(this Article was first Posted on 22 January 2016.It is being re-posted in view of its topical importance in the present context)
Imagine a scenario where no one in the country would be allowed to slaughter a cow. With religious fervour firing the imagination of many to call for such a ban, this could very likely be the scenario in the near future.
The issue here however is not religious and more to do with basic economics. With government announcing its vision to be self sufficient in milk production by 2016, the local dairy industry is geared up for major expansion which also means there would be many more cows in its future. A possible ban could not only leave us with a lot of old cows to deal with, but it could also be detrimental to the economics of all farmers, be they small or large.
Furthermore, letting cattle simply roam free as a solution for the farmer not having to look after the cows, when they are not profitable, could create serious damage to local flora and fauna as competition for food resources increase between cattle and wildlife. Unrestricted grazing is also known to cause serious damage to the environment. Then, there is also the question of public nuisance. Are we to become like India, where local cows compete with traffic on main roads?
According to statistics from the Department of Animal Production and Health, the total population of cattle in the country recorded in 2012 was 1,235,535 female cattle and 414,630 buffaloes. The statistics, which were collected from 2003 to 2012 show that the annual production of milk as well as the consumption of beef has been steadily increasing over the years, with total milk production increasing from 156 million litres in 2003 to 336 million litres in 2012. Beef production too has increased over the years from 32.29MT in 2003 to 35.94MT in 2011.
The National Livestock Development Board (NLDB), which is the main government agency involved in milk production in the country, currently produces over 50% of the milk. In January this year they imported 2,000 hybrid cows to keep with their 2016 vision, with each cow costing Rs 285,000-300,000. In total the NLDB owns 12,000 cows in 32 cattle farms.
Deputy Minister of Livestock and Rural Community Development, H.R. Mithrapala, said: “If there is a ban, and we let the cattle population grow limitlessly, we will not be able to walk on the road and the country would be eventually controlled by cows.”
The minister added that as they too owned cattle farms under the NLDB, they never expected to have a ban imposed as it would create a lot more trouble.
Explaining further, said: “I am a Buddhist but I know that during the time of the Buddha, one Devadatta asked the Buddha to ban cattle slaughter but he flatly refused. Now we have this other Devadatta group, which wants a ban, they are going to destroy Buddhism. These measures will only help to further antagonise other religions. I eat beef but I have no business in encouraging people to eat beef. It is a matter for the people; we need not canvass for either.”
Minister Mithrapala also cited a more practical problem with a ban when he said: “Even at the moment we have problems with cows roaming everywhere. The ministry received a complaint recently from villagers in Ruwanwella, who wanted us to come and control 20 cows, which were freely roaming about in the area and causing chaos in the village. I cannot predict the future, but if this is the start, we are going to have big problems ahead of us.”
Director of Livestock Planning and Economics, Department of Animal Production and Health, Dr. K.D. Ariyapala, who handles the economics of livestock, said the ban would destroy the dairy industry: “Any livestock enterprise either small or large, is a business. No one rears livestock as a hobby, be it a cow, pig or chicken. For example when it comes to the dairy industry, no one has managed to make artificial milk without an animal. Thus we need to have a cow to give birth to a calf to get milk. The dairy industry thus survives on the basis that the healthy cow produces milk for a certain period and a farmer profits from this produce.
“An average cow in her lifetime would have five milk yields (or five calves) and once the milk yielding days are over, to continue to keep the animal is to ask the farmer to spend all the profit earned through the animal on taking care of the animal in its old age with no profit made in return. He has to spend more money on medicine, veterinary fees, the rope used to tie it, water, food and care. And if you have a male calf, you have to take care of it with no profit at all in return. In the end, nobody would be able to afford to be in dairy. The cost of production will certainly go up and few people will enter the dairy industry,” he said.
Dr. Ariyapala also dismissed fears expressed by several religious groups that allowing the meat industry to continue would endanger the lives of the milking cows and the dairy industry,
“Nobody talks about the practicalities of the ban. It is anyway against the Animal Act (Nos. 29 of 1958, 20 of 1964) to kill a female animal. If it is to be killed, a certificate should be obtained from a veterinarian that the animal is diseased, has low productivity or has breeding problems.
“A problem arises when certain people do not adhere to the law. Thus we should concentrate more on stopping these illegal practices. Then no female would be unnecessarily killed. Religious organizations conduct these campaigns without realising that such laws are already in place.”
Dr. Ariyapala also explained that for an industry to move forward it should be economical to the producer and it should bring him a certain profit.
“As technical people, we have a big problem because the government wants us to improve the industry but this banning issue has many people scared to enter the industry. An enterprise should be balanced, if we have dairy we also need to have slaughter on the side.”
