Milking it: India looks to improve its dairy sector
Bhagyalaxmi Dairy Farm lies tucked away up a rutted country track, among the patchwork of dusty brown scrub and lush green parcels of farmland to the northeast of the Indian city of Pune.
With a herd of more than 3,000 cows, a state-of-the-art milking parlour and on-site bottling plant using French technology, it's a world away from traditional Indian village farming.
The 10.5-hectare (26-acre) farm, owned by Parag Milk Foods Ltd, provides milk for its Pride of Cows brand, which at 75 rupees ($1.4) a litre is about three times more expensive than other milk on the market.
The product is currently sold directly to just 1,500 well-heeled people in south Mumbai, effectively making a staple commodity a luxury that most Indians cannot afford.
But the company sees it differently, hoping the six-month-old venture will drive up standards across India's dairy sector, where milk quality is a problem.
India has the world's largest dairy herd and is also the biggest milk producer. The National Dairy Development Board estimates that 121 million tonnes of milk were produced in 2010-11 -- about 17 percent of the global total.
But earlier this month, India's Food Safety and Standards Authority said that more than two-thirds of the milk it tested in 33 states was contaminated with substances including salt and detergent.
Skimmed milk powder, fat, glucose and added water were also found, not only reducing its nutritional value but also posing risks to human health.
Edmund Vincent-Piper says it doesn't have to be this way. As manager at Bhagyalaxmi, he's in charge of overseeing the feeding and care of the farm's thoroughbred Holstein-Friesian cattle.
Outside vehicles are disinfected at the gate and protective clothing is compulsory for workers to ensure the potential for contamination is kept to a minimum.
"This is probably India's best and cleanest dairy farm," said the 52-year-old Englishman, who is known as "Piper" to his employees and bosses.
"The potential (for dairy farming) in India is exponential when you look at the number of cows - 120 million, the largest single population in the world - but the downside is the output. Improvements can be made," he said.
"I'm here to show India that the technology is out there. If you feed cows properly and use proper husbandry techniques, cows will perform."
As Indian diets change due to economic growth, the government has drawn up a plan to help meet growing demand, recognising the need for science to help boost production and improve standards.
What's required, said Vincent-Piper, who has worked as a dairyman in Britain, the Gulf and Middle East, is for a change in attitudes towards dairy farming, as well as greater investment.
"The animals come first," he said, as 50 heifers at a time trooped on to a rotating platform in the milking parlour and had their heavy udders hooked up to computer-operated machines.
The job hasn't been easy, he admitted, with a lack of practical experience among Indian farm workers one of the main problems.
Employees have needed training to help "read" cows for signs of illness or distress that can affect milk supply while vets have taken persuading to give routine vaccinations to animals that are considered sacred to many Hindus.
Convincing local farmers to prioritise proper feeding of cattle to maximise milk quantity and quality, rather than giving them what's left over from crops grown for human consumption, is also a challenge.
Reducing stress levels is seen as key: Bhagyalaxmi cows are untethered and have individual pens with rubber mats instead of straw or hard brick floors. Music plays in the milking parlour.
Another part of the programme is improving indigenous stock: already male calves from Bhagyalaxmi, born through artificial insemination from pedigree bulls in north America, are being given to local farmers.
Vincent-Piper cites the Pune-based poultry giant Venky's as an example of how private enterprise can transform an agricultural sector in India into big business.
He believes that private companies like Parag, which sells dairy products from milk to mozzarella under the Go and Gowardhan brands, will help lead the way in modernising the sector.
Bit by bit, experience and knowledge is increasing, he added, predicting that similar-sized high-tech farms will come up in the next decade.
"You can do it by taking small steps. You can make a big difference," he said.
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