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.