If the livestock census of the Department of Animal Husbandry is any indication, it's safe to say that the traditional milch animal, the buffalo, is on its way out from Madurai district.
The black animal, once a primary source of milk, is shrinking in population owing to depletion of water sources, disappearing grazing lands, infertility and conversion of agricultural lands into ‘real estate’ plots. Animal husbandry experts and veterinarians warn that the buffalo is fast losing its relevance in the dairy sector in Madurai.
Their declining numbers is a cause of concern to officials. The 16th livestock census in the year 2000 had recorded the buffalo population in Madurai district at 54,767. It came drastically down to 12, 380 during the 17th livestock census in 2004-05. Two years later in 2007, the number plunged to 6,205.
“Buffaloes need more water to sustain themselves. Unfortunately most of our water bodies have dried up. Hot climate coupled with lack of water are forcing the farmers to switch over to white cattle. If buffaloes are to survive, we need to look into their feeding and breeding,” says P.Rajasekaran, Joint Director of Animal Husbandry, Madurai district.
Observers say that buffalo milk (erumai paal) used to enjoy a premium rate some years back due to huge demand from hotels, tea stalls, milk vendors and sweet makers. But now farmers are forced to switch over to crossbreeds and cows.
Retired Deputy Director P.Pothi suggests that the State Government should launch exclusive schemes with subsidies to encourage buffalo breeding.
“Thermo dynamics is involved in buffalo management. There is falling conception rate and rising infertility among buffaloes (murrah and surti varieties) as farmers are unable to detect the breeding cycle discharge at right time. There is a perception that handling of buffaloes is tough,but that is wrong,” he says.
The colour of the buffalo is also working to its disadvantage in changing climatic conditions. M. S. Saravanan, veterinarian at Thirupparankundram Veterinary Dispensary, says that being black in colour it absorbs more heat and the lack of water sources such as ponds and lakes is making things worse.
“One buffalo consumes 70 litres of water per day and we can imagine its plight these days. Only in places where there is water source for them to wallow, they can survive,” he says.
Dr.Pothi says that the Department of Animal Husbandry should not allow buffaloes to vanish since they have been an integral part of the dairy sector. “Milk production is going up due to white cattle but it is sad that man-made wrongs are threatening the very existence of buffaloes in Madurai district,” he says.
However, there is some hope. There are farmers like 23-year-old A.Senthilkumar of Nilaiyur whose family has kept buffaloes for the past 25 years. “I spend Rs.200 per day and earn Rs.500 by supplying milk to tea shops. Per day, I am getting 55 litres of milk from 10 buffaloes. Luckily, we have water tanks in our area,” he says.
The Animal Husbandry Department is now eagerly awaiting the consolidated numbers of the 19th Livestock Census Report of Madurai district to see the latest numbers. “I hope that farmers go back to rearing buffaloes. We have schemes for fodder development and free supply of fodder seeds for the entire year. But the resolve should be to save water bodies for the future of our livestock,” says Dr.Rajasekaran.
A buffalo costs Rs.35,000 to Rs.40,000 and its milk has seven per cent fat content which is higher than that of cows' milk (4.5 per cent). “At a time when there is good demand for milk sweets and milk by-products, I hope the buffalo will bounce back and farmers realise their potential,” Dr.Pothi said.