While preference for cow milk has been growing (driven primarily by consumer demand) in the past few decades, bringing the share of cow milk in India's overall milk production to around 45 per cent at the moment, dairy industry insiders feel that it is soon likely to shift in favour of buffalos.
Data from the 19th livestock census shows that while the cattle population has dipped by 4.1 per cent in 2012 from 2007 (previous census period), the buffalo population has grown by 3.19 per cent during the same period. Further, the study notes that the percentage changes in milch buffalo population during the period 2003-07 and 2007-12 has increased by 46 per cent in rural areas.
Another interesting snapshot is that of state-wise share of buffalos versus cattle (cow). In belts like UP the share of buffalo in total livestock population is 28.17 per cent, the same is 10.24 per cent for cows. In Rajasthan it is 11.94 per cent for buffalos and 6.98 per cent for cows. In Gujarat it is 9.53 per cent for buffalos and 5.23 per cent for cows.
"These are primarily Jain-Hindu belts where cow is a revered animal. Given the slaughter related sentiments, farmers in these areas prefer to breed buffalos, who also survive on low quality fodder. They can also sell them off to slaughter houses while they do not know what to do with a dry cow (past its milk cycle)," said a dairy industry expert who heads a cooperative dairy.
Shiva Mudgil, senior analyst, Rabobank informed that of the total milk production, share of cow has observed an increasing trend over the years. "Current cow milk share is estimated to be 45-46 per cent. Whereas buffalo milk share has seen a declining trend with share of 50-51 per cent," he said.
R S Sodhi, managing director of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) which owns the brand Amul said that this share was around 80:20 in favour of buffalos a few decades back.
Sodhi pointed out that as such the prices of dairy fat have doubled in the international market, and since buffalo milk has higher fat content, farmers are likely to now tilt more towards buffalo breeding.
Buffalos milk contains 7-7.5 per cent fat, which is almost double than that from cows.
Pure play cow-milk based players like Devendra Shah, chairman and managing director of Pune-based Parag Milk Foods, however, pointed out that while buffalo milk is rich in fat, cow milk fat fetches a premium (of roughly Rs 20 per kg) over buffalo milk fat.
As such demand for fat has continued at higher levels in the global market, Rabobank said. Mudgil explained, "Global price for milk fat has seen a significant increase on GDT (global dairy trade). Anhydrous milk fat (AMF) prices are $6,185 per tonne in the last GDT event (increase of 94 per cent over last year) whereas butter prices are at $ 4,911 per tonne (increase of 89 per cent over last year)."
He also clarified that the average milk yield too has increased marginally over the years. "Average milk yield for indigenous cow is around 2.5 litres per day compared to around 7.1 litres per day for cross-bred cow and around 5.2 litres per day for buffalo," Mudgil said.
The average yield for cows and buffalos are, therefore, now more or less at par. Farmers who would opt for cows for better productivity, might feel encouraged to breeding buffalos who also survive on more coarse fodder.
"As such with the slaughter ban, initially, there would be an increase in production of cow milk as more cattle would be available. However, cattle towards the end of their lifecycle would not be productive, and hence the cost of production would increase. This would drive farmers towards buffalos which also yields milk richer in fat," said head of another dairy cooperative who did not wish to be named.
Approximately the cost of maintaining a dry cattle is around Rs 100 per day for the farmer, while he may fetch Rs 15,000 to 20,000 when he sells one to an agent for slaughtering. Higher adoption of buffalos thus seems logical. An IndiaSpend analysis quoted that as on March 2017, cow slaughter has been prohibited in 84 per cent of India’s states and union territories, which account for 99.38 per cent of the country’s population.
With 20 per cent share of world's bovine population, India is one of the largest producers of buffalo meat. It exported Rs 23,303 crore of buffalo meat in FY17, which was marginally lower than FY16. However, India is still one of the largest exporters of buffalo meat as domestic consumption is low.
The next decade is thus likely to see milk production tilt in favour of buffalos, feel dairy experts.