As many districts in Kerala experience a heatwave-like condition with soaring mercury and elusive summer rain, livestock farmers are struggling to protect their animals against thermal stress. Apart from the routine dip in yield in summer, both small and big ruminants are facing multiple challenges that include low fertility and disease resistance capacity.
In order to quantify the impact of thermal stress on cattle, the Centre for Animal Adaptation to Environment and Climate Change Studies (CAADECCS) under Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (KVASU) has started a project. According to experts, productivity alone should not be a norm for selecting cattle in the context of climate change. “Kerala farmers should go for cattle with higher heat tolerance so that production and reproduction rates will not be impacted by hot and humid conditions. We should identify and conserve a group of animals with resilience indicators,” says V. Beena, Professor and implementing officer of the project at CAADECCS.
In Kerala, more than 95% of the cattle are crossbreeds with low thermal tolerance compared with native varieties and as climate becomes harsher, sustaining livestock production will be a tough task. Since reproductive cycles will be impacted, there will be delay and difficulty in conceiving, embryonic mortality and absence of heat symptoms. While all these lead to an increase in intercalving period, the farmer has to suffer considerable economic losses.
“This year the impact of heat stress is very visible in animals, especially HF cows. If productivity is high, they will be highly sensitive to the rise in temperature and require extra maintenance measures. Distraught by the heat, some farmers often opt for unscientific methods like the use of wet jute sacks,” says Venu Cheriyath, State president, Malabar Dairy Farmers Association.
In a study conducted by KVASU, rapid breathing, the first symptom of thermal stress, was observed in crossbreed cows when temperature crossed 36 degrees Celsius. Though goats are comparatively resilient, farmers are finding it difficult to manage commercial goat farms as thermal stress will be very hard in intensive rearing systems.
As part of the project, CAADECCS has set up a climate chamber and a comfort chamber to keep the animals and observe the changes after artificially adjusting temperature and humidity in different combinations. “Behaviour of animals and physiological changes will be studied in the facility so that we can know the changes in current and future climate change scenarios. We need climate change-based studies for sustained production and protecting livelihoods,” says Dr. Beena.