months.     Ruminant milk and meat production is predominantly a grazing farming system. This grazing farming system has failed to produce milk consistently throughout the year and supply milk to meet the demand. This is due to the quality of herbage available for grazing and owing to the lack of feed at critical times. In the past they were allowed to graze in forest and marginal pasture lands, in addition to uncultivated land in the Yala season (dry period) where irrigated water is provided only to cultivate around 30 - 40% land.   Later, government regulations were legally enacted to prevent ruminant grazing in forest and marginal pasture land.    The effect of this is the drastic reduction of ruminant population during the past two decades. In addition, the new paddy harvesting practice, through heavy machinery prevents the use of rice straw.   However, there will be a fresh problem in the Dry Zone farming system with the new irrigation projects being able to provide sufficient irrigated water to cultivate the rest of the land during the Yala season (dry period) for only human food.  

This will have a major consequence on the growth of the ruminant population, as this farming system will be completely cut off from the land. Hence, there is a need to transform this grazing milk production system to a stall feeding system in the dry zone. This is not possible unless an intervention to the feeding system is introduced.  

Key lessons learned:

  • Modes of interventions not focused to the real problem for a paradigm shift.  
  • Annual Loss of 2.2 million litres in the Anuradhapura and Trincomalee areas.  
  • Continuation of the practice of grazing management (free grazing) system in Dry Zone.  
  • Demand for replacement stock higher than the current supply.  
  • Seasonality of availability of feed- no measures to increase shelf-life of crop-residue and grass.  
  • Starvation and water deprivation effects physiology of cattle   
  • Difficulties of women-headed families rearing cattle – Unable to take animals for grazing to distant places. 


Impact needs to be generated:

  • Increasing crossbred population through artificial insemination (AI) and organized natural breeding system. Currently, crossbred pregnant heifer costs Rs.120,000. Half the population is of the indigenous types yielding 2 – 3 litres per day. Hence, to do any intervention that will result in a paradigm shift, there is a need to increase the crossbred population that will yield 10 to 15 litres per day.  


  • The AI program has the capacity to supply around 40% of the required replacement and the rest either takes a long time to conceive or breed  using a nondescript male unsuited to produce calves that can produce more milk. Milk marketing organizations will benefit from every calving, as it results in the inception of milk production.    Hence, it will be advantageous to have a national programme for Natural Breeding managed by Milco through using good quality Jersey males from the National Livestock Development Board (NLDB). They should position one such stud unit per milk collecting centre. A member of this milk collecting centre will be responsible for maintaining this stud centre, where he economically benefits through the compensatation for the use of the stud bull for natural breeding.   

  • Promotes the development of food-feed system, as land is a limiting factor for human food production. New intervention to utilize the next major crop – maize as a livestock feed was explored and was successful. After selling the cobs of this crop, the residue will be converted to silage and utilized for feeding ruminants with better results than other rice crop-residue.    One acre of maize yields 10 metric tons of stalk that can be converted to nutritious feed called silage, that can be fed to an adult cow giving 8 litres of milk per day for almost two years. The stalk has to be chopped, crushed and packed in anaerobic condition.   
  • Promote utilization of machinery – Choppers (Rs.75,000), milking machine (Rs.95,000) and sprinkle irrigation system for maize (Rs. 60,000 to 100,000 per acre). 
  • It is not a surprise that the local milk supply is still below 30% of the demand, after years of fruitless interventions that took place. However, with the change of strategy, Sri Lanka would be able to double milk production in three years - 2020. Now this is the bonus.
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