A recent decision by the Narendra Modi government to import frozen semen of Gir bulls from Brazil has generated a lively debate, incorporating shades of both cultural sentiment and the hard science of cattle breeding. Arousing excitement and curiosity is that at the centre of it all is a Bos indicus milch cattle breed native to India — specifically the Saurashtra region of Gujarat — and imported as early as 1849 into the US and Brazil in the latter part of the century. The decision to source the germplasm of our own breed now from Brazil — re-bred and re-branded as Brahman Cattle there — has naturally raised the question: Why should the country import Gir semen when we have these animals and there are many farmers, too, rearing them here?

The above question, however, needs to be addressed through the prism of pragmatism rather than simply culture, tradition and sentiment. Although India has been the world’s top milk producer for more than two decades, its annual yield per cow of 1,642.9 kg, according to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation data for 2017, is behind the global average of 2,430.2 kg and the corresponding 4,237.3 kg for New Zealand, 7,026.8 kg for the European Union and 10,457.4 kg for the US.

A major reason for this abysmal milk productivity is the absence of an organised national breeding programme. Currently, artificial insemination coverage is restricted to just 30% of India’s total breedable bovine population. What’s more, hardly a fifth of the bulls in semen stations across the country have been selected through any scientific progeny testing exercise.

Simply put, more than 80% of the animals whose semen is now being used for breeding milch cows are of unknown, if not poor, genetic merit. Most of these bulls have been picked up from villages or institutional farms solely based on the dam’s (mother) peak lactation yields, whether recorded or otherwise. The sire’s (male parent) breeding value or genetic potential — which is what gets transmitted to the progeny, in terms of milk production, fat and protein percentage, fertility or body confirmation traits — is rarely ascertained. If the seed used is itself suspect, how can artificial insemination be of help in any breeding programme for improving milk yields, which is a function of genetic make-up as much as nutritional environment and managerial practices.

Average milk yields from cows of identified indigenous milch breeds such as Gir, Red Sindhi and Sahiwal are 1,600-1,700 kg per year. While two times or more that of nondescript animals, they are still unviable for farmers to rear, especially when yields from crossbred cows average 3,000 kg-plus. No doubt, we have Gir cows giving over 6,000 kg annually. But their number, as per records with the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, is just two. Further, there are 11 that are reported to produce 5,000-6,000 kg and another 116 between 4,000 and 5,000 kg.

If a mere 129 Gir cows, out of an estimated female breed population of over five million in India, are confirmed as yielding above 4,000 kg of milk in an annual lactation cycle, it calls for an effective intervention strategy. To reiterate the earlier point, if dairying is to be profitable for those who do the real rearing, milk yields have to be substantially increased. Essential to that is the scientific selection of male parents with proven genetic potential. Import of semen or even bulls from Brazil, of what is ultimately our own native breed, should be viewed as both practical and necessary in this context.

The performance of Gir cattle in Brazil stands out in comparison to India, which is its original breeding tract. The Brazilian average milk yield for these cows is 3,500 kg/year, as against below 1,600 kg in India. The highest recorded production from any Gir cow in our country is 6,352 kg, whereas there is a sizable population of this breed in Brazil yielding between 12,000 and 15,000 kg. These facts cannot and should not be ignored. Responses such as “the purity of our native breeds is being compromised overseas” are based more on misplaced national pride and sentiment than sound economics or science. If Brazil, through adopting modern assisted reproductive techniques, has achieved dramatic productivity improvement in a cattle breed that is essentially ours, why should we shy away from importing their germplasm to attain similar, if not superior, levels of performance? If we can lay the red carpet and offer a plethora of incentives for our diaspora to return and invest in their homeland, why should a different and adversarial yardstick apply to our non-resident cattle?

Gir cattle are well adapted to tropical environments. Natural selection over centuries has endowed these animals with high heat tolerance, resistance to parasites and diseases, and immense capacity to survive feed and water deprivation over long periods. Also, their cows have better milk yield potential vis-à-vis other pure indigenous breeds, barring maybe Sahiwal. Yet, a lot of that potential remains unharnessed for want of a proper strategy of selective breeding and creation of a super elite population. What could be better than a hardy, low-input cost animal matching the best of global benchmarks in milk productivity!

The import of germplasm and bulls of high genetic merit is one of the many ways for expanding the base of our indigenous cattle population itself. The dwindling numbers of pure breeds, as opposed to nondescripts, does not augur well for small and marginal farmers, for whom rearing exotic or even crossbred cows isn’t affordable beyond a point. While breed purity may be accorded importance, attachment based on blind belief and “faith economics” — in contrast to information on ancestry derived through genomics — shouldn’t end up making imports too cumbersome and counterproductive.

Genetic improvement has to be an integral part of our livestock policy and plans to increase milk production, while also aiming at protection, conservation and promotion of indigenous breeds. Importing semen of high genetic merit bulls from Brazil is only a step in this direction. While apprehensions in certain quarters are understandable, the policy should be given a fair chance, as it also opens up economic opportunities for the smallholder who can ill-afford to maintain a pure Jersey or Holstein-Friesian. “Breed is stronger than the pasture”, the quote from George Eliot’s Victorian novel Silas Marner, should hopefully sum it all up.