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India studies how to keep milk flowing in a hotter world

By Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar

© The New York Times Co.

KARNAL, INDIA » Inside a shed in the northern Indian state of Haryana, the sound of flutes floated softly from loudspeakers. The audience, grazing silently, was dozens of cows, the unwitting subjects of an experiment in music therapy.

The orchestrators of this scene were a group of scientists studying a simple question: How much does withering heat affect milk production? For India’s dairy-loving population, another season of rising temperatures has left an answer at their doorstep, as prices have increased for their morning milk deliveries once again.

The scientists of the National Dairy Research Institute are working to preserve India’s status as a dairy powerhouse in the face of the country’s acute threat from climate change, conducting studies about developing new breeds of buffalo to testing new crops for protein content.

As part of this work, a team pored over daily data on yields from hundreds of animals after late-spring temperatures rose as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit above the average of previous years. Although the warmer months normally see a drop in yield, the researchers found that heat stress in April directly resulted in an additional decline of nearly 11% in milk production among healthy crossbred cattle.

“The animal is fighting physiologically to adjust itself and also give 2 or 3 liters of milk,” said Ashutosh, the team’s leader, who goes by one name.

India, the world’s largest producer of milk, generates more than 200 million tons every year. The dairy industry, which relies on 80 million farmers across the country, most with small herds, has grown steadily and now accounts for nearly 5% of India’s economy. In a sign of the country’s craving for dairy products, only a small fraction of the massive production goes to exports.

Stress on animals is just one way that extreme heat is challenging this crucial industry. In announcing a 4% rise in milk prices last week — the second increase this year — dairy producers cited a nearly 20% jump in the cost of feed for cattle.

Although rising prices for fuel and other necessities have not helped, scientists and farmers point to how extreme weather is exacerbating a troubling fodder deficit that is holding India’s dairy industry back from further growth.

The wilting heat came earlier this year than usual, with temperatures frequently reaching 113 Fahrenheit in April and soaring as high as 120 Fahrenheit in May.

And it stayed hot for long stretches.

Rainfall, on the other hand, was erratic. The fields were flooded in earlier months when farmers expected less rain, while during the period that precipitation would help mitigate the heat, rainfall was below the norm. In the state of Punjab, farmers reported as much as a 15% drop in the wheat harvest, which affected the availability and quality of cattle fodder.

India has about 300 million bovines. Nearly half of the milk production comes from buffaloes, and a little over a quarter from crossbred cattle, which combine the resilience of indigenous cattle with the higher yields of European breeds. In recent decades, as the country has increased the share of crossbreeds because of the better yields, scientists have been studying their adaptability to rising temperatures.

The crossbreeds have been slower to adapt than buffaloes and indigenous cattle. The impact of the April heat was minor in buffaloes, a sharp contrast with the approximately 11% drop in production in the crossbreeds, the scientists at the National Dairy Research Institute found.

On a recent visit to the institute in Karnal, which sits on 1,400 acres and includes more than 2,000 animals, a large number of buffaloes grazed on fresh feed.

“When you give them sufficient food, they will not fight,” said A.K. Dang, a scientist at the institute. “Otherwise, like humans, they are bossy — they will fight for it.”

In a small corner where work on the impact of climate change is focused, there are special chambers for testing animal behavior in cranked-up temperatures. New shrubs from the northeastern state of Assam, believed to be higher in protein, longer-lasting and shorter in harvest cycles, are going through tests.

And researchers are running field trials on the mineral intake of cattle. They have developed a prototype of a tool that gauges temperature and humidity and produces color-coded readings that help farmers tell animals’ stress levels.

Then there were the dozens of cattle munching away as soft flute music played — an image resonant for Hindus, as the deity Krishna is often depicted with a flute and cows in tow.

 

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