When questioned what about India where most states in India have banned cattle slaughter but they also have the world’s largest dairy industry, Dr. Ariyapala said: “India sends all its unproductive cattle to be slaughtered in Bangladesh or Pakistan across the border. We cannot do that, we are an island, thus we need to find a way to send all the cattle, which need to be slaughtered out of the country. This would be a big problem”
An industry is only as strong as its producers and thus an economically unsound initiative could have drastic impacts to the livelihood of small scale farmer and to a company which is one of the biggest producers of local milk products.
An Executive in the Board of Lanka Milk Foods and Ambewela Farms, Dr. A. Shakthevale speaking to Ceylon Today on the impact of a possible ban on cattle slaughter to his business said the ban would affect every cattle farmer in the country and would be particularly harsh towards the small scale farmer.
“One tenth of a herd will be old; you will have sick animals, animals with breeding problems and animals which can’t be milked because of mastitis. And instead of disposing them, with a ban in place, I am asked to feed the unproductive animals. So how can I increase my income or have a profit? I am spending all my money on looking after unproductive animals. If it is the small farmers they will not be able to sustain themselves for long; they will have to close their farms.
“The government wants us to increase milk production but at the same time, people do not want us to get rid of unproductive animals, these two factors fundamentally oppose each other.
“With such bans, we are slowly killing the dairy industry and at one stage we would have no industry. If the government thinks that the cattle have rights then the ban is good, and it is all well and good but then forget about the dairy farmer and the development of the local dairy industry. Import milk powder, and then there is no killing.”
Explaining the intricacies of the business he said even big businesses like his too would suffer greatly,
“Earlier they said do not slaughter bulls, so we switched on to sex semen when we imported semen. Earlier the semen would produce 50% males and 50% females but the sex semen, which is four times more expensive only produces females. But now, if they say that no animal is to be slaughtered, what are we to do?
Dr. Shakthivale, as an alternative, also suggested: “The other option for the government is to establish centres like in India, where they collect the unwanted animals and look after them. There they can collect cow dung, which is a valuable commodity and even the skins of the animals once they die. Then we can breed animals for the dairy industry.”
He was also of the view that the issue was not about religion. I even know that when certain groups release cows which are sent to slaughter houses, they are releasing the diseased cattle which are sent there. I know two or three places where this happened. The diseased animal when released thereafter affected the healthy animals the farmer had and it too died. And the famer suffered. These are absurd things.”
Given such declarations, a basic understanding of the day to day economics of dairy farming would be needed. To this Dr. Shakthivel offered the following numbers: The average market price of a cow would be Rs 60,000-75,000. Food concentrates would cost Rs 35-40 per kilo per day and an average milking cow needs about 10-12kg of concentrate in addition to the grass feed. The cow also needs medical attention and care, thus veterinarian fees and labour costs too factor in. Thus he approximates that a single milking cow would need on average a total of Rs 800 per day to take care of its needs. In an industrial sense, a milking cow is extremely productive for four years and then productivity wanes off. However, an average cow has a life span of 20 years.
Another prominent local milk producer is Pelwatte Dairy Industries. They have a different manner in which their business works to that of Ambewela Farms. Pelwatte Dairy industries do not own their farms; instead they purchase milk from small scale local farmers in order to boost the local industry while offering a fair price for their milk. The company’s Director, Ariyaseela Wickremanayake, is of the view that banning of cattle slaughter would be good for the dairy industry as there would be more cows for dairy. “I have always been saying that the slaughter of females has to be stopped. We have had a strong Buddhist culture for 2600 years and we managed without eating meat, so I do not see why we cannot do it now. Banning of cattle slaughter will be good for diary, we will have more cows for milk. The dairy industry has not been growing in the past few years because people keep killing the cows for meat,” he said.
When asked what the farmer would do with all the cows, which are no longer profitable to him, he said: “A cow can help a poor family greatly and why can’t we just release the cows to the wild and let them roam free once they are old and cannot produce any milk? In the past, we have done that. Villages in areas like Anuradhapura, Vauniya and Jaffna just let their animals roam free, they do not kill them. They graze on abandoned or forest land. We have plenty of empty land like that in rural areas and we can let all the cows go there so the farmers do not have to bear the extra cost. We can also have the famers collect cow dung and turn it into fertilizer. We import a lot of chemical fertilizer into the country and cause a lot of harm to people, so we can replace that with this.”
Wickramanayake also added that he had no plans to start farms of his own as his business was not a profit venture but one that supports local farmers. He also did not think that there would be any economic difficulties faced by his farmers if there was a ban imposed.
When asked if environmental and public nuisance issues would crop up if the cows were simply let loose on forests and neighbourhoods, he said that in most areas of the country there were many cows roaming around and it did not cause a problem.
A ban on cattle slaughtering has many sides to the story, from religious shades to that of animal cruelty. But a country which wants milk, needs to have cows, and as the saying goes, one needs to break the egg in order to eat an omelette. If a farmer as well as the environment can profit through the dairy industry while not killing any cows, a ban would be most welcome by all.