Move over Vicky Donor, Gauri is here. Broad-backed and round-humped, chestnut brown with majestic curved horns, and standing five feet tall with sturdy legs holding up her heft, Gauri, is neither man nor human but a cow that belongs to the indigenous Gir breed from Rajkot and everything that a star donor should be.
Cows, like humans, take about nine months to carry a calf to term. At five years old, Gauri should have had two calves. But this Gir cow resting on a hot afternoon at a cattle barn in Vadgaon-Rasai near Pune has knocked it out of the park with 56 pregnancies in a span of six months without actually having to birth a single calf, thanks to the growing use of IVF technology on livestock.
Instead, Gauri’s oocytes or ovary cells were fertilised inside an incubator with the semen of a Brazilian bull (known for their high lactation qualities) before the embryos were implanted in low milk yielding surrogate cows spread over Maharashtra and Kerala who will soon become the matriarchs of a burgeoning breed of genetically superior high milk yielding cows, waiting to be born between January and June, 2020.
“This under natural circumstances would have taken 56 years. That’s why when Gauri catches a cold, I can feel it from where I am. She’s my favourite,” smiles Dr Shyam Zawar, chief scientist and CEO of JK Trust, an organisation working on a ‘Cattle Breed Improvement Programme’ of upgrading local indigenous low milk-yielding cows and buffaloes — namely Gir (Gujarat), Sahiwal (Punjab), Tharparkar (Rajasthan) — by breeding them through artificial insemination with high pedigree frozen semen of indigenous or exotic breeds so that their future progeny arrives with improved genetic makeup and far better milk yielding capacity.
Today, hundreds of human babies are conceived with IVF science, but veterinarians too have been using IVF for animals for the same period of time in the west to breed robust herds of cattle. India’s first IVF calf, Krishna, came along on January 8, 2017 in Gopalnagar, Chhattisgarh, through frozen IVF embryos of Tharparkar breed of Rajasthan.
And since then, several Indian cattlemen have been bucking the reins of nature’s limitations by allowing IVF and embryo transfers on their cows to maximise pregnancy rates. Gauri, a prolific embryo producer, is part of this new process of quick multiplication of genetics of top females in a herd in addition to improving genetics by using artificial insemination with bulls of high genetic merit to produce superior calves that can pay off in the long run.
In another step forward in improving and propagating indigenous dairy breeds, the Trust has established nine IVF pregnancies in Murrah buffaloes, a breed prominent for dairy production. India’s first IVF buffaloes will be born in August 2020 at a 1500-buffalo farm of Sonawane brothers in Pune. “IVF in buffaloes is a lot tougher than in cows because they are seasonal breeders, their ovaries don’t respond to hormones very well and their reproductive efficiency is lesser,” explains Zawar as he takes you on a walkthrough of a lab for ‘Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Livestock’ set up in 2016 where petri dishes and microscopes crowd the desks and bovine semen are sealed in glass straws and frozen in tanks of liquid nitrogen, before they are fertilised or inserted into surrogate mother using a 1.5ft shooting gun.
While all of this may sound motivated by the country’s veneration of cows, the master plan seems to have a larger social and economic agenda. The breakthrough could revolutionise the production of genetically superior indigenous breeds and lead to a multi-fold increase in milk output. The water buffalo, on the other hand, holds promise and potential given its extensive use for milk, meat as well as draught power. The initiative is also part of the Government of India’s Rashtriya Gokul Mission that aims to address the pressing need for enhanced milk productivity of the various indigenous breeds of India.
“Under the mission, we have signed a three-year agreement with the Ministry of Animal Husbandry & Dairying this March and received funds of Rs 4.3 crore from the ministry with a target of producing 240 Gir and Sahiwal male calves each using IVF technology. This in turn will be supplied to various semen production labs across the country,” explained Zawar.
Done routinely as a part of breeding programs in Brazil and in the US, the use of IVF in Indian dairy herds is forecasted to increase in the future, given dairy cattle breeders seeking greater herd growth, and the JK Trust working to fill the gap in demand and supply while assisting breeders give birth to 132 IVF calves across 11 states, till date. The Trust, a social initiative of apparel brand Raymond was the first to introduce embryo transfer technology in livestock in India in 1977 at its sheep breeding farm at Dhule in Maharashtra where a flock of 18 Merino rams were brought in from Perth, Australia, crossbred with their Indian counterparts and in no time, grew to 6000 sheep which upped the brand’s woolen legacy.
“We continued our work with artificial insemination and embryo transfer in cattle. Today we cover 35,000 villages across 12 states,” explained Zawar, the first vet in the country to have conducted embryo transfer in sheep, goat and cattle.
Apart from state of the art embryo transfer and IVF labs in Pune and Chattisgarh, Zawar’s team has also been reaching out to farmers across the country through four mobile embryo transfer and IVF vans equipped with microscopes, air conditioner and a veterinarian, where an embryo can be incubated in seven days. “Each IVF pregnancy in cattle and buffaloes costs about Rs 30,000 but it’s a long term investment into improving their genetic profile,” says Zawar. Prakash Bafna, a cattle farm owner in Shirur whose cows are currently pregnant with IVF embryos agrees. “When buying cows from the market, we are promised that they would yield 15 litres milk but don’t give more than five. As a farmer, we want good breed of cows that milk well and to improve their economic value this seems to be the only way forward,” he says. There is also an army of program operators across the country who Zawar has named “Gopals” — usually an educated rural youngster extensively trained for four months to carry out animal breeding and health and nutrition related services.
Dr Tushar Kanti Mohanty, principal scientist with veterinary gynaecology in the National Dairy Research Institute welcomes IVF bovine breeding. “But just technology is not enough”, he says pointing at how “a calf’s 900-day journey to cowhood for it to become a high milk yielder requires good management and proper feed which means manpower and funding of at least Rs 50,000 for each calf, something for which farmers need government support and a longer than five-year planning.”
In 2017, the government imported frozen semen from Brazilian gyr cows, but faced objections from cattle breeders. Their fears aren’t unfounded, says Mohanty. “Foreign breeds are good for commercial farmers but should be restricted to that or else it will eliminate our indigenous breeds that have other qualities — longevity, immunity to diseases and coping with climate changes — which need to be protected.”
And even as Zawar continues to practice his livestock multiplying art, he frequently shocks air crews with the trivia of travelling with 40 passengers without a ticket! “They are seven-day-old cow embryos in a mobile incubator flying in the aircraft,” he tells them before reassuring the wide eyed staff that it is risk free.