Milk demand down, festival season offers no hope in UP’s buffalo belt

July 28, 2020

Harish Damodaran | IE

AMROHA (Uttar Pradesh) — India’s Grand Festival Season takes off next month, starting with Rakshabandhan (August 3), Janmashtami (August 12), Ganesh Chaturthi (August 22) and Onam (August 31), followed by the nine-day Navaratri culminating in Dussehra (October 25), Diwali (November 14) and Chhath Puja (November 20). It is also the season for the calving of buffaloes, whose high-fat milk provides the base ingredients – ghee, khoa, chhana and paneer – in most indigenous sweets consumed during this period.

But for Sanjeev Kumar Cheema, the upcoming festivals don’t promise hope.

“I saw milk prices fall for the first time this summer, when buffaloes produce less. From August, their biyana (calvings) would begin and production will go up, peaking in the winter and remaining high till March-April. What will happen then, especially if festival demand isn’t also going to be good?,” asks this farmer from Sirsa Mohan in Amroha district of western Uttar Pradesh.

Cheema is among the 31 members of his village’s cooperative society supplying to the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation’s (better known as Amul) Banaskantha dairy union, which procured 4.17 lakh litres per day (LLPD) out of its total average 59.92 LLPD of milk in 2019-20 from UP. Since May 21, the Banaskantha union has reduced its purchase price for buffalo milk with 6.5% fat and 9% solids-not-fat (SNF) content from Rs 43.88 to Rs 39 per litre.

“Woh kya karenge jab aage doodh nahi bik raha hai (What can they do if there is no consumer demand?). Others are paying Rs 33-36, if at all they are buying. Also, the Banaskantha dairy and our society will give a bonus/additional payment of up to 4% from their year-end profits, which comes to another Rs 1.56/litre,” notes Cheema.

The Sirsa Mohan society members – all from an extended family of Cheema Jats – are currently pouring 140-150 litres daily to the Banaskantha union, against 230-240 litres till early April. The latter’s total procurement of about 4.3 LLPD from UP now is below the high of 7.9 LLPD on March 20, five days before the nationwide coronavirus-induced lockdown was imposed.

“Procurement is low mainly because buffaloes give less milk at this time. My worry is what happens when they calve and more milk starts flowing from their udders?,” points Mahendra Singh Sirohi from Kailsa village of Amroha, who supplied over 286 litres milk worth Rs 11,702 from his seven buffaloes to the Banaskantha dairy during July 1-15.

For this 110-bigha (18 acres) farmer – he grows sugarcane on 80 bigha, paddy on 10 bigha and jowar/bajra fodder on the rest – milk is a source of liquidity and supplementary income. “Rasoi ka kharcha nikal jata hai (it takes care of kitchen expenses). The union pays twice every month for the previous 15 days’ milk, which is like getting a double salary,” adds Sirohi.

But it’s not only farmers like him. Bharat Singh’s two buffaloes will calve within a month. A landless Jatav Dalit farm labourer, he also has three buffalo calves aged 1-2 years. “I sell 10 litres daily to the Kailsa society during September-March and hope to do 25 litres once the calves get into production,” says the 50-year-old, who feeds his animals the sugarcane tops and wheat straw he receives as part wages in kind.

For all of them, the overnight closure of hotels and sweetshops, plus no marriages and other public functions, meant a collapse of demand for milk. Before the lockdown, Subhash Singh Mahali was earning a commission of Rs 1.40/litre on the 240-odd litres that he collected daily from 40-50 farmers in Amroha’s Siwora village for Gopaljee Dairy Foods Pvt Ltd. He has since shut down the collection centre.

“Private dairies were buying buffalo milk with 6.5% fat and 9% SNF at Rs 45-46/litre in February-March till the lockdown. Post lockdown, they stopped procuring or reduced their rates to Rs 30-31. If there was no lockdown, prices would have crossed Rs 50 this summer,” claims Mahali. The UP government’s own Pradeshik Cooperative Dairy Federation (Parag) slashed its procurement price to Rs 32/litre by May 9, before raising it marginally to Rs 36 on June 12.

UP is largely a buffalo belt. Out of its estimated 30.52 million tonnes (mt) milk output in 2018-19, 19.46 mt or 63.8% was from buffaloes. The 2019 Livestock Census showed the state’s buffalo population, at 330.17 lakh, exceeding the 190.20 lakh of cattle. Amroha district alone had 514,547 buffaloes, nearly 2.4 times its 216,649 cattle numbers.

The present demand crisis – reflected in ex-factory prices of skimmed milk powder (SMP) and butter crashing to Rs 150-160 and Rs 200-220 per kg, respectively, from Rs 300-320 and Rs 340-350 pre-lockdown – is likely to particularly impact buffalo milk. One reason for it is that buffaloes mostly conceive after October when temperatures drop, leading to their calving and producing more from August. Milk supplies in UP – and also other buffalo belts, be it East Rajasthan or Guntur-Prakasam-Nellore in Andhra Pradesh – will, thus, increase significantly in the coming months.

Secondly, cow milk typically contains 3.5% fat and 8.5% SNF. In buffalo milk, the SNF is slightly higher, but the fat content can go to 10-11%. “While unsold SMP stocks with dairies have mounted, there will still be some buyers such as biscuit companies that are registering good consumption growth. The problem really would be in fat,” feels D Sunil Reddy, managing director of the Hyderabad-based Dodla Dairy Ltd.

According to industry sources, even Patanjali Ayurved’s ghee sales have come down from their peak of 2,500 tonnes per month to hardly 1,000 tonnes. A surplus in milk fat is something India has rarely seen before. It would be rarer during the festival season that is synonymous with milk-based sweets.

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