Every year, nearly 7.5 crore artificial inseminations (AI) are performed in India. There’s little data on how successful these are, in terms of leading to conception and actual calvings. But since India is producing some 180 million tonnes of milk annually — and that isn’t possible without cows and buffaloes calving — it means breeding is definitely happening, through either AI or natural service. The government’s own target is to extend AI coverage to 65% of the total breedable bovine population by 2021-22, from the present 25%, and also improve conception rates that average around 35% now.
At Hatsun Agro Product Ltd (HAPL), we do just over 30,000 AIs per month or almost 4 lakh every year. Till three years ago, our animal husbandry (AH) team was providing veterinary and AI services by simply responding to farmer requests. The frontline staff had some idea of the animal health issues in their areas, as also the rough proportion of cows conceiving to the number of AIs done. However, there was no systematically collated data or analysis undertaken. Milch animals, moreover, require different veterinary and nutritional advice at different stages of pregnancy or lactation. That, too, could not be provided, as the information didn’t exist. It was literally inseminate and move on, or treat and move on.
Similarly, the procurement team knew the exact quantity of milk delivered by our three lakh-odd farmers every day — thanks to the company’s database that covered purchases from and payments made to each one of them. But they had no idea how many cows it took to produce that milk, leave alone the breed, age or reproductive status of those animals.
It was a complete information black box.
In September 2016, HAPL initiated an animal tagging project, aimed mainly at obtaining better information on the cows supplying milk to us and improving the quality of our AH services. Every animal now has a thermoplastic polyurethane tag attached to its ear. The tag has two basic pieces of information printed on it — a 12-digit unique identification number (just like Aadhaar) provided by the National Dairy Development Board and a QR code corresponding to it. When an AH team member visits a farmer to treat or inseminate his cow, he only has to scan the QR code using his smartphone that has a mobile application called Herdman, developed by an Indian veterinary software firm Vetware Pvt. Ltd.
Till date, over 5.6 lakh cows have been registered in the HAIS (Hatsun Animal Information Service) database. At any given point, we have about 3.3 lakh of those tagged cows giving milk to us. Even after excluding the animals that are dry, have stopped calving or gone out of the system, we believe that the majority of cows from which HAPL collects milk have now been tagged.
How does tagging benefit us?
The HAIS software built on the Herdman platform makes it possible to record information on each animal — the name of her owner, breed type, age, number of calvings, current status (expected calving date, if pregnant), number and date of last AI, identity of the bull whose semen was used, and all veterinary interventions. This entire data can be accessed by scanning the QR code and the AH services are provided accordingly. The AH staff would further enter the details of their interventions and even that will go into the HAIS central database, which can be monitored by the company’s senior veterinarians and extension officers. Just as the company is now making milk payments to farmers directly into their bank accounts, charges for all AH services provided are also being electronically deducted. HAPL has, in fact, recently implemented a “no tag, no service” policy for its farmers.
The real benefit of tagging is that our AH services are now increasingly proactive than reactive. Inseminators are, then, becoming reproduction managers and veterinarians from mere treatment doctors to animal health managers. With tagging, we not only know every animal’s pedigree, but also how many times it has been inseminated and the number of resulting pregnancies; if low, it might call for fertility treatment. Earlier, it was quite possible that the semen used for a cow was sourced from a bull, which had inseminated even her mother or daughter. But now, that is ruled out and we have a comprehensive picture of bull performance. Tagging data actually helped us recently to discontinue semen purchases from one breeder, as the conception rates from its bulls were found too low. Also, once insemination is over today, farmers are being issued SMS alerts after 18 days to check their cows. If the cows have come to heat, it means they haven’t conceived and will need fresh insemination. If there’s no heat, then pregnancy testing and nutritional advice alerts in the lead up to calving would follow. Previously, farmers often called for assistance way too late, thereby resulting in extended calving intervals and lower economic returns from keeping cattle.
We are now starting to also get a better picture of the milk production performance of the cows of our farmers. The average profile that emerges is of roughly 1.8 cows per farmer, 5-6 litres of milk per cow per day and 9-11 litres per farmer per day. Much more of such data, obviously relevant to a company whose main raw material is milk, can be generated to enable closer monitoring of per-cow milk yields. We have found that while our average animal yield is 5-6 litres/day, it is 10-12 litres for cows in early lactation and can be raised to 20-25 litres with better fodder and feed management. By supplementing yield data with proper milk production cost calculations, the farmer, too, would know about the profitability of his/her dairy enterprise.
For Hatsun — rather, for most of India’s dairy industry — animal tagging is a totally new technology. Simply put, it has helped turn the lights on what was earlier a black box. There have been issues, nevertheless. Initially, many of our farmers had apprehensions about tagging their cows, given their negative connotations: Tagged cows were always associated with bank loan liabilities or used for insurance purposes. While our company has largely overcome farmer resistance, this could still be an industry-wide issue at a national level.
Data on cows ultimately belongs to farmers. How can they use this information? Some farmers, especially the ones with good cows, have indicated to us that it would help get a better price for their animals. Currently, these are based largely on looks or buyers’ blind faith in the claims of farmers. But if proper records of production and breeding performance exist — based on tagging data, which farmers can readily access and show by scanning the QR code with their mobile phones — it would make a huge difference.
Quite amazing what a simple tag can do